India could be on track to becoming a sports superpower — if political parties keep off the field

The mood among followers of Indian sport is upbeat. Our athletes have just returned from the Commonwealth Games, at Gold Coast, with a rich haul of 26 golds and an overall count of 66 medals. India finished a creditable third in the medals tally. At the Glasgow Games, four years ago, India had won 15 golds and 64 medals, overall, and had finished in fifth position on the medals table.

Though only two extra medals were won at Gold Coast, there was cause for celebration because our athletes managed to earn 11 first places more than they had at Glasgow. While England and Australia were far too superior to us at  Gold Coast, India finished ahead of Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.

Can we therefore say that Indian sport is going places? Are we better off than we were four years ago?

Individually, all the athletes who won medals have worked hard, have shed sweat, blood and tears in training and fully deserve the accolades and rewards that are in store for them. What I am concerned is whether, as a nation, we are moving ahead in the direction of becoming a sporting superpower.

Without taking anything away from the efforts that our athletes have put in, therefore, to place things in proper perspective, let us take a look at the Olympic Games’ medal tables of 2012 (London) and 2016 (Rio de Janeiro). India was 58th at London, with six medals and 67th at Rio, with 2 medals. Of course, no golds were won at either Games.

Can we say that Indian sport is going places? Are we better off than we were four years ago? Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

Can we say that Indian sport is going places? Are we better off than we were four years ago? Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

How did Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, who followed India in the rankings at Gold Coast, fare at London and Rio? In the 2012 Games, Australia finished 8th with eight golds, New Zealand was 14th with six golds and Canada was 27th with two golds. At Rio, Australia took 10th position with eight golds, while New Zealand and Canada stood 19th and 20th with four golds each. Even Jamaica, with their famed sprinters, finished in the 18th and 16th positions, respectively, at the London and Rio Games, though their athletes weren’t too visible at Gold Coast.

Can we, therefore, see a clear disconnect between our performances at the Commonwealth Games and at the Olympics?

After the celebrations are over in India, post-Gold Coast, and even those remotely connected with the successes are ‘duly’ rewarded, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), the various national associations and the sports ministry need to sit together and find out why the successes at the Commonwealth Games don’t matter when it comes to winning medals at the Olympic Games.

For those academically interested in sport, India won 14 golds and 65 medals, overall, at the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010, standing 6th in the medals tally. Four years later, at Incheon, India slid two places in rankings, won 11 golds and the overall medals tally fell to 57. So much for improvement in our sporting performances!

The Asian Games of 2018 (Jakarta Palembang 2018) will be held in August-September this year. This event will give sports fans a fair idea of the progress Indian sport has made over the last four years. Let's wait and see.

The Indian hockey team won eight golds, a silver and two bronzes at the Olympics between 1928 and 1980. India also won the World Cup of hockey in 1975, previously finishing 3rd in 1971 and as runners up in 1973 in that prestigious event. Ever since, the country has failed to create any impression on the world stage, despite foreign coaches, better training facilities and more money flowing into the game.

Modern hockey isn’t what it used to be a few decades ago. A different surface — and rule changes to make the game faster and more attractive — has been to India’s disadvantage. Hockey is now more demanding physically, technically and strategically. India, sadly, has failed to keep up with the changes and doesn’t look to be regaining its hegemonic position very soon.

Hockey has therefore lost the right to be called the 'national game of India'. Professionally managed, cricket has won the hearts of a billion Indians, and it has had enough stars over the years to create a huge fan following for the game.

Football in India was at its best in the 1950s and 1960s. Fans now celebrate when India breaks into the top hundred of FIFA rankings. Despite the coming of the Indian Super League (and the I-League which preceded it), Indian football doesn’t seem to be going places. If the hosting of the Under-17 World Cup in India has had any effect on the game’s popularity, it isn’t showing.

Youngsters here follow English and European clubs on TV and know every detail of what’s happening in the EPL and European leagues. Most of them have never, ever stepped onto a football field; and they find it below their dignity to follow Indian football. That’s the tragedy of Indian football!

Games like basketball and volleyball, which were once keenly followed in India, are now no longer visible. A lack of funding, star presence and media coverage have led these high-action games into being overshadowed by cricket and football. The glamourised version of kabaddi, through the Pro Kabaddi League, has revived the game but it will take a while for it to be truly recognised as an international sport.

Tennis is another game that lacks stars and is fast losing fan following in the country. After Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and the like took the game to heady heights, the game in India now is crying out for a charismatic star to carry the tricolour in international events. Despite a few players showing promise, there doesn't seem to be anyone who can carry the game on his shoulders.

Badminton, table-tennis, boxing, wrestling, shooting, weight-lifting and gymnastics are fetching medals for India at international meets and championships. Unfortunately, these games are blossoming in only a few pockets in the country. Pulela Gopichand and Prakash Padukone are producing badminton stars in Hyderabad and Bengaluru. I don't know if there is any other place where great badminton talent is being mentored. Similarly none of the other games/sports are truly national in nature and structure.

Indian athletics has seen some brilliant performers over the last six or seven decades. Henry Rebello, Milkha Singh, G.S. Randhawa, Yohannan, Sriram and Suresh Babu were world class athletes. Among women, PT Usha, Shiny Wilson and Anju Bobby George have been outstanding. Except for Neeraj Chopra, the javelin thrower who stands a fair chance of winning a medal at the Olympics, the others from the present lot just don't measure up.

Col. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore took over as sports minister in the Narendra Modi government a couple of years ago. An Olympic silver medalist himself, he knows what it takes to be a champion. But he also has to realise that a sporting culture can't be forced onto 1.3 billion people; it takes time for a paradigm shift to take place.

Therefore, we were amazed by his naivety when he allegedly asked his ministry to find out how many sporting medals were won in the four years of the present dispensation and how many were won during the previous regime. This request came perhaps out of political compulsions. An apt tweet by a friend of mine, an international sportsman, in reply to Col. Rathore's request was: "Sir, we win medals for the country; not for Congress or for BJP!"

Sports performance can't, and will not improve overnight. If India has to become a superpower in sports in the coming decade, it will take time, effort and a hell of a lot of ideas. Political parties don't win medals at the Olympics, highly motivated sportspersons do!

The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a sought-after mental toughness trainer.


Updated Date: Apr 21, 2018 11:36 AM

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