Over a long stretch of 96 years, India has to its credit 9 gold medals, 7 silver, and 12 bronze—a total of 28—at the Olympics. Eight golds came for hockey (the last of them, over a quarter century ago, at the truncated Moscow Olympics). The only gold medal by an individual—a beacon in solitary splendour—was Abhinav Bindra’s, in shooting, at the 2008 Beijing Games. View this against the fact that one individual, American swimmer Michael Phelps, has more gold medals than all of India put together all these years, or that sprinter Usain Bolt from a small Caribbean island nation, Jamaica, has precisely as many golds as India has garnered in almost a century.
The Brazilian gods of football in sculpture with which Rio de Janeiro is studded must have had a wry laugh at the feeble effort of a billion-plus Indians. Like on umpteen earlier occasions, India’s stuttering campaign in the latest Olympic Games, the big fat fiasco in Rio, has unleashed a familiar crescendo for an introspection of its dismal performance.
India’s tally in 24 outings, including at Rio, aggregating just 28 medals, is in dismal contrast to the US’s 2,520 (1,022 gold, 794 silver, 704 bronze) in 27 outings, USSR-Russia’s 1,525, Germany’s (FRG-GDR) 1,304, Great Britain’s 847, France’s 713 and China’s 543 (227 gold, 164 silver, 152 bronze in just 10 outings).
Hockey, incidentally, came here from England, where it was mainly a game played in girls’ schools. India’s teams had some outstanding successes, but against countries where the game was not really played. None can, of course, belittle the achievements and wizardry of Dhyan Chand and others of his ilk. Post-partition, within a few years, Pakistan became a force to equal and then surpass India. The exodus of Anglo-Indian community, a core strength of India’s earlier teams, helped in setting up Australia as a super hockey power. Soon, other countries got the rules altered to suit the physically sturdier Western countries that rely on hard-hitting, robust-tackling and long-passing game.
Outside of hockey, our one medal in those years—a bronze—came in 1952 at Helsinki, won by wrestler KD Jadha. This was followed by Leander Paes’ tennis bronze at Atlanta in 1996. Since then a sprinkling of medals we brought home from the 2012 London Games—in some unlikely disciplines like shooting, weight-lifting, boxing, wrestling and badminton. The first medal won by an Indian female athlete is to the credit of Karnam Malleswari, at the 2000 Sydney Games, for weight-lifting. It proved to be a trail-blazer. This was followed in the 2012 London Olympics by Saina Nehwal for badminton and the redoubtable Mary Kom for boxing. Rio was unexpectedly arid, the largest ever, 117-strong Indian squad failed to buoy national spirits, none standing atop the podium amidst strains of Jana gana mana. The Rio Games produced only two medals for the country—a silver for PV Sindhu for badminton and a bronze for Sakshi Malik in wrestling.
Although China slipped from the 2nd slot of 88 medals (including 38 golds) in the 2012 London Games to the 3rd rank at Rio, winning 70 medals (26 golds), it illustrates that everything stems from and ends in administration. In India, the more the things change, the more they remain the same. The entrenched politicians and other vested interests retain a vice-like grip on the country’s sports federations that are treated as their fiefdoms. Teams from India always include the largest contingent of officials for that particular Olympics. Hospitality is generous, tourism opportunities that are both exciting and exotic. This time, we even had a Union minister on a junket and making headlines for throwing his weight around and becoming an international embarrassment. Another former politico, a heavyweight—while on bail, serving a penal sentence—was spotted in Rio.
Sporting talent is abundant in India; it only needs to be identified and chiselled into shape. Most of our sportspersons today are from the bottom of the pyramid, emerging from small towns. Tribal areas, like the North East and Jharkhand, for instance, seem to have ample talent. Like China incubates a vast pool of promising boys and girls as young as six years, potential talent in India must go through a rigorous training and coaching drill, duly nourished and given all necessary facilities. Above all, the country must cultivate a mentality of not being satisfied with anything short of excellence. A solitary silver medal at Athens sent the whole country into euphoria, as a Sindhu silver and a Sakshi bronze has done now.
Now, occupying the second-top Olympic slot, ahead of China, Great Britain holds a lesson for India. Following a lacklustre showing in the 1990s, UK sports has been picking potential winners and rigorously nurturing them. It drastically pruned resources for sports with little chance of success, diverting them to those with better prospects. As its funding rose from around 50 million pounds in 2000 to 250 million pounds in 2012, Britain’s medal count rose by 40% from 2008 to 2012, and further in 2016.
Specialised sports academies and institutes at vantage locations need to be established and competent and committed coaches given the requisite responsibility, resources and authority. India contemplates exploring areas of mutual help in Africa—including, for example, learning from Kenya how it excels in long-distance running, having garnered 100 Olympic medals (31 gold). Leading corporate and business houses may be encouraged to promote specific sports segments. Defence forces, paramilitary establishments and Railways are well placed to foster sports. We must make strategic choices on which sports to specialise in, and formulate athlete development programmes that would help identify prospective winners. Also, the whole gamut of sports awards at the national level needs a scrutiny, a more stringent regime, and a more selective approach.
Schools, colleges and universities will need to be the cradle and nurseries to train, nourish and maintain boys and girls to excel and win. It is indeed a tall order for schools, many of which don’t even have playgrounds. Public schools, despite significant endowments, have contributed little in this sphere. There is the need for a coordinated thrust by HRD and sports ministries to draw an effective format of inter-school and inter-university competitions in selected sporting events. Some 400,000 young hopefuls in 4,000 China’s sports schools today toil to fetch glory for their country. The Shichahai Sports School in Beijing is reported to have produced 25 world champions. Another, the Weilun Sports School in a southern province of China, is credited to be an Olympic cradle with its 1,000 full-time students.
The example of cricket is apposite. A foreign game brought to our shores by the English colonialists took roots; we took to it and steadily improved till we started ranking as a force in world cricket. See the money lavished on this game, the coaching, facilities, talent hunt, the polishing of rough diamonds! We have to give a similar treatment to some chosen Olympic sports that suit us. Let us concentrate on a few and excel in them. The catalytic effect on other disciplines will instantly ensue. Alas, cricket is not on the Olympic menu!
The author is senior fellow,
Asian Institute of Transport Development, and was the first MD
of the Container Corporation of
India Ltd. Views are personal