India is a country of 1.5 billion people. Still, winning an individual medal at the Olympics has always been seen as an incredible feat; incredible simply because India as a nation isn't one that placed a lot of emphasis on sport; incredible because India, to quote the masses, are simply not athletic; incredible because cricket is the only sport we supposedly play well.
But are things destined to remain that way or will London 2012 change our perspectives forever?
Of course, winning a medal -- any medal is great -- but compared to what nations like China, Russia and the United States are achieving, India are a long way behind. And that needs to change... starting now.
India's Olympians are our real heroes— the representatives of the world's largest democracy and brilliant at what they do, but they need to start winning medals because it is the first step to achieving sporting greatness as a nation.
Prakash Padukone, a badminton legend himself, never had the chance to represent India in the Olympics but he has helped form the Olympic Gold Quest, an organisation which helps potential medalists reach the pinnacle of success. In a free-wheeling chat, he speaks about the relevance of the Games to India.
Compared to 20-odd years ago, is there more of a spotlight on our Olympians now?
Definitely. Sports has grown in India and with the Commonwealth Games happening in India in 2010, awareness has certainly improved. People are becoming fitness conscious and children are taking to other sports too, apart from the hugely popular cricket. The change is a bit slow... but we are heading in the right direction.
Are a couple of medals every now and then enough for a nation of around 1.5 billion people?
It's not enough, but the process has to be gradual. It's certainly better than not winning anything. It is only recently that we've started spending on sports and that means more incentive for the athletes. There are some drawbacks, and federations need to be more professional in their approach. But it takes time. You cannot compare India to China and America — who have put good systems in place. I think if we can double what we won in Beijing, then it would be a fairly good achievement.
You've gone on record saying that sports federations are run by honorary people and you would rather have them run by professional people. Can you elaborate?
The office bearers have a lot of other activities to do apart from run the federation. But in these times of competition, we need full-time people to run them. It's like any other business. We need people who know about the sport to run the sport. Federations can take the decisions and leave the day-to-day running to paid professionals... then you can hold them responsible.
Which is the most professionally run sport in India?
To a certain extent cricket with the BCCI, but even they have so much money and still have an honorary secretary so it is not ideal. The selectors, the players and the umpires are being paid... so why not officials? One must appoint the right person to run it properly just like a lot of boards outside India are run by CEOs (refers to ICC).
Will it make a difference if there's a rule that only ex-sports professionals can head these federations?
Not necessarily. All sports persons need not be good administrators. It's just like how an ex-player may not be a good coach. The skills for a sports person, for a coach and for an administrator are all different. A person who fits the job profile should get the job.
There's a lot of fanfare when our players come back home with a medal, but there's no real following while they are on the grueling road to the Olympics. Should this change?
It's a valid point that no one follows them much apart from of the Olympics. I think more should be written on what they are doing in four years, the type of training they go through and something which covers the effort that goes into becoming a champion.
The other side of preparing without much limelight is that there is less expectation from our Olympians. Does this help the athletes in a way?
In a way, a lot of this depends on the mindset of the individual athlete. Irrespective of pressure, an athlete who has belief in oneself will find a way to win a medal. But there is no sport where there is no pressure. It is how you manage the pressure. That is also one of the primary qualities a sportsman should have. If you don't, then you're not good enough to be there.
Is it a concern that citizens/private organisations have to come up with ideas to aid our athletes— rather than government organisations helping them?
Everybody has to get together and work. The government may have the funds, but not the ability or experience of top sportspersons. But as long as we compliment each others work, then I think we are moving in the right direction.
Do you think London 2012 will be India's best Olympics?
I hope so. Considering the amount of time, effort and money which everybody has spent, I'm very confident that it will be better than Beijing 2008. If not, then we need to seriously introspect.
Do Indians have a cultural barrier in sport too? We hear a lot of people push their children into cricket or maybe even football, but we never come across many people who push them into sports like shooting, running and so on.
The kind of ambitions you speak are more in the rural areas. There will be exceptions but generally people in cities have education as their priority. I think they don't possess the required hard work to reach high levels of conventional Olympic sports. Parents don't want to take a chance. They'd rather their children become MBAs or if at all play sport, then take up cricket because of the money in it.
Are we afraid of the hard road to becoming an Olympian?
Things are changing. There is talent and people in smaller cities are willing to work hard and take their chance. If you make a list of who qualified, you will see a trend that most of them are from smaller towns, who would have then shifted to cities in search of training to enhance their skills.