Can India aspire to be a sporting giant?

By ARUP KUMAR NATH

India, a country with more than 1.3 billion population, has erupted with joy and celebration when a little-known girl Sakshi Malik from the Mokhra village of Rohtak district of Haryana stood in the Olympic podium to receive the first medal in the recently concluded Rio Olympics. Although she had to settle herself down with a bronze, Indians didn’t mind. After all, a village girl has put India in the list of medal winners in this most coveted tournament of the world. India’s celebration was doubled when another athlete from Hyderabad P.V. Sindhu gifted the first ever Silver medal by any female athlete to India in the Badminton Single’s event. These are phenomenal and outstanding achievements by two young sportspersons in this Olympics. The hardship, sacrifice, labour, perseverance shown and traversed by these Indian athletes are unbelievably incredible considering the limited infrastructure, resources, motivation, social apathy towards some sports where the entire country is obsessed with only the game of cricket and the members of its male team.   

The very headline of this write-up implies the sorry state of affairs of sports in India. We have seen and heard enough discussions and retrospection starting with the TV talk shows, ministry level to public talks where different stakeholders, policy makers and players at large were involved in. By now, the uproar over not getting few more medals, which otherwise should have been in India’s kitty, has died down. Like every time, this has been the trend in India i.e. during the time of the Olympics everybody pretends to be a sports analyst, everybody seems to regain their interest in sports, they would be gaga over their local sports heroes, and would be lecturing about the benefits of sports everywhere. But, once the tournament is over, people would comfortably be happy in getting back to their normal life forgetting everything about sports. This is the reality in India. Probably, many of us would be complacent enough in winning at least few medals by Indian athletes saying that we Indians deserve this much only. But, on the contrary, many of us would also feel that India’s tally could have been much better. Having empathizing the near perfect efforts of many athletes such as Abhinav Bindra, Dipa Karmakar, Sania Mirza, Rohan Bopanna etc. who missed their bronzes either by a whisker or missed narrowly, Indian athletes were expected to show-up a better performance at Rio as the government of India had sent the largest ever contingent to Rio this time.

One can easily understand the effort, mental and physical strength which are needed to perform at this level and which is enormous. Without persisting and prolonged preparation and a do-or-die attitude it is extremely difficult to get a medal at this stage. But, having admitting this fact, Indians still have the right to ask ourselves or to the Governments as to why India, a country with a billion plus population, enough resources has miserably failed to earn a respectable position in the International events like Olympics?  Whereas our neighbour China is exceedingly doing well in almost all the events. It is probably because of the lack of a full proof, robust, rigorous and yet result-oriented National Sports policy. Starting with 1998 we have seen quite a few vision documents and Sports Policies where the ‘Comprehensive Sports Policy 2007’ being the latest one, all of them are strong in Rhetoric and Philosophy, but did very little at the ground level. The youths of the country are not at all aware of the government schemes except a few handful in the urban areas as to what they can avail. This time, almost all the events of the Olympic Games where India participated were keenly watched by Indian citizens. Thanks to the unprecedented proliferation of satellite televisions even in the far-flung areas. Many youths in the rural areas probably have witnessed some of the sports for the very first time in their lives. In that scenario how can we expect somebody from them to dream about and own-up a game which is completely unheard of or unknown to them? Therefore, probably it is the high time for government to chalk out an inclusive National Sports policy with lots of incentives for players so that it can be rolled out soon. However, it is encouraging to note that, after the Rio debacle Prime Minister Modi has announced the setting up of a National Task Force to prepare for the next three Olympics. It will, to quote Modi, “prepare the strategy for improvement of facilities, spell out selection norms and better training facilities, and would comprise of both in-house and foreign experts” which is undoubtedly a very welcome step. 

If we are to believe some media reports and the depiction of many sports biopics, it seems that the officials are the major hurdles for many budding sports talents in India. Rampant corruption in the sports bodies, reported physical and mental torture to some players, the presence in and holding of the top positions of the sports bodies by non-experts or non-players, the crony nexus of politicians-business houses and the sports authorities are some of the main reasons why other games are not flourishing in India properly. Many a time we get to hear that the selection of some players to represent India is not done on the basis of their merit and talent, but on the basis of political links and other favours which is why many promising players do not wish to approach these appellate bodies of sports.

Many European countries such as Britain, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Hungary, Spain etc. with much smaller size both in geography and population have sent larger contingents to the Olympics and outplayed many bigger countries like India in many events. It is pertinent to mention that when this author visited some of these countries in the recent years, it was noticed that every small town or a consortium of villages was equipped with multi-facility modern stadia in the vicinity of their habitations. In India, forget about the rural areas, even the urban areas lack proper, affordable and accessible sport facilities. Gymkhana is still an alien or unknown word for many rural folks in India. If India has to do well in these kind of mega events, there has to have better sports facilities in place everywhere. It needs proper vision and planning, huge amount of funds, and most importantly a dedicated and patriotic group of bureaucrats and officials to execute these plans. In this regard somebody might raise their eyebrows as to why to invest so much of capital in creating sports infrastructure in India where we are languishing with so many other vital problems. They must be told that even if India fails to do well in sports after getting all these necessary facilities, India will still be a healthy nation with so many health conscious people, which will eventually help in the better output of the National wealth.

Moreover, the govt. of India in collaboration with state governments must identify the powerhouses of different games in India, for example Haryana could be a model place to nurture and tap talents for wrestling kind of games, so as northeast India for boxing, archery, football etc. Of course, this will not forbade athletes from other places not to take up these games. These places could be made the hub of any game and the respective national academy of sports could be established there. Simultaneously, the Government of India should also start at least 10-15 National Sports Universities in India so that youths from all over the country may get a fair chance to learn sports education and professionalism together. Along with the theoretical experts in sports, famous sports personalities of the country or abroad may be invited to teach there, they may be also encouraged to sign MoUs with developed nations for sports training, exposure etc. However, it is heartening to know that the National Sports University in Manipur is going to start its first academic session very soon which is surely a very welcome step.

Lastly, until and unless, if the common Indian parents do not change their mind sets it would be extremely difficult for the government to attract the young talents to the sports. Therefore, it’s high time to discard those age-old proverbs, adages which demean sports in our society. Rather, parents and society must open-up their minds and identify any supremely talented and gifted teens in a particular sport in their locality and facilitate them to join the academies or Sports Universities. Again, after graduating from these Universities they should not sit idle at home. It should be the responsibility of the government to absorb them into various jobs and whenever there is need they should mandatorily represent India or their respective states. If we go ahead with a proper plan, there is no reasons why India cannot be a great sporting nation in the days to come.

(Dr Arup Nath teaches Linguistics at Tezpur University, Assam. He can be reached at arupjnu@gmail.com)