Indian sport has undergone a sea change, so too its narrative. To become achievers and even world-beaters, sportspersons who seemed to come with an embedded inferiority complex and were in permanent awe of their competitors, were the ones who had to change. For them to change, the nation itself had to get far more self-confident than it was seen to be in days of yore. The Indian hockey team of an undivided India used to lord it over the world, but no individual could win a gold medal in the Olympics, the ultimate test of sporting achievement. That was India of old and the state of Indian sport then.
Abhinav Bindra was to change India’s sporting history with his gold in the Beijing Olympics to become the first Indian to rub shoulders with the best and come out triumphant. A personal ecosystem that he could set up may have helped immensely. So too tunnel vision that enabled him to think only of competing and winning medals, of which he has a collection of about 140. His success story is emblematic of a new Indian breed of sportsmen who are prepared to focus and perform rather than just use international opportunities as shopping expeditions.
Bindra speaks of adaptability, physical and emotional balance and a physical tuner machine for success as the prime drivers of his quest to be the best shooter in the world in his category. He had the means to access the best devices and tools to further his performance. But efforts had to be far more national if Indian sport was to move on from an era of individual achievers like Prakash Padukone, who on occasion proved a world beater, to one of having several athletes who could compete at the Asian and World championship levels and win laurels.
Sports management is a concept that emerged late in India. Taking it further than just getting stars endorsements, management moved up to more inclusive levels whereby the needs of each individual athlete was taken care of by their support teams. The Go Sport Foundation is one such that came with a 360-degree vision and helped shape the modern Indian sports movement made up of athletes who deliver. They were also part of the greater movement of the nation of India, from a diffident Hindu rate of growth to the reforms of the 1990s and the subsequent evolution into a nation with a good demographic dividend and an increasingly prosperous middle class.
The middle class of around 400 million, many of them with buying power like never before, was to fetch an advantage that was very important as its economic clout brought quality sports telecasting to India and lit up a nation used to grainy pictures on B&W screens of the mid 1970s. For all the talk of domination by cricket, India's most popular national sport had to be thanked for opening up the world of sport to India. As its hold on the global game expanded post the IPL in 2008 and its revenues ballooned, there were spin-off effects like pro leagues springing up in all sports, including kabaddi and table tennis.
The book is, perhaps, more absorbing as it is a collection of essays by champion athletes like Bindra, Pullela Gopichand and Rahul Dravid who present their perspectives from wide-ranging experiences in their fields, and as sports writers and sports management gurus. It’s full of episodes from a panorama of experiences, including on how Hima Das was seemingly put down by her federation even in congratulating her in pointing out how she managed her media interaction even though “she was not so fluent in English but she gave her best there too”.
In becoming the first Indian to win a gold medal on the track at a world event (junior), Hima blazed a trail. But did she have to be judged on how she spoke to the international media? The weaknesses of the country’s sporting federations that are chockfull of honorary administrators lacking finesse have often been shown up. The broad view was that Indian athletes excelled despite the system than because of it, although such a sweeping statement may not be true in the case of sports like cricket in which an infrastructure came into existence thanks to the vision of early administrators who were truly in it for the spirit of serving sport.
Rahul Dravid’s readable essay on the achievements of our athletes, including the ones whose misfortune it is to be differently-abled and so have to take part in Paralympics, and how they have come about despite the hurdles faced, also notes the Dhoni Effect. I think this is an important lesson from what Indian sport can achieve for the nation itself. While we talked about how India’s economic stature had to grow before all our sportsmen could benefit from the self-confidence that came with the rise, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s rise shows how the opposite can also help.
“The Dhoni Effect identifies a phenomenon where rapidly growing small towns of India are taking centrestage. This research highlights the growing affluence levels, increased awareness due to media penetration, improved physical connectivity, and significant changes in consumption patterns with high aspiration levels of small-town India that are compelling marketers to take notice,” Dravid quotes from a research paper.
Just imagine sporting excellence adding to economic heft. This truly reflects how much Indian sport has transformed itself and the nation....