Posts on the social media are a riveting reflection of desire and disappointment. On Thursday morning, as India erupted in collective relief, one provocateur thanked Sakshi Malik for upgrading India into the “bronze age”. Come Friday, as P V Sindhu ushered hope of a gold medal, another declared “Ashada is over. Now there is no bar on bringing home gold”. Quips laced in dark humour galore on why a nation of 125 crore people, with a $2 trillion economy, did so poorly in Rio 2016. It is a familiar lament that follows in the wake of every Olympics—Athens, Beijing, London, and now Rio.
Typically, the Indian approach is of the eleventh hour kind—fuzzy, furious, fervent and futile. The consequence is reflected in the tally of medals—between Beijing and Rio, India has a total tally of 11 medals. The winners have won despite the odds—first against a system that is loaded against them and then against better-prepared, better-trained athletes. There are many horror stories—about a gymnast being coerced to attend meets by two associations in the very week she was to attend trials, about athletes being denied access to physios and sports medicine experts.
Lament alone though cannot drive outcomes. The trend of discourse must be moved from why it did not happen to how India can make it happen. To start with, focus on the next Olympics. There are 1,433 days for Tokyo 2020. How about planning for it from this Monday and following it through with a grand idea focused on the 2024 Olympics? Success demands both perspiration and inspiration. The first task of the government must be to find a champion and a group of inspiring individuals to steer it. If India can propel yoga on mission mode, why not make sports part of the template for overall well-being? For sure the road is long and arduous, but the glory is worth the wait.
Social media is replete with questions about the need for a sports ministry. There is also commentary about the size of the population and the economy and its co-relation with medals. Fact is, it is hard to conclude from existing literature on enabling and disabling factors. Just before the Rio Games, a European institute used population and wealth to arrive at potential —its prediction for India was 22 medals! Indeed, when they
factored sports culture—that would include social ethos, investment in sports facilities and competitions—the prediction were closer to reality. Countries with a better social ethos and investment did better. Clearly there is no fit-all formula, no one model of development of sports and sportspersons that has done better or worse than the other.
Between Beijing and Rio, the US has won more than 100 medals in each Olympics. There is no sports ministry in the US nor is there a department of sports. The super structure is a classic Hayekian model—talent spotting at schools, followed by scholarships in universities, followed by sponsorships and crowd-funding of the elite athletes. China has won over 250 medals between 2008 and 2016, and this model is driven by the state intervention and investment. Since the late Eighties—around the time India hosted Asiad 84—China has initiated multiple programmes involving studies of sports psychology, medicine and technology. Great Britain, which has consistently averaged 50 medals across two decades, has a hybrid model where the department of sports shepherds public and private efforts.
The ideal model for India to follow would a collaborative model —a public-private partnership. The government—states and Centre—must fund and create the infrastructure, and induct sporting spirit in the education curriculum. And the many programmes of the government can come into play here—the idea of Smart Cities must mandate open spaces and stadia for sports. At the operational level, sports bodies must be professionalised, be rid of politicians and manned by sportspersons/professionals to ensure merit in talent selection. Every winner at Rio had one commonality—a great coach. Money must be made available for training of coaches. The mission must promote inspirational tours—the money spent on politico-junketeers would have been better utilised on sponsoring a trip of 50 talented youngsters to Rio.
Funding will have to be sourced from government and private India. The first tier would be budgetary allocations which must be upgraded. Facilities created will promote a healthier India. The catchment area for the second tier must include CSR funds, which would total to well over `15,000 crore. Imagine if CSR rules could be tweaked to enable a higher flow of moolah for sports development? India has over 50 billionaires who could be inspired with a plan, if not shamed into doing their bit. The National Sports Development Fund—currently a mess—can be an ideal vehicle if professionally managed. The third tier of funding could be a combination of sponsorships, endorsements and crowd sourcing.
Why and how a nation does well in sports is a complex matrix of sociology, psychology, physiology, cultural politics and economics. Take Jamaica, a small nation with barely three million people and a GDP of around $16 billion. The optics is about Usain Bolt—the reality is that 29 of the fastest 100 metres timings are notched against the names of Jamaican sprinters. There is physiology—it has been found that a larger-than-average size of heart helps a faster flow of oxygen and higher speeds and the gene that leads to this is higher among Jamaicans. There is also the culture of sports—school and college athletic meets in Jamaica are packed-stadium events.
The tragedy is that the culture of community-supported sports —once seen in Indian towns and cities—is now an endangered species. The social ethos must evolve—to find time to support enthusiasts, and to ensure open spaces for schools and residential areas. In the Eighties, editors of newspapers corralled space for local sports—this space has been hijacked by big brands promoting the Messis of the world. The problem in India—which civil society must own up—is that enthusiasm for sports is mostly about cups, medals and championships. There is more to championing the cause of sports than posting bouquets and brickbats on social media.
Shankkar aiyar Author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change