In the aftermath of India’s dismal performance in Rio, many external commentators have speculated on the reasons for a country of over 1.2 billion returning with just two medals and neither of them gold. Analysts from the UK and China have advanced reasons such as India’s obsession with cricket to the detriment of other sports, lack of a sporting culture combined with poor discipline and parental push into engineering and medical professions as possible causes of the poor results. While each of these grounds have a definite ring of truth, let me add an insider’s perspective on what additionally ails Indian sport.
It is difficult to choose a starting point for the narrative, but let me begin with the sport I know best and use that to extrapolate. Most people who follow the game of table tennis (TT) would have heard of the exploits and unparalleled genius of Jan-Ove Waldner, a two-time World TT champion from Sweden and, in my opinion, the greatest ever to have played the sport. At a time when no other country or player could come close to beating the Chinese, he could make them look quite ordinary. The times he lost was, in part, due to his over-confidence and, in part, to boredom. Known as the Mozart of TT and the ‘evergreen tree’ in China, he inspired the Chinese machine to develop a ‘Waldner’ clone whose task was to spar with the Chinese national players to prepare them for the real encounter, a task at which they succeeded, rarely. But that is another story. Folklore has it that the clone never ventured to compete outside the confines of the practice facilities, remaining anonymous and uncelebrated.
The Chinese spot their sportspersons very early on and the State supports their development. The unwavering focus is on the sport and the country, and on being the best in the world. Discipline, dedication and the single-minded pursuit of excellence in the chosen sport is the aim with monetary and material worries finessed from the equation. As they say: nothing succeeds like success and success begets success. Once you produce a World Champion, it has obvious ‘network effects’. As role models, these proximate and local champions are able to influence others in the country to follow suit. A virtuous cycle gets built and repeated and the edifice is complete. This is obviously an idyllic model, but you get the drift.
Contrast this with the situation in India where the dominant narrative in sports is about officialdom rather than the players, it is about control rather than producing first-rate sportspersons. Where else in the world, in the 21st century, would you name the association that manages cricket, The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)? Anyway, this article is not about cricket at all, in which we have proudly produced the best in the world and where we have had measurable and influential success among the 10 countries that play the sport. Apex bodies for sport in India, however, love to emulate the BCCI’s style of functioning. Just like BCCI’s absolute jurisdiction over cricket in which a complex web of consent and connivance was created that brooked very little dissent, several sports federations in India are run equally as personal fiefdoms. Of course, they are not as rich as the BCCI, so the lure of money is replaced by the enticement of foreign trips and the like. The dominant story, since I looked last, is one of manipulation and control, of patronage and nepotism and of clinging on to the administrative posts for as long as possible. These cabals are relics of medieval feudal systems built on patronage for personal benefit and have continued to thrive in India, until the recent inspired action by the High Courts and, lately, by the Supreme Court, which has questioned their entire basis. Not a moment too soon, but intervention and corrective action today would yield results at least two decades hence. If the objective is to win a clutch of medals in Tokyo in 2020, clean up should have been initiated in the mid-1990s.
Another narrative that dominates state and district-level competitions is one of manipulating draws where favoured and influential sportspersons are given the benefit of easier opponents because of their lineage and linkages. The entire system is rotten and it is a wonder we produce any world champions at all. For those rare occurrences, it is a tribute to individual perseverance and excellence that we have had some defining moments of unadulterated pleasure. There has been an emergence of stars such as Prakash Padukone, Pullela Gopichand, Viswanathan Anand, Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and Abhinav Bindra despite the system and not because of it. Through their individual brilliance they have inspired legions of sportsmen and sportswomen to take up the sport and it would be a shame to not exploit their legacy.
So, what can be done? Cleaning the federations is a necessary and not a sufficient condition—a process that has begun thanks to judicial intervention. The temptation of installing babus and politicians at the helm of sports bodies in response to their failure is a cure perhaps worse than the disease and should be studiously avoided. Get professionals and former sportspersons to head these institutions and revive the sporting culture of the country that saw us dominate world hockey for decades until 1980. As any sportsperson knows, technology has had a disproportionate impact on sport at least since the 1990s. No sport is immune. There is no point bemoaning the shift to AstroTurf that made our style of hockey anachronistic and ineffective. Both officials and sportspersons need to adapt and for that reason professionals are a must in sports bodies.
The anti-sport culture in educational institutions must also go. This will be a long and hard process and needs the collaboration of several stakeholders including parents, principals, Boards and, above all, the sports bodies that ought to take the lead in influencing the discourse and changing deep-rooted mindsets that undermine physical education and sport. After all, the relentless supply of great basketball players in the US for the National Basketball Association (NBA) league springs from school and college-level competitions that in themselves generate a fan following, media and television coverage and a support system that is self-perpetuating.
Let’s face it, we are unlikely to become a great sporting culture any time soon, but we can prepare ourselves for the future. The first step is to recognise that in some areas such as sports bodies an overhaul is necessary and in some areas a new structure needs to be put in place. The public sector that patronised and nurtured sport for many years is struggling to stay afloat and unlikely to play the role it did in the past in supporting sportspersons and competitions. For the modern generation of players in India, the Beighton Cup, the Durand Cup and the Santosh Trophy among others may well be unrecognisable names. The breach can be filled by the private sector in running sports facilities, imparting professional training and organising competitions. To be a global sporting powerhouse, the domestic supply chain has to be robust. The private sector has stepped up—India has launched club leagues in hockey, badminton, football and kabaddi—and I am told by my good friend Kamlesh Mehta, an eight-time national TT champion, a TT league is in the pipeline. Admittedly, we will never be a China in sports, as in other endeavours. But we can certainly learn from their experience of nurturing and sustaining talent. However, if we ever do produce a Waldner clone in India, it is best to unleash him to win medals for the country rather than sacrifice him for the greater national pride. After all we cannot afford that luxury.
Rajat Kathuria is director & chief executive at ICRIER.
Views are personal