India’s pathetic performance at the Rio Olympics has been an occasion to lament about the corruption of our sports administrators, the lack of motivation for our athletes, no proper training, little remuneration, and little chance of making a career in sports for all but the top cricket stars. But for a country of over a billion people to fail so consistently in competitive sports calls into question the way sports is organised and funded in the country, the role we expect it to play in our national life, its purpose in a poor country where most people are malnourished, and the inevitable comparison with the huge strides made by China in sporting events. Poverty levels are important and affect the fitness and capacity of our athletes. However, countries that are financially much poorer, such as Jamaica and Kenya, still manage to excel in track and field events, reflecting a national propensity for such specialised sports.
India has failed to find such a niche despite concentrating on supposed advantages in wrestling or archery. The comparison with China becomes inevitable. A country only marginally larger in population, China was kept out of the Olympics until it suddenly burst into the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles to come fourth in world rankings, with 15 gold medals and 32 medals overall. It slipped to 11th place with five gold medals at Seoul in 1988, but subsequently improved in every Games until it topped the charts in the 2008 Beijing Games, overtaking the United States to become the leaders at the Games with 51 gold medals. A Chinese commentator notes: “Compared with 1984, when winning a gold medal was a political task and a patriotic duty, or with 2008, when more medals meant more national pride, we are seeing a more relaxed attitude.” Ma Jian, a famous Chinese writer, wrote: “The Beijing Olympics represents China’s grand entrance onto the world stage and confirmation of its new superpower status.”
The Chinese juggernaut and leadership in the Games is now established. This starts from the induction of young gifted children in sports schools, where they are put through a gruelling regimen that aims at identifying future stars. The nearly 5,000 sports schools provide quality training to the young athletes, and, there are subsidies and funding for the athletes. They can concentrate solely on sports without worrying about anything else. Though the Chinese model has led to huge sporting success, it cannot and should not try to be emulated in India. For one, we are a riotous democracy, bordering on anarchy, that will not take to the regimen and discipline such a system entails. Corruption in sports is also a deterrent. One can imagine officious officials getting their wards into such schools and then sabotaging the strict regimen they must enforce.
It’s far more realistic in the free market Indian system to allow corporate interests to play a greater role in sports, either for offering attractive scholarships to budding sports people, sponsoring training facilities and trainers, or by giving them attractive jobs — the only condition being that they only train for sports as long as they can. Some corporates such as the Tatas and the Mahindras have been doing this, but the scale is too small for a country the size of India. The major problem remains that of access to sporting facilities and training. The 11th Five-Year Plan had allotted just `4,636 crores to sports. Though this was a big jump from `1,145 crores in the earlier plan, it clearly isn’t enough.
Moreover, these facilities are concentrated in the national capital, resulting in tremendous waste as was brought out in the Commonwealth Games scam of 2010. The country needs a comprehensive building or proper provision of facilities for basketball, badminton, tennis, gymnastics, proper swimming pools or playgrounds for football and hockey in each of the over 500 districts in the country, with more such facilities in the metros and other big cities. The cost of this has been estimated to be just `8,000 crores — less than what was spent on the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
This is the only way that opportunity would be available to a sizeable portion of the population and talent can be discovered, specially among dalits and other oppressed sections of society, and we can hope to reap the “demographic dividend” in sports by discovering the immense talent at the bottom of the pyramid. It is a sad reflection on Indian sports that our only Olympic gold medal winner, Abhinav Bindra, had to spend the money himself to get a proper trainer and shooting range. Another leading sportsperson Sania Mirza is from an affluent background and could afford proper training. It is not just that facilities and opportunities aren’t available. Most Indians cannot afford a proper diet that a life in sports needs. Even though poor health (India has high levels of stunted and underweight children) keeps out large numbers from participation, the 1.2 billion populace still leaves a pool of talent bigger than most countries.
Ronojoy Sen, a researcher at Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies, gives us some clues in his new book Nation at Play: A History of Sport in India. “The lower castes constitute the bulk of India’s population, and these lower castes are also the ones who don’t have access to education, don’t have access to good nutrition, health... That has meant that a large part of India’s population hasn’t been able to take part in sport, and hasn’t had access to sporting facilities,” he says. The problems may be deeper. Hamish McDonald, former India bureau chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review, speculates: “Could the lack of Olympic success be a metaphor for a wider malaise? If India can’t focus on Olympic medals, can it grapple with its big problems like poor education and health levels, power shortages, air and water pollution, and bureaucratic regimes?”