Olympics -The Indian Story

By Anumeha Bansal(http://mildlysocial.wordpress.com/)

“The Olympics are the biggest event in the field of sports. I can’t describe the feeling right now.”, says the London 2012, Olympic bronze medallist in badminton, Saina Nehwal. But most Indian athletes are not as fortunate. What goes behind the Olympic preparation for most of them is a rigorous training routine, but for the Indians, that part is perhaps the least concerning factor. Not only is the concept of child athletes not heard in India, the prospect of a career in sports is meagre for many.

Why is India lagging behind in proving its mettle? Why is it that sports does not have the same reputation in India as in other countries? Is it that the Indian gene is not designed for physical activity? Or is the Indian mentality flawed, that does not allow sportsmen to be classified as skilled human resources?

Small is the fraction of youth who would choose a career in discuss throw, gymnastics, or swimming for that matter. Sports, fails to qualify as a future career opportunity for many. With the current sponsorship-advertising regime being in vogue, money is not an issue. When it comes to ‘job’, the Indian mind fails to adapt to the concept of short term security. We start planning for retirement, before we start working. Sports unfortunately, does not come with a retirement plan. Not everyone gets to be a legend.

The Indian government has put in efforts to solve the above problem. Almost every other athlete has a job with the police or the military. But does that suffice? Mary Kom, the 29 year old world boxing champion, works with the Indian police services. She did not have enough resources to take her coach along to the Olympics. Such is the sorry state of Indian athletes. What is needed is not to provide alternate sources of income, but to promote sports to the status of a viable vocation.

Occupation in India plays a very large impact on a person’s upbringing. In a country where a child is christened with his future profession long before he/she is able to grasp the meaning of the term, sports loses out in the race of becoming a shining prospect for many parents. We do see a sizeable enrollment in sports-clubs, we encounter children training hard in various games, we all acknowledge the enthusiasm, positive competitive spirit, and health benefits that it provides. But can the Indian mind allow sports to be more than an “extracurricular” activity? Can it ever surpass the tag of being just a “hobby”? How many people who take admission through the sports quota actually go on to make their country proud? Everyone wants their child to be an engineer, an architect, a doctor, a IAS, a manager, an economist, a professor, but the average Indian has still not accepted sports as a career. It might be attributed to the fact that the state of sports in India does not guarantee returns, quite evident from the state of a regular athlete here. We are no experts, but we can put two and two together.

There are few who go against this popular mindset and become an athlete. But these face a problem that athletes of very few other countries face – the dismal state of sports facilities. A trainee in a football academy in Sikkim complained that there was no ration in his hostel and he had to sleep with an empty stomach. And this was not just for a single night. Even hockey, the national sports, is not barred from this deprivation. Most Indian hockey players practice in a natural turf because of the lack of availability of artificial ones. During the tournaments, they compete on these unfamiliar turfs. How can we expect result from them with such dismal facilities at their disposal? It is not that we lack the talent pool but rather the facilities to hone their skills at par with the international level.

Just to clarify the grave state of sport infrastructure, a small country like Holland has more than 200 astro turfs (artificial turfs) whereas there are only 15 in India. This problem has been persistent since a long time. Which Indian football team can forget the case when India withdrew from the 1950 world cup, despite qualifying for it, because of lack of fund to travel. While the financial state of that time may not be known, the current state is visible for all to analyse. In 2008, Rs. 1111.81 crore was allocated to the union ministry of sports. So one can’t help but think that, each year Indian sports falls prey to corruption, similar to the Commonwealth Games, that occurs somewhere within the sports ministry.

If one thinks more about it, then there is an even deeper lying problem than infrastructure involved here. This problem is a socio-economic one, whose total impact is difficult to fathom – malnutrition amongst children in India. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, in their book, Poor Economics, mention child malnutrition as part of the cause of dismal performance in the Olympic games. They report that despite sub-saharan Africa being poorer than India, rate of child malnourishment is higher in India. Generally successful olympians start young. Michael Phelps was 7 years old, Ryan Lochte was 5 and Nikolai Andrianov was 11 years when they started training. How can we expect such performance when, during that age, a large number of our children are malnourished?

A public-private partnership wherein the government promotes private players to invest in sports could be part of a viable solution to this problem. The Indian Premiere League (IPL) shows a way through which local talents can be developed. Although other sports are not as popular as cricket in India, the way IPL got investment through private firms and individuals can be emulated in other sports. Furthermore, there should be greater transparency and accountability on the budget allocated to the ministry of sports.

However, it is not the government that holds the most important key. It is the individual, the average Indian, who has a vital role to play. There is a need to popularise other sports like what we have done to Bollywood or cricket. Nobody but each individual can bestow celebrity status to another individual. Kudos to the spirit of the Indian athletes, who despite all odds, work hard to not only train but also accumulate the resources to assist them in making our country proud. It is high time we give them what they truly deserve, our respect and reverence. And next time when you see some child pondering over his career prospects, remind him/her of the glory that Abhinav Bindra and Karnam Malleswari achieved.