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MUCH POWER AND LITTLE GLORY

Thanks to Abhinav Bindra, many Indians have witnessed a day they had thought they never would in their lifetime — a day when India won an individual Olympic gold medal. Sushil Kumar’s bronze in wrestling yesterday and Vijender Kumar’s progress into the semifinals in boxing gave Indians one more reason to remember Beijing — as the Olympics where India won more than one medal. But largely, it has been the old story of medal hopes being dashed one after the other, and the nation being gripped by the feeling of being so near yet so far.

The reaction to Bindra’s feat, while being entirely celebratory, has comprised three major threads of opinion. One, that the shooter has succeeded not because of the horribly politicized ‘system’ but in spite of it; two, that if cricket were not bent on killing off all other sports in the country, there would be more Abhinav Bindras around; and three, that Indians are not an athletic race, nor do they possess the necessary killer instinct to excel in sports, so it is no use expecting miracles every four years.

Bindra is no new kid on the block. It is true that his businessman father spent crores to buy him the best training and facilities available. But it would not have been possible for Bindra to make an international mark if the system had not backed him and chosen him to represent the country. It is not without reason that Bindra Sr dismissed suggestions that his son received no support from the sports authorities of the country.

The scourge of politics, however, continues to afflict Indian sports, corporate- and State-funded ones alike. This year too, ‘officials’ made up the largest single group in the Indian Olympic contingent, and included such eminent personalities as Sania Mirza’s mother. The Indian Olympic Association is itself headed by a politician, hence it is no surprise that many of the sporting federations under it have at the top MLAs and MPs who have neither time nor a vision for sports and sportsmen. The Indian cricket board too has a politician at its helm, but the presence of private capital in it ensures a certain accountability and discipline alien to the running of, say, the archery or boxing federation.

This brings us to the question of cricket wiping out the so-called Olympic sports. The charge, more specifically, is that this non-Olympic sport, played by only a handful of countries in the world, enjoys such overwhelming patronage from private businesses that all other sports are eclipsed, both in terms of money and visibility. But diverting corporate money from cricket to these sports may not be the answer since it would not ensure public interest. Interestingly, and perhaps to counter the bad press, the BCCI decided to part with some of its money to fund a few Beijing-bound athletes and even rushed to announce a reward of Rs 25 lakh for Bindra. The Mittals, Tatas and a few other corporate houses have done their bit for Olympic sports, but the sum of the efforts is still not enough to mitigate the second-class citizenship of our shooters, boxers and swimmers. Indian athletes often have a hard time securing visas for travelling to international competitions. But has anyone heard of an Indian cricketer having a problem getting his visa?

It is naïve to demand that business houses put their money in sports that have little public following. In some instances, however, companies may stand to promote their products by associating with particular sports — an oil company with a motor sport or a steel company with fencing — in which case they need not worry about the modest following.

In developed countries too, most Olympic sports suffer from the lack of popular interest, but still manage to get corporate support. For instance, Longines, the maker of high-end Swiss watches, sponsors international archery events. In spite of having a presence in India, Longines does not put money in the game here for the simple reason that the significance of its brand name would be lost on those who practise, follow and run the game here. Sports establishments in the West offer sponsorship opportunities to the corporate sector. In India, with the exception of cricket, the kindness of sponsors determines how high a sportsman can aspire.

This is not a situation peculiar to India. What is unmistakably Indian is the want of effort, except at the level of rhetoric, to change things around. Without going into the hurdles of government control, red-tapism, funds-crunch, corruption, non-existent infrastructure to nurture talent, favouritism of all possible kinds and the general ignorance about the goings-on in the global sports scene, it may be said that in India, the government is yet to make up its mind on whether to adopt the American model or the Chinese model of running sports in the country. To go with the first, the government would have to remove its fingers from the sporting pie and let each sport be run by an autonomous body, which then would have to fend for itself. To go with the second would be to take all sporting activities under it and to pursue a target-oriented development goal with missionary zeal. What happens in India instead is a half-hearted attempt at courting private capital while the controls remain strictly in the government’s hands and are exercised mostly through self-serving politicians. The thorough unprofessionalism and absence of accountability that are encountered by the few brave investors soon drive them away, taking the hapless sportsmen back to a miserable square one.

The pattern of the government’s sports policies and budget outlays has led many to believe that the State does not seriously believe in the possibility of a bright future for Indian sports. But history and sociology have shown that the greater the adversities, the higher the chance of excelling in sports like athletics and boxing. Jon Entine, in The Story behind the Amazing Success of Black Athletes, demonstrates how the need for social mobility has inspired the phenomenal rise of coloured sportsmen in the 20th century. India, with its stories of poverty and deprivation, presents the perfect case for a similar miracle, even if one were to admit that the physical resources of our athletes are greatly inferior to those of the Africans. The reasons why this has not happened are too many and too complicated to go into here. But it should suffice to say that the State, acting as the medium between the poor athlete and the promising but intimidating world of international sports, sabotages, instead of increasing, the chances of a smooth graduation from the local to the international level.

Why did Abhinav Bindra look so blank as he was escorted from one VIP appointment in the capital to another and informed of new cash awards? Perhaps he was trying not to be a part of the media circus. He must also have been trying not to think about a system that believes in spending money on champions, and not on making them. At least, he can afford to disregard the fortunes being showered on him now. What happens to those who have never seen such big money even in their dreams? The answer has a great deal to do with why it took India so long to win its first gold at the Olympics.

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