For athletes, the Olympics are the ultimate test of their worth
Mary Lou Retton

Of all the sporting events, nothing brings the people of this planet closer as the Olympics does. Some call it the closest we come to world peace; others call it the biggest international stage only after the United Nations. Yet India floundered at this stage yet again. Rio witnessed our worst performance at the Olympics since 2004. We sent 120 odd competitors and came back with only 2 medals. Although we should laud the achievement of the athletes who made our nation proud, we should not be ignoring the bigger picture here. Since the inception of the sporting event, India has only won 28 medals, ranking 58th worldwide. In terms of medals per capita, we are ranked 142nd .

This begs to ask, firstly, is India a sporting nation? And secondly, being the second most populous nation in the world, shouldn’t India be sending more athletes? Answering the first question, yes, India has been and is a sporting nation. India is a place where a plethora of domestic and international sports have thrived and has rich sporting talent with the tradition going back centuries. To the second, I would highlight that population has no role in how many athletes a nation sends. USA with 1/4th the population of India, had 550 athletes participating at the games. Sweden, with a population of 10 million sent 150.

So why can’t then India compete with the best of the best and win more medals? There isn’t a single definite answer to this question, or a definite reason, but a number of them, some of which are discussed here

Failed Athletes

As mentioned earlier, India is a sporting a nation, with numerous medal winners and podium place holders. Even among the 120 athletes that went this time, there were a number of them from whom a medal was guaranteed. However, almost all of them failed to make the cut. The same case was evident previously at London and Beijing. One of the reasons I believe this happens is the athletes not being prepared for the biggest stage and getting cold feet. They seem to perform excellent in any other event of the same sports category but when it comes to the Olympics, they flounder. Take for example Deepika Kumari. Deepika is a former world number one and is currently ranked 5th in women’s archery. She has had a podium finish at almost all the archery events since 2010, both in individual and team events. However, she was eliminated in 2012 in the round of 64 and in 2016 in the round of 16. there are many cases like this where athletes, whom we believe are definitely going to outdo themselves, under perform. Another reason which is evident is the performance at home compared to foreign soil. In 2010 when the Commonwealth Games were hosted in Delhi, our medal count was staggering. Most of the athletes who were expected to win medals won and then some. However in 2014 when the games were held at Glasgow, the performance of the same athletes dipped. Call it lack of exposure or distraction, Indian sports folks seem to under perform when away from home. We don’t need to dig deep for other instances. Taking cricket’s case, our team may be unbeatable at home but they fail to replicate the same form when out for a tour, however the situation seems to be improving slowly. Lastly, I believe that the athletes have no proper motivation. They are not properly compensated for their efforts. Yes they are given the promise of a home or a job or some amount of money, but that is not enough for the long run. And this is only for the winners. The efforts of other athletes go unnoticed. For the athletes who want to continue training and want to continue their preparation, the amount they receive is negligible. Sports are not seen as steady means of income by the athletes. They can only work up to a certain extent with the facilities and the environment they are provided. Sometimes they need external assistance. The assistance which the government should provide.

Failed Administration

Having said before, the Olympics are the biggest stage in the sporting spectrum. Any achievement at this stage is not only a matter of pride for the athlete, but also for the whole nation. Some nations keep that in mind and do their bit to ensure that their delegation achieves the maximum. However we can’t say the same for India. Whether it is due to politics, corruption or sheer nepotism, management of sports in the nation has lacked vision, structure and planning. This was evident when the International Olympic Committee suspended the Indian Olympic Association.

Before a sporting body can start their work, the first and foremost step is to appoint the proper personal to run it. Sadly, failure is attained at this step itself. It is not the fact that most of the individuals appointed are from non-sporting background, it is in fact that these individuals are not doing their duties effectively. The next step is the allotment of fund, which is another trip down disappointment. The sporting bodies and federations are embarrassingly underfunded and the funds are not properly distributed. The 2016–17 Union budget allotted only 0.08% of the total pie for youth affairs and sports. Although it amounts to around $250 million , it includes everything from organizing local and state level events, to scouting of local talent, to prize money, to improvement facilities of local, state level and national level sporting venues and finally training of athletes at all levels. Hence a very small chunk of that 0.08% goes to the training of the Olympic athletes. China on the other hand spends around $750 million, for training of the athletes alone. The nation, taking advantage of its centralized approach makes use of its 3000 odd academies and around ten thousand trainers to train their delegation, week in week out. Great Britain as well spent 5.5 million pound for every gold medal, fruits for which they reaped at Rio. The administration was revamped after the 1996 Olympics, from budget allocation, to amount of government involvement. Hungary spent $685 million to strengthen their sporting bodies. They came back with 15 medals and placed at 12th in the overall medal tally. This is not only limited to the Olympics. In football, Hungary gave their best performance in 40 years, after reaching the round of 16 at Euro 2016.

The above mentioned cases lead to two questions. Firstly, does the nation lack the funds to train its sport folks? And Secondly, does more spending mean more medals? The answer to both the question is “No”. Under the scheme of Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), PV Sindhu was given roughly around Rs 44 lakhs for her preparation. However after her podium finish, she received prize money amounting to Rs 13 Crores from various government agencies. Sakshi Malik got Rs 12 Lakhs under the same scheme. But after her bronze medal victory, she has been promised Rs 5 Crores. This alone amounts to around Rs 18 Crore, which is more than the amount used to fund 67 athletes from the Indian delegation. This proves that not only is there mismanagement of funds, but also that there is no proper framework as to how this amount will be utilized for the betterment of the athletes. The amount spent on preparation should be more than the compensation awarded. Coming to the second question, if proper framework is established, with the hurdles of political interference dismissed, then the nation can do much more with the funds at hand. A number of nations have achieved more with much less. Or we go the USA way, where there is no Sports Ministry, rather a dedicated Olympic committee. The American athletes are not funded by the government; rather they follow the private approach, although the government does assist in one way or another. And result is for everyone to watch. We don’t need to go that far, since our nation’s cricketing body, BCCI itself is not dependent on the government funds for its functioning.

Performing well at the Olympics not only influences the sporting world, but also has ripple effects on the socio-economic and political areas as well. Our Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi, keeping this in mind has recently announced a task force that will help in the preparation of the Indian contingent for the next three Olympics. But even there is a limit up to which the government can use its powers. No matter how much we blame the government or the officials, they can never be the only ones to blame. The real power lies with an even greater entity, the people of the nation.

Failed Patriotism

Nothing unites a nation like sports. Whether it is a mere qualification match or a grand finale, the support and the voice of the nation should be uniform and resolute. In India though the scenario is a not the same. With the exception of cricket, India only tunes in to any other sport if the delegation or the sports person has reached either the final or is close to it. Before that, the sports and the people associated with it are virtually non-existent. Almost everyone knows the entire cricket team, but only a few knew about Atanu Das, Ankit Sharma, Shiv Chawrasia, Dipa Karmakar or even our medal winners. This case of selective patriotism is evident when we compare the figures. The group stage match between India and Pakistan in the world T20 tournament was watched by 83 million people and the semi-final between India and West Indies was seen by 50 million people. The semi-final match between PV Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara had only 25 million viewers. Although the final was seen by 66 million, it still less than the total number of viewer for the cricket matches. This year’s IPL final between Hyderabad and Bangalore was seen by 120 million viewers alone. If the overall viewer stats are evaluated, the T20 world cup was seen by 730 million in India, the Olympics were only seen by 210 million. This illusion of patriotism is what deludes the athletes as well as the government. Why should the athlete perform and why should the administration do something about it when the nation does not show the needed support. This is the reason why hockey has reached the place it is at the moment. Once considered as the de facto sports of the nation, hockey has fallen way behind, being the 6th most watched sports in the nation, with football, F1 racing and Tennis ahead of it. No wonder our history books were proved wrong when the Ministry of Youth affairs revealed in 2012 that hockey is not our national game. The recent incidents involving Shobha De and Piers Morgan highlight the illusion even further. Numerous posts and tweets can be found everyday where users curse and deride the sports folks. But when the above two did the same, they were humiliated and bullied. Such level of hypocrisy can be found at abundance. Another major issue seems to be that feeling of oneness is missing. Being a nation which harbours individual following numerous religions, speaking a plethora of languages, and maintaining uncountable different traditions, true secularism and unity is difficult to fathom. We seem to classify and label ourselves under varying terminologies, where it is not even needed. This was evident when people searched for PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik’s caste before appreciating their achievements. Seems like caste come before achievements.

But patriotism is not only about showing support. Although we enjoy watching a game of cricket or badminton, we as Indians do not value sports when comes to individual implementation and practice. Our nation still does not appreciate sports as much as it value academics. That does not mean that we should devalue academics, it means that we should give sport the time and credit it deserves. Apart from cricket, playing a professional sport in India is essentially looked down upon. Most of the parents do not want their kids to take the sporting route as they believe it is risky and does not bring a steady income. I recently saw the trailer for the MS Dhoni bio pic and was disturbed by the scene where the cricket coach coaxed Dhoni, who played as a goalkeeper then to play cricket. I am not saying that had Dhoni remained in football, he would have achieved the same heights as he has done in cricket. What I am saying is that this one dimensional approach is what is killing the potential for other sports. I have a lot of people complain that India does not do well in Olympics because games like cricket and kabaddi are not included. Even if they are added, that will only give you 4 medals. Why not do well in other sports than playing the waiting game. The reason why nations like UK and South Korea have performed well, apart from having funds is that they see sport as part of the national identity. Not a single sport, but the whole assemblage. In China, being a part of the Olympics delegation is seen at status symbol. And it’s not that they don’t handle the academics. In a report by OECD, South Korean students are 3rd best when it comes to maths, science and reading. UK stands at 20th. India was not in this list of 75 nations. Then who are those individuals who have are CEOs of Google, Adobe and other Fortune 500 companies from India or those kids who excel at International Olympiads? Just like our exceptional medal winners, they are individuals with exceptional talents and these individuals thrive irrespective of the conditions or facilities, and these individuals are very small percentage of the larger populous.

In the end its safe enough to say that it is not only the government, or the athletes that are responsible for the flop shows, but it is because of collective failure. Though our Prime Minister might have started a task force, but the change has to take place at the very bottom. Only then can we see some accomplishments in the upcoming editions of the games.

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