It is true that India did better in the last Olympics than in this one; just 83 athletes won six medals in London while 117 won two in Rio. But that does not mean that our great country cut a sorry figure before the world. On the contrary, no other country sent its reigning national sports minister to Rio to liven up things. The Honourable Vijay Goel and his “aggressive and rude” staff did it so well that the organisers had to warn them of possible expulsion from the arena. None of the other 206 participating countries won this distinction.
Olympics may come and Olympics may go, but Indians will remain Indians. Whether it is Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, or Olympics, the Indian tradition is to give pride of place, not to athletes, but to politicians, sports officials and sundry hangers-on, parasites, pretenders and the sons and nephews and girlfriends of VIPs. National Rifle Association President Raninder Singh, son of Punjab’s former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, was the star figure in Rio’s parties. Abhay Singh Chautala, son of former Haryana Chief Minister, was also in Rio, overlooking the small detail that he was out of jail on bail. Chaperoning him was Olympics President N Ramachandran who, as shooter Abhinav Bindra revealed, never met any Indian athlete in Rio. Haryana’s own sports minister, Anil Vij, went to Rio to “cheer the athletes”, but correspondents on the scene said he spent his time on the beaches cheering the locals.
This negative culture is reinforced by the polices and attitudes of government and various sports organisations. Arun Jaitley, a sports enthusiast (if cricket can be considered a sport and not a commercial activity), allotted `1,552 crore to sports in his last budget. This was `50 crore more than his previous budget’s allocation. The small island nation of Jamaica allotted to sports the equivalent of `3,075 crore in 2012 (by the exchange rate of that time). Jamaica is the land of Usain Bolt, India is the land of Shobhaa De.
It is an all-time shame for India that the various associations that control sports are hellholes of intrigue and infighting. Politicians are known to head them for decades at a stretch. Take boxing. The Indian Boxing Federation was banned by the International Boxing Federation in 2012 for manipulating elections. A new organisation took over, named Boxing India. This was suspended by the international body following an internal war that led to organisational irregularities.
In a country like India, where government intervention is needed even to construct toilets, sports cannot perhaps progress without governmental assistance. But it has to be assistance provided by sports people for sports people. We need not go to the extent China does—take away little boys and girls from their families and develop them rigorously, even cruelly, as winning machines. But there is something to learn from other countries. Britain, through government and the National Lottery, provides about £700 million for programmes that help Olympic athletes. The Canadian Government earmarks about $150 million a year for Olympics. Senior athletes get monthly stipends. In West Australia, the government runs an Athlete Travel Subsidy Scheme to help young athletes with travel and accommodation at sports training centres. In the US, there is no direct government involvement, but there are organisations that provide various types of assistance to athletes, ranging from training and healthcare costs to air fare and lodging during the games.
Our government has a poor record in these matters. What is allotted seldom reaches the athletes. Sprinter Dutee Chand endured a 36-hour flight to Rio in economy class while officials lounged in business class. Dipa Karmakar’s physiotherapist was not allowed to travel with her; the Sports Authority of India said that would be “wasteful”. When she qualified for finals, the therapist was rushed to Rio.
The one hopeful sign in India is that private companies have started playing a role. Steeplechase runner Lalita Babar’s is a typical case. A pair of special steeplechase spikes costs `10,000, lasts only one month, and has to be imported. Government agencies did not help. Anglian Medal Hunt, a Delhi-based private company, came to her aid. JSW Sports helped O P Jaisha among others.
Rio has proved that India has athletes talented and gritty enough to win Olympic golds. If only the sporting climate in the country were a little more helpful, the picture could change overnight. In the prevailing climate, Sakshi Malik and P V Sindhu are miracles, pure gold. May their tribe increase.