'Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan’ has a wearily familiar ring to it. Last weekend, when the two women to win medals at Rio—a silver and a bronze—in a contingent of 117 sportspersons were heading home, India was readying herself to extend them a well-deserved standing ovation. A 23-year-old gymnast came fourth, a first for a nation in search of heroes. Various companies and state governments suddenly became open-fisted, bestowing on the achievers money, land, expensive cars and gifts.
Over the last two weeks, the country watched in disbelief its champions collapsing one by one. It was left to the awesome threesome—badminton prodigy P V Sindhu, wrestler Sakshi Malik and gymnast Dipa Karmakar—to lift the spirits of 1.25 crore Indians. They came from modest backgrounds and were not beneficiaries of corporate or government generosity. So, their accomplishments sent a strong message to sports administrators and officials that celebrity status and endorsements do not ensure medals. Sindhu is the first Indian woman to win an Olympic silver. Malik delivered India its first medal of the Rio Games by seizing a bronze in the 58 kg wrestling category. The daughter of a bus conductor, she was born in a Haryana village. Karmakar is the maiden Indian female gymnast to compete in the Olympics in 52 years. Not one of the 63 male members of the contingent won a medal, and barring Abhinav Bindra, none even came close.
The dazzle of celebrations around Sindhu, Malik and Karmakar hides the state of India’s sports culture and the arrogance of its establishment. Sportspersons are embraced with enthusiasm only after they win laurels. Otherwise, their cries for facilities and financial support go unheeded. India has been participating in the Olympics for 116 years, and has won a total of 26 medals since then. For many years, its hockey team was dominant in Olympics, winning 11 medals, including eight golds, in 12 Olympics between 1928 and 1980. The years from 1928 to 1956 yielded six gold medals each. Curiously, no sportsperson could do a repeat performance in any subsequent game, barring hockey.
After Norman Pritchard won two silvers for India at the 1900 Paris Olympics, it took 52 years for an Indian to win at wrestling, as Khashaba Dadasaheb did by grabbing a bronze at Helisinki in 1952. For the next 44 years, the country faced a medal drought until tennis player Leander Paes gained a bronze in 1996 in Atlanta. Four years later, wrestler Karnam Malleswari became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal. Wrestler Sushil Kumar won a bronze in 2008 and a silver in 2012. In 2016, he was dubiously conspicuous by his absence. Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom, Gagan Narang, Rajyavardhan Rathore, Yogeshwer Dutt, Paes, Malleswari, Abhinav Bindra, Vijay Kumar and Vijender Singh are Olympic medallists who could not deliver a second time.
There is something rotten in the state of Indian sports, which prevents our sportspersons from giving their best consistently. Greats like Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Martina Hingis continue to dominate their game for years, while Indian players are flickering flames that vanish in a gust of the next year’s wind. One need not look far to discover why. The apathy of the sports establishment treats our best players as beggars who have to knock on every door for standard training and facilities. Companies and PSUs, which employ some of them, avoid sending them abroad for training, or bringing in world-class coaches. Bindra was one of the lucky few to get an expensive German coach, Gaby Buhlmann, to finesse his shooting skills because his parents could afford it. But the gods did not smile upon his father’s effort to perform 1,000 pujas across 1,000 temples for his son’s success, because once the ace notched up his first and only individual gold, the game seems to be over. The gods aren’t smiling on many other sportspersons either, who are denied even the basics by administrators who themselves travel first class and stay in superstar hotels. They do not groom sporting talent into career successes. Instead, Indian sports officialdom has become a cosy club of luxury-loving Scrooges who are in no mood to retire from the organisations they have captured.
It is also beset by miserliness. When Bindra said Britain spends millions of pounds on each Olympic medal, he wasn’t off the mark. The Indian government’s spend on sportspersons has been declining over the years while other countries are opening their pockets. According to reports, India has given priority status to nine games—archery, athletics, badminton, boxing, hockey, shooting, wrestling, weightlifting and tennis. Central grants to each have either only increased marginally or have reduced in most cases. For example, the UK spends over `58 crore on athletics while India allocated just `8 crore in 2014-15. We spend a little over `5 crore on badminton as against `19 crore by Britain. India gave `5 crore to hockey while Britain allocated `30 crore. It is another matter that Hockey India wastes crores on commercial tournaments at the expense of professional training. Even in Olympic boxing, a field in which India has some advantage, Britain invested `30 crore each on its boxers, while India thought the princely sum of `1 crore was enough to win a medal.
Though all Indian states are now spreading largesse among Rio medal winners, no long-term strategy has been evolved to spot talent and train aspiring sports stars. Both the Centre and most states spend 100 times more on advertisements eulogising the achievements of their governments than on sports. Even in many corporates, the pay grade of middle-level executives is way above the money spent on training any of the sportspersons employed by them. Lately, numerous top corporations have discovered the financial joys of profit-led sports tournaments by bringing international players at exorbitant fees to play at home.
If India has to establish a basic degree of sports supremacy, this country of 125 crore people has to spare at least `125 crore per year—less than the total salary of its top three CEOs—to train 25 sportspersons who can bring home medals in every international competition. Until then, the fathers of greed, through the collusion between sports bodies and big business, will keep contributing to the failure of India’s sporting spirit.
prabhuchawla@ newindianexpress.com Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla