Indian sport: The triumph, the challenge
The government has put in work to improve India’s performance. But governance structures need an overhaul
Strongmen populist leaders have a penchant for aligning sporting achievement to their personality cult. Fidel Castro used Cuba’s success in the boxing ring and on the baseball field to instil a sense of national pride and loyalty to his regime. Other erstwhile Soviet bloc leaders too were quick to use sporting success as a symbol of their larger ideological battles.
So it should come as no surprise that Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s relentless media machine has clambered onto the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics medallist bandwagon. Modi’s self-image is boosted when seen in the company of sporting heroes. But are the photo-ops just optics or is India on the cusp of finally being seen as an Olympic nation?
To be fair, the PM and the sports ministry can legitimately claim that they have done more than previous governments in building an Olympic medal momentum. The Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), launched in 2014, has played an important role, especially post the 2016 Rio Olympics mini-debacle, in identifying and supporting elite Olympic and Paralympic athletes. In particular, after Olympic silver medallist Rajyavardhan Rathore and then the youthful Kiren Rijiju took charge of the sports ministry, there was a visible change in the planning and preparedness for mission Tokyo. With the support of private trusts and foundations such as Olympic Gold Quest, JSW sports, GoSports, there was a genuine attempt to create an ecosystem where athletes could actually aspire to go for gold.
Contrast this with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, where the sports ministry was seen as marginal. In ten years, from 2004 to 2014, India had as many as six sports ministers, with an average tenure of less than two years. There were even ministers such as Mani Shankar Aiyar who were openly disdainful of the attempts being made to bid for the Asian and Commonwealth Games, while Sunil Dutt too seemed clearly unhappy with what was seen as a ‘junior’ portfolio. It is, therefore, to Modi government’s credit that it has given a more vibrant “Khelo India” profile to a ministry that desperately needed fresh ideas and zest.
The final medal haul at the Tokyo Olympics was well below the anticipated double-digit tally, but there are enough signs that the Indian contingent is now truly competitive. For a generation which grew up on the limited ambition of a hockey medal, Tokyo 2020 was a breakthrough event. A new younger India has inspirational figures such as Neeraj Chopra to allow their dreams to soar like a flying javelin into a glittering golden sky. The Paralympic performance is spectacular: 19 medals add up to more than the combined total of what India has won in all previous Paralympic Games. Which is why the celebrations are not entirely misplaced.
And yet, the euphoria needs to be tempered by certain ground realities. The winners maybe feted but there is still a yawning gap between elite athlete performance and the overall standard of Olympic sport in the country. How many schools have playgrounds and physical education teachers who can train and guide the young? Better funding of potential medal-winning athletes alone cannot create a competitive sports culture; this requires public-private partnership that builds a sporting ethos, beyond just the glamour of associating with podium winners. The Naveen Patnaik-led Odisha government’s involvement with hockey is a good example of what is possible if an enthusiastic political leadership embraces an Olympic sport with total commitment, without an eye on instant gratification.
The struggles of our disabled sportspersons also need a reality check. Our para-athlete winners are being honoured but when it comes to inclusion and accessibility, people with disabilities still struggle to have their voices heard. How many of our sporting facilities provide equal opportunity by ensuring easy access? And how many institutions recognise the physically handicapped as citizens with equal rights, and not just as deserving of pity? Even in cricket, it has been the herculean efforts of admirable individuals like Bengaluru’s GK Mahantesh of Samarthanam Foundation that has almost forced the cricket board to now recognise disabled cricketers as worthy of their patronage.
At the heart of the future challenge is the lopsided governance structure for sport. For decades, sport has been terribly governed in the country. Most federations are run like personal fiefdoms by politicians and their cronies. It is only now, when private trusts have sought to fill the gap, that the monopoly of the neta-babu culture is finally being broken. But unless governance standards are significantly raised, federations are likely to be looked at with suspicion.
Look at the manner in which wrestling federation chief, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a six time parliamentarian now with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has warned wrestlers who are associated with private, not-for-profit trusts that they will not be considered for selection going ahead. Like other federation bosses, Singh too wants to bully players into submission. Maybe, the next time the PM has an on-camera interaction with Olympians, he could also have a stern word with his fellow BJP MP. It may prove more rewarding than a made-for-television event.
Postscript: With the Olympic extravaganza over, the focus shifts back to cricket with IPL and World T20 on the horizon. The question, including for the media, is whether we will still track the inspirational stories of our Olympic heroes, or return to being a one-sport nation?
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal