Seventy-five years after Independence, how does India fare in sports? Seen in the matrix of medals won at the Olympics and other global events, it still makes for dismal reading. The lament that a country of 1.3 billion people struggles to find a place on the winners’ podium in most sports is long-standing and genuine.
Cricket is an exception. Perhaps inevitably so considering that it is so deeply embedded in the national psyche. In spite of many controversies, ups and downs, the sport has shown rigorous growth since 1947, and particularly in the past four decades.
Winning three World Cups (1983 and 2011 in ODIs, 2007 in T20s) and a top three ranking in Tests for the better part of the last two decades, highlight how consistently well India teams have performed in this period.
India is now not just a top team in all formats home or away, but Indian cricket has also become the most powerful and richest in the sport.
The sport permeates deep into Indian life. Its footprint is across the length and breadth of the country.
In many ways, the Indian Premier League — started in 2008 — has been the major catalyst in bringing millions more fans into the fold as well as providing a rewarding livelihood to scores of players.
The allure of the IPL has made the talent pool of cricketers in India humongous. Coaching today is of high quality at the junior levels. There are enough competitions at every age level which ensure a constant supply line of richly skilled players for the national team. The ecosystem of Indian cricket is robust and rich, literally and metaphorically.
Another sport in which India has shown consistent world-class performances and reaped glory in the past 25 years is badminton. Considered stragglers barring the occasional spike of world class achievement through the likes of Prakash Padukone and P Gopichand, badminton in India has gone through a remarkable turnaround in this millennium.
This is because of farsighted, passionate management, adapting to changing trends in the sport quickly, working out creative strategies to counter countries traditionally strong in the sport like Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Denmark and China.
India’s badminton players, especially women like Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu, have not only been able to break China’s hegemony, but also topped the World rankings and won medals at major tournaments, including the Olympics. Indian badminton has never been richer and better.
This is sadly not the case with other mass sports like hockey and football which have either stagnated or slumped, although hockey is thankfully showing signs of revival. In tennis, there is an acute supply of young talent to take over the baton from aging stalwarts
Overall, it’s been a mixed bag, therefore, for Indian sports in the past 75 years. But there are good reasons to believe that things are changing for the better. The last year has been gratifying with India bagging seven medals in the Tokyo Olympics and a whopping 61 in the recently concluded Commonwealth Games, even though shooting and archery, in which India is strong, were dropped from the events.
While the number of medals won is obviously a source of great joy, what is pertinent is that this has come in disciplines where India did not have heft. Not just wrestling, and shooting where India is way ahead of competition at the Commonwealth level, but also in track and field where India was forever considered a cipher at all major events. Athletes like Milkha Singh and PT Usha were a rarity.
Track and field, swimming and gymnastics make up for a sizable number of medals at the Olympics. India’s representation in these events has been negligible in the past 75 years. But the past 12 months have shown a silver lining to the cloud, most pertinently where track and field is concerned.
Neeraj Chopra’s gold medal in javelin in the Tokyo Olympics is a game-changer, I believe, opening up new vistas. It proves that India has the talent as well as desire to aspire for the highest accolade if these could be properly channelised. The impact of Neeraj’s mighty achievement could be felt in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games where India won 8 medals in track and field against world-class opponents.
These are green shoots that show how much more is possible if the country’s energies are well directed towards sporting excellence and reaping demographic dividends in terms of medals. For this, the Central and state governments, national sports federations, athletes themselves, families and supporting them, indeed society at large, have to work in sync.
Of utmost importance is making sport free from gender bias and removing social constraints which limit the participation of girls/women. The success of female athletes like PT Usha, MC Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, Sania Mirza, PV Sindhu, Nikhat Zarin, Mirabai Chanu, Sakshi Malik, to name a few, is a strong pointer to the rich potential that remains untapped. To me, the equation is simple: If you keep 50 percent of the population out of sports, India can never become a sporting nation.
What’s promising now is that sports is now being seen as a priority sector at the government level itself. This can be contagious as evident from a palpable sense of excitement and expectation when a major sports event comes up. This is a welcome sign of growing awareness about the value of sports in individual and national life.
Athletes crave for attention, recognition and reward, and all three are now available to incentivize deserving performers. The Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) scheme in conjunction with Sports Authority of India (SAI) has been doing yeoman service in providing elite athletes all the help needed for them to get even better in international competition.
At the policy level, the government’s Khelo India scheme is a visionary, powerful concept that can be transformational in making India a sporting nation. To make it truly productive, however, Khelo India must go beyond being just a slogan. Diligent implementation will be the key.
The fundamental thrust of Khelo India should be to expose the vast majority of the population to sports at various levels, more particularly at the grassroots where young talent has to be identified, then nurtured with scientific coaching, nutrition and sports medicine to facilitate growth in the right direction, setting up pertinent benchmarks to monitor progress.
This must be complemented by creating enough opportunities for young athletes to participate in competitive events to hone their skills and get mentally attuned to pursuing excellence uncompromisingly.
Simultaneously, the work of sports federations and athletes must be audited strictly, without favoritism to make for a no-nonsense pursuit of excellence.
Becoming a sporting nation is not easy. It requires vision, passion, commitment and unrelenting ambition over a period of time. But it’s not impossible.
On the face of it, compared to global standards in most sports, India has a lot of catching up to do. However, seeing the progress of the last two decades — and the spike seen in the past 12 months — there is scope for optimism.
We know we have the talent. What matters from here is collective ambition and will to succeed.
Ayaz Memon is a lawyer by qualification, a journalist by profession, and commentator and columnist on sports and other issues. Follow him @cricketwallah. Views expressed are personal.
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