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0 medals and counting

The report on how each medal won by UK cost 5.5 million pounds is doing the rounds on the internet. Of course our newspapers pick up Abhinav Bindra’s tweet about it and set off to write their own theories about it. Reporting and writing from ignorance seem to have become so inherent in Indian press that I no longer let myself be angered by the things I read. I let it go when ‘insightful reports’ surfaced discussing BCCI’s release about the huge economic impact that the IPL creates. Not a single article did I come across, that even mentioned the flaws on this method, that is regarded by economists the world over as unreliable. If only investing (pouring money) into a few athletes and finding a few numbers to describe the success of a single league was enough to paint an accurate picture of the sports scene in India. But just this once, I'm not letting it go without adding my own 2 bit opinions on the subject.

A few months ago I started wondering about why the Indian hockey team suddenly, from being world no.1 for years together (and still holding the record for the most decorated men’s team at the Olympics ever), crashed out altogether. A little reading up and it hit me – this fall of Indian hockey coincides exactly with the time that the world started playing on artificial turf. Suddenly, we Indians couldn’t keep up. I tried explaining this to a German, but he didn’t get it. “But I’m sure the Government can afford a few astro turfs”. This was the same thought process that I’d been hearing for years, when I encountered very witty Indians saying to me, “we have a population of over a billion, and we can’t find 11 people to play football”.

The problem in India isn’t only that the Government can’t provide this and that facilities. The thing is, in a country like ours, even being an ardent sports lover, I wouldn’t justify spending lakhs of rupees on getting an Olympic medal. Nor am I an advocate of hosting an Olympics just to prove economic prowess, like China and Brazil have, on the grounds that “it will inspire the next generation of Olympians”. Maybe it will, but a starving albeit inspired sportsman isn’t going to get us very far. Of course there’s many more things the Government can be doing for sport. But let’s face it – the there’s many more things that the Government can be doing in general. Of course its despicable how our Chef de Missions behave at the Olympics, making the entire contingent probably embarrassed to be associated with him, and the shameless denials that come after (see here). And yes the Shoba De’s of the world are as obviously irritating as the flies that feed on this garbage. But I refuse to waste my time discussing fools. Let’s first get to the root of the real problem.

India completely lacks a sport culture. We aren’t active, all of us, me as much as anyone, love to sit on our ass and eat samosas. But that does not an Olympian make. Even if we do decide to play, or are forced to (by parents, because studies show that children that are active do better in school!), it only lasts till grade 9. Even though I’ve as yet found no data, or participation studies conducted in India to back me up, its what I’ve seen all around me. If your school had the luxury of having a sports field (with or without hazardous and dangerous stones strewn about), then most likely your luck ran out once you entered college, or junior college if you lived in Pune. Puberty, lack of facilities and a general apathy to play aren’t the best combination to produce champions, let alone healthy, active citizens.

There’s a lot of new facilities and options springing up in the last few years. Private gyms are infesting cities like mushrooms, rooftops are being converted into 5-a side football fields and there’s apps being released in the market that helps you find partners and teammates to go play a game. That’s amazing and its real progress. But unless we have a real, very widespread grassroots system in place, we’ll never be more than that country that wins a cricket world cup every now and then. I’ve seen here in Germany how the system is. On weekends when I go for a run I see kids (2 year onwards) playing football with their dads and sometimes moms in the park. Mothers go for bike rides alongside their tiny kids on their teeny bikes. Kids join a club and start playing a sport almost as soon as they learn to walk. Many of them continue at the same club for years together, benefiting from a support system and a wealth of experience from the senior teams. The leagues organise matches for most of year, which means players practise a few times a week and play games during the weekend. There is a relegation and qualification system to keep the leagues agile and flexible, and motivation high. In contrast, our school hockey team competed approximately 4 weeks a year, during “the season”. Grown up players from the clubs that have the time and interest come back as volunteer coaches, where they dedicate hours per week giving back to the club. Scouts and coaches from other teams in higher leagues pick up talented players and coax them to play for their team, and that’s how a player gets recognised early on. By the time we “discover” our talent at the nationals at the age of 15 and upwards, it’s already too late. Children between the ages of 6 and 12 learn skills most efficiently, and after that its just a question of perfection and training. The kids need that astro turf when they are learning ball control, not after they have been chosen to play in the national team. And if we cant afford to put in artificial turf in every village in India (a tall ask by any standards) then we need a system that identifies talent early, and finds a way to nurture it. Our federations have a long, long way to go in this regard. Currently staffed mostly by politicians with no interest or background in sport development, I was unable to even find records of the number of registered players. The governing body of the sport in the country that doesn’t know how many people play its sport is sadly underequipped to do anything but host a yearly competition. I recognise its difficult for anyone to change this system in a highly politicised environment. And though there are now many qualified professionals trying to change this, it takes time. So let’s do what we can in the meantime, to help things along – lets actively look for ways to be active. Let’s teach our kids the value of sport. Let’s teach them competitive spirit, as well as team spirit. Go watch a Pro Kabaddi League match every now and then, instead of a Bollywood movie! Let’s not sit in front of the TV every 4 years and pass judgement upon all we survey.

They say it takes 10,000 hours of training to be a champion. And 10 seconds to pass an ill-informed comment lamenting the medal table of India. I’m glad we haven’t won any medals yet. It makes it harder to ignore how far we are from where we should be headed. Those medals don’t belong to India anyway, they belong to the individual athletes, because our society is far from supporting them. Without their insurmountable courage to take risks, dedication and sacrifice of their families, they would have had no chance at all in our system. 


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