The numbers speak a harsh truth. India has won just 26 of the 12,796 Olympic medals awarded in the last 114 years. During the 2012 London Olympic Games, India did not win a single gold medal, although it got its best ever aggregate tally of six medals. That is, six out of 83 athletes won a medal. This so-called best performance in an Olympics so far, was behind countries such as Ethiopia, Latvia and Uganda. China with a population comparable to ours, won 88 medals. When you look at medals per population, India was last among the medal winners, standing at the 85th position. We had one medal for 207 million people. These numbers beg an obvious question: Why does the world's largest democracy not win enough medals in world sporting events?
Olympic champion shooter Abhinav Bindra explains, “We don't have a sporting culture in the country. We have to develop that culture for sport to really get into the blood of Indians - which is really not there when we compare ourselves to other countries.” Slovenia, a tiny Balkan country, has a population of just two million, that is, one tenth of Mumbai. But they make up for these small numbers with a strong sporting culture. The country has 3,500 sporting associations, and one-third of Slovenian adults play a sport. In the London Olympics they won four medals, one gold, one silver and two bronzes and got a much higher rating than India. Again it is our lack of a sports ethos that comes in the way of creating a huge pool of sportsmen which can springboard us in international events.
The lack of a sports culture and ethos in India has had undesirable consequences for us as a people, a society and country. To win medals in an international competition, we must have a huge base to choose from. In other words, the population of the country is unimportant. “For any major sporting event, China starts with a pool of 8,00,000 to choose from. We, on the other hand, have just 1,750,” says former sports secretary P.K. Deb. “We have to seriously focus on increasing the base of sportspersons in our country. If we focus on nurturing our rural infrastructure, India should be among the top 10 sporting nations in the world by 2020”.
The base of sportspersons can increase when all the other factors in the country are working towards that goal. One of the biggest factors is funds and infrastructure not being used where it is needed, that is, in the rural areas. Bindra says, “If you see other countries, poverty is the reason they enter sports. But the talent in India is not tapped. There is actually more commitment from people who are poor than those in urban areas. The people in urban areas won't invest 12–13 years in preparing for a sport because they have other avenues. There is no dearth of talent, but they need to be tapped and nurtured and given proper expertise right from that grassroots level.”
In this aspect, what is it that China has done differently from India? Jyotirmoy Mukherjee writes about China's initiative to invest in infrastructural support for athletes in his paper 'Reimagining India: How Can India Match China's Medal Count by the 2024 Olympics'. He says, “To build world class athletes, we need world-class infrastructure for stadiums, practice-turfs, sport equipments, gymnasiums, sports facilities and sports medicine. The Chinese government has opened more than 850,000 gyms and more than 3000 specialized sports facilities. The same kind of commitment is essential for India to get serious about the Olympics.”
Like infrastructure, lack of good coaching can be a major hurdle in tapping and nurturing the right talent across the country. “Coaching, not just in hockey, but across sports, is in a dismal condition. We are 10 years behind the rest of the world!” says hockey player Viren Rasquinha. “But can't blame the coaches, they are not really incentivized. If you see the National Institute of Sports coaching course, the syllabus is of the 1970s and 1980s! The game has progressed so much. Sports have become so much more technical. There are video analysts these days who analyse the opponent's game and provide a strategy in minutes, whereas we are still dependent on instinct.”
Rasquinha believes the apathy of the government bodies is another reason why India's medal tally at sports events is so low. “I think a good management structure and efficient administrative structure is essential. Right now we probably have the worst administration in Indian sports. We need to get professional administrators who are the best at what they do. And it's not just inefficiency, but apathy,” he says. “That's what we need to change, this culture of apathy in sports.” But in India, administrative apathy comes in tandem with corruption of the highest order.
Ashwini Nachappa, an athlete who has won many laurels for India, is now at the forefront of cleaning up the system. According to her, “Various federations have been run like family properties for 40–50 years with nobody questioning them. That's why a group of 10 international athletes and former sportspersons got together just before the 2010 Commonwealth Games, we launched the 'Clean Sports India Movement'. We basically wanted to highlight what we have gone through, discuss the prevalent system and talk about going forward. We were speaking about the Commonwealth scams long before anyone else was.” Her organization raised issues about the misappropriation of funds, for the Commonwealth games scam and are pushing for a system that follows the Olympic charter, follows the age and tenure, is transparent and accountable.
Manisha Malhotra, former tennis champion, asserts that accountability is a primary issue with the non-performance of India at international sporting events. “There is a gamut of reasons why we don't succeed, but the first problem that we have is that we have absolutely no accountability with results,” she says. “Across the world, from Russia to China, to USA and a small country like Belarus , if their athletes don’t do well, it is the resignation of the sports minister that is sought,” says Malhotra. This does not happen in India because of the frequent shuffling of ministers and lack of know-how about sports in the ministry.
The poverty that our athletes come from and often fade into, is a stumbling block in encouraging people to choose professional sports. The discipline and time required to attain expertise in a sport requires financial security and support from either the government or the individual family of the sportsperson. The short shelf life of being in sports also leads to insecurities. So one way to increase participation and reduce insecurities is to guarantee a financially stable future for sportspersons after they have given their best years to the nation.
Youngsters get inspired when they see their heroes and role models playing - be it on television or in front of them. We underestimate the importance of heroes and role models in pushing young people towards a sport of their choice, forgetting that it can lead to increasing the base of sportspersons in the country. Take for example Viren Rasquinha, who was inspired by Dhanraj Pillai when he went to watch an exhibition match at his school. After the match, he shook hands with him. Just six years later, he was playing beside Pillai.
Rasquinha, whose organization Olympic Gold Quest has trained Mary Kom and Saina Nehwal, is optimistic about the positive influence of role models. “I have seen Mary and Saina transform women's boxing and badminton respectively. And I hope they inspire millions of young girls across the country and inspire millions of parents across the country to encourage their daughters to go out and play because we need positive role models in India,” says the former hockey player.
So it is not a simple or isolated solution that can magically create medals for the country. It will take concerted efforts towards better infrastructure, administration, financial security and incentives for athletes, accountability of the organizations involved and the creation of role models, so that Indians across the country are inspired to play, and play to win. As more people start getting involved in sports, the base of sports people will increase and greater will be the chances of the nation winning medals.