On India’s Poor Performance in Olympics and Hopes for the New Generation

( I initially wrote this as a quick response to a post here. But the post was later deleted orphaning my response. So I decided to edit and post this to share my thoughts or my two cents if I have to use that cliche! )

There was a lot of drama on social media and mainstream media about India’s poor performance at the recently concluded Rio Olympics. Being the largest democracy in the world with 1.2 billion people, we ended up winning only two medals. Obviously, like before and after every other Olympics in the past, there are debates about India’s failure to win medals.

A lot of these debates and articles broadly narrow the failure down to two major factors: the lack of funding and infrastructure, and the close intertwining of politics and sports. Some of the articles on Quora and elsewhere do mention the other important and often ignored part of the equation: parents wanting their kids to grow up and become successful in academics.

Two of the greatest tech companies have Indian CEOs; our entire country celebrated their crowning. There is proof beyond doubt that India has excelled in producing some of the finest people in technology and the other sectors (both academic and otherwise). And for me, this is an important paradox where a part of the answer lies. How did we produce great brains in these areas while we consistently failed at Olympics and other sports beyond cricket? Thanks to the British for cricket!

I am in my mid-thirties, and while I was growing up in a small town in South India in the ’80s and early ’90s, most parents wanted their kids to become engineers and doctors. That’s understandable given most middle-class and lower-middle class parents worked hard to give their children a good education. Not to forget, at that time we were just a little over three decades into our independence.

Cracking IIT-JEE and the likes crushed thousands of kids who otherwise would have become artists, athletes, singers, etc. There were enough examples of people who became successful by excelling in studies. There were not many examples outside academics.

There were no incentives to pursue sports. Of course, the lack of infrastructure and funding was as big a problem then as it continues to be even today.

It’s true even in those years we saw a few athletes defy all the odds through sheer passion and hard work. But not every kid who wanted to be a runner escaped the common trap that he was born into. Also, we, the generation of children growing up in the ’80s and early ’90s, never had the technology that recent generations are fortunate enough to take it for granted. Imagine your only source of information is a newspaper in the morning, radio, and TV in some fortunate households.

In the town where I grew up, we had a stadium run by the government. It had a cricket ground, basketball court, etc. But that in itself can’t produce athletes. Not to mention the obvious, the infrastructure was lacking even if we had a stadium for the sake of it.

You can imagine how dismal the situation would have been in even smaller towns and villages. There was no technology to connect those children growing up in the villages to the outside world. Luckily, now many of the villages are more connected to the outside world than any time in the history.

I know a guy from my ancestral village who is now pursuing a post-graduate course in medicine from one of the top institutes in India. Education was an easy way out if anyone worked hard when compared to succeeding in sports.

Most, if not all of my friends grew up aspiring to be engineers, doctors, and the like. And a lot of them did succeed despite many odds. This is good news in disguise. And that’s where some of the hope comes from.

At the turn of the new century, things started to change. The new generation of engineers, doctors, and others realized what they had to sacrifice in their childhood, and now they are willing to make sure their children get all the opportunities in life.

I see a lot of my cousins’ kids, and friends’ kids pursue sports and other activities beyond studies.

Growing up in small towns, our generation rarely had examples to inspire us and emulate. There were great athletes even in those days, but there were no mass phenomena like we see today with the likes of Sindhu, Sakshi, and others. (Pardon me for not including all the names.) Thanks to the technology as well which made information more accessible than what a couple of decades ago would have seemed like science fiction.

Now every kid who is growing up wanting to play badminton can say “I want to be Sindhu”, and luckily most parents now do realize there is life beyond becoming engineers and doctors. As we know, Sachin Tendulkar inspired a generation of kids who grew up to become the likes of Kohli. Cricket for obvious reasons had the ecosystem and the glamour which unfortunately other sports severely lacked.

Now is the time to fix whatever is stopping the current generation of kids to grow up and become great athletes. Yes, we need more funding; yes, we need better infrastructure; yes, we need better governance in sports; and yes, politics sucks. But more than anything else, we need freedom for our children to grow up and aspire to excel in other fields than academics.

Just to clarify, I am not saying the entire problem lies with parents, and I am not blaming them for the lack of medals. But it’s an important part of the equation that we should not ignore anymore in this new generation.

Also, I am not trying to downplay the role of government in our collective failure as a nation to produce more athletes and sports personalities. But having world class infrastructure for sports where parents want their kids to not pursue sports isn’t going to help either.

Being a software engineer myself working in the Silicon Valley, and growing up in a small town in India, I know that an important part of the problem lies in the dreams of parents giving their children a better future. And they see only education as the way out of the trap. I am probably living the dream of millions of middle-class parents in India. But is it my dream? Unfortunately, my answer is a definite no.

Let’s accept there were never enough incentives to pursue sports in a country obsessed with topping the class right from the day a kid joins kindergarten.

For those who think I am trying to over generalize that all the medal winners weren’t poor or they did not defy financial odds and backgrounds, let me clarify: for every successful Tendulkar, Sindhu, Bindra, and the likes, there will be thousands who failed. But this new generation of India has more hope to defy odds than any other time in the history.

I am sure things are only going to get better from here. Thanks to the technology in part. The government can’t keep a blind eye anymore.

And the mass phenomena we saw in Cricket which inspired a whole new generation of cricketers is now happening in other sports. It’s only going to encourage more kids and their families. We have to wait, and the equation that lies with the government can’t be ignored for long. Now is the generation of instant news. Ministers and bureaucrats, however powerful they may be, can no more hide behind the veil of power for their actions or for the lack of actions. Technology has changed the way how governments work and made them more accountable than any time in the history.

Let’s do our part. Let’s make sure our kids grow up to be whatever they want in life. No more forcing them to crack the entrance exams.

Let’s accept that we have collectively failed until now. And let’s hope things are only going to get better. And let’s do our part sincerely.

Just wanted to share my thoughts as I enjoy writing these thoughts down. Thank you for reading. Hope you liked reading this post, and if yes, please do share.

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