A medal at the Olympics: necessity or luxury?

It’s been a little over ten days since the conclusion of the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth – The Olympics is what I’m alluding to in case you have already moved on to other things. Not a bad time then to reflect on whether India has any business getting dragged into this rat race. Think about it, do we? Don’t we have bigger fish to fry than the showy pursuit of Olympic glory?

“Kheloge kudoge to honge kharab, padhoge likhoge to banoge nawab,” is what — or similar versions of the same in their own regional languages— Indian parents, in general, tell their children, Madhuli Kulkarni, a sports psychologist, told Euronews in a recent piece that went looking into the reasons why India performs so poorly at the Olympics.

Roughly translated from Hindi to English, what the sobering aphorism means is this: If you jump and play, you’ll end up a ne'er-do-well, but if you study, you’ll be a king or, at least, a regional satrap. Considering the overall state of affairs in India, Ms Kulkarni is pretty much right on the money; unless, of course, one happens to be among the country’s lowest or highest income strata. For if you are poor, you, literally, have little to lose, which makes sport— seeing that it is funded by the government— a worthwhile option, and, importantly, a relatively level playing field when compared with the struggles of educating oneself and trying to move up in life.

Vijay Kumar was one of India's medallists at London 2012. Reuters

On the other hand, if you are very rich you can afford to jump and play and fail at sport because you already have a ton of family money to fall back on. This is the reason most of India’s medals come from athletes who belong to these segments of the population. For the middle class, though, education is by far the safest route to achieve a semblance of stability and respectability in an environment ridden with chaos.

Being very much part of this class, most of us are well aware of how safe our kind likes to play, which explains our underperformance as a sporting nation, considering most of India prefers not to jump and play. However, this is not something we should feel too ashamed about. Frankly speaking, medalling at the Olympics, and other such luxuries, ought to be the least of our concerns.

In a country with little or no security blanket for the majority of people that fail and such a poor standard of living, why must the quixotic aspiration to win lots of Olympic medals become such an obsession and the fact that we don’t become a cause for much hand-wringing? Isn’t this a classic case of misplaced priorities? It is. Shouldn’t we be more troubled by the shameful fact that starvation is more common in India than in Sub-Saharan Africa, that one in every three malnourished children in the world lives in India, and that we are ranked a lowly 134 in the Human Development Index? We damn well should be. (Incidentally, this is one of the main reasons we suck at sports.)

Shouldn’t the government ensure the nation has adequate power, more often than not, to function efficiently? Shouldn’t we channelize our energies into projects that, for instance, provide excellent public transportation to our people, most of whom cannot afford cars or the rocketing cost of fuel? Shouldn’t we guarantee the bare necessities of life (like potable drinking water and quality healthcare, to name just two) for the millions who struggle to access it in even its most basic form? Shouldn’t we this, shouldn’t we that, shouldn’t we ... there are so many ‘shouldn’t we’s’ more pressing than Olympic medals that deserve the undivided attention of the powers-that-be that mismanage this horribly underperforming country.

Still, we blindly push ahead with grandiose plans to devote our meagre resources to pyrrhic quests for Olympic gold medals, missions to mars, surface-to-air missiles, nuclear bombs, and the like. Aren’t these luxuries we can ill-afford, at least, for the time being? Well, of course, they are. But, hey, the basic building blocks of daily living are so bloody boring to focus on, no? Yes.

It’s so much more fun to spend money on looking good at these high-profile events that rock the occasionally watching world. Why bother with banal needs like, say, getting people in some comfort from their homes to their place of work when you can show the ‘haves’ what an ‘advanced’ country India is now that it has the means to transport a gazillion dollars worth of nuclear-tipped warheads across half a continent on surface-to-air missiles?

Who the heck cares about delivering free drinking water to the parched masses when you can proudly announce to the world that Pepsi, Coke, and the finest Scotch are freely available all over the country, including Gujarat? Why devote resources to yawn-inducing pursuits like good healthcare for all Indians when there are far more glamourous marketing vehicles like a ‘Champions Trust’ to showcase yourself, and your brand, to the upper echelons of world?

Speaking of haves and have-nots, there’s a very good reason rich countries tend to medal the most at the Olympics: Sports is a luxury item number. Give or take an outlier like China or the now defunct Soviet Union, Sports is the dessert in the course of life, not the main course. Put differently, if Sports were a consumer durable, it would be one of those extravagant purchases that people make not because the family truly needs it, but for the primary purpose of showing the world that they have it.

The fact of the matter is Olympic medals are shiny little things India desperately wants to flaunt in order to deflect attention from the country’s good-for-nothing record in the walks of life that are more crucial to the common man. As the Italian poet and writer Antonia Porchia said, “Without this ridiculous vanity that takes the form of self-display, and is part of everything and everyone, we would see nothing, and nothing would exist.”

Instead, let me be foolish enough to suggest a more sensible, durable, and inclusive route to sporting accolades: If India works hard to turn itself into a healthy nation, the Olympic medals will slowly, but surely, follow. Now, go eat two bananas and do twenty press ups.

The writer tweets @Armchairexpert. You can follow him if you’re into that sort of thing.

Updated Date: Aug 22, 2012 12:01 PM

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