So, finally, there was a silver lining to the dark clouds over India’s Olympic participation, as a bonus a bronze one too. P.V. Sindhu and Sakshi Malik, thank you for giving us reasons to exhale. But they weren’t the only ones we should be grateful to: earlier there were a number of close calls: The women archers, for example, lost in a tie-breaker, as did Abhinav Bindra who almost added a bronze to his London gold (the only Indian individual gold medal winner in the history of the Games). Dipa Karmakar shocked the gymnastic world by coming from nowhere to almost win the bronze in the women’s vault, while Srikanth Kidambi beat players ranked well above him to reach the badminton singles quarters.
But we shouldn’t only be looking at medals won or medals narrowly lost: there were other performances by our athletes we should be proud of, only if we had eyes to see. These performances stand out because they go beyond what we should realistically expect from our sportsmen and women. Lalita Babar, for example, may have finished only 10th in the 3,000 metres steeplechase, but she was the first woman athlete from India to reach an Olympic track final since P.T. Usha in 1984. That’s after 32 whole years! Her back story is the story of a legend too: Babar comes from a village in the parched Maharashtra district of Satara, and ran four km to school every day. She didn’t even know for years what a gym was!
India and rowing is not a juxtaposition we are familiar with, but Dattu Baban Bhokanal did commendably well to finish 13th in the men’s singles sculls. Amazingly, the 24-year-old Bhokanal had never heard of “sculls” or anything to do with rowing till he joined the Army. That’s because prior to that, he dug wells and grazed cattle in rural Maharashtra. Similarly, Atanu Das and Bombayla Devi Laishram both did well in women’s archery, and with a little bit of luck that’s essential in close contests, may have even won a medal or two. That goes for boxer Vikas Krishan Yadav too, who reached the quarterfinals of the men’s middleweight division. How many of us know any of these stories? Outside the sports desks of newspapers, and, of course, the sports associations, probably no one. That’s because we are so obsessed with winning prizes that we didn’t even applaud our hockey team for reaching the knockout stage — we have achieved this after 36 long years! The team, without any obvious stars, has steadily moved up the world rankings to now reach number five. That leaves hope for the future that our game, once the master of the world on grass, has finally adapted to the very different game played on artificial turf.
Our national obsession with medals can be seen from the cash rewards being showered on Sindhu and Sakshi. At the time of writing this, the former has been awarded Rs 13 crores and the latter Rs 5 crores. By the way, this includes Rs 5 lakhs each from the All-India Football Federation! What’s their connection with football? Wouldn’t the Rs 10 lakhs be better spent on improving a football stadium? Or should we cynically assume that this is a photo op too important to miss for AIFF chief, Praful Patel? As it happens, the country’s marketing men are already salivating over the new opportunities presented to them by the three new poster girls of India’s sports. So Sindhu, Sakshi and Dipa will all have windfalls deservedly coming their way. In that scenario, it’s fair to ask if the Rs 18 crores (and counting) wouldn’t serve Indian sports better if it were to be given to the organisations that nurtured their talent, like Pullela Gopichand’s academy, the wrestling school Sakshi comes from and Dipa’s Tripura gym which could do with better equipment?
That, of course, is the root of the problem and the bane of Indian sports. If the medals hadn’t come, instead of celebrating, we would be breast-beating — and having wailed at the incompetence of our sportsmen, we would have done nothing about it. Everyone is jealous of the game of cricket and the reverence it generates, but people forget that only a generation ago, cricketers who represented India were paid a pittance (Rs 250 per Test match!). Cricket’s success has a lot to do with television, but it also has a lot to do with the fact that the game is run by the Board of Control for Cricket in India, a private, and not government, body. In spite of the Lodha Committee’s best efforts to ruin it, it’s an exceptionally well-run organisation and could impart a few lessons to other sports bodies. Why do we need a sports ministry? What does it actually do? Do the politicians and bureaucrats who run it know and care about sports?
But since we do have it, this is what it should work towards: create two road maps, one short-term for Tokyo 2020, the other long term for the 20 years beyond Tokyo. Short term we should concentrate on games we have excelled in recently and in the recent past, like badminton, wrestling, weightlifting, archery, shooting and hockey. Luckily, most of the sportsmen/women who have excelled at Rio are young enough to do well at Tokyo. Long term, the first step is to begin to inculcate a sports culture at school and college level. When I was at university in England, the first thing that struck me was the emphasis given to sports: Wednesday afternoon and the whole of Saturday were given over to sports activities. There was no coercion, yet you were certainly expected to play something. This may not bring in immediate results, but it’s a mindset that was being imprinted on us: we learnt that sports was not a distraction from studies but complementary to it. Before creating new sports infrastructure, ways have to be found to utilise what already exists. It’s essential to fund private sports institutions that are doing well and reward coaches for results they produce with a point system. We won’t be a sports nation overnight, but at least we will not then go overboard when a couple of medals come our way.
The writer is a senior journalist