Huff, puff, fall


INDIAN SPORT is today in a poor state of organisation. Its superstructure is top heavy; some of its foundations are built on shifting sands. The entire edifice has been corroded with jealousies and prejudices, provincialism and communalism, anomalies and stupidities. Players are merely the pawns in the annual skirmishes for power, the stepping stones by which social climbers and careerists find their way into presidential and committee chairs.”

How true, you say, just look at the Commonwealth Games. But that was actually said half a century ago by Anthony de Mello, in his Portrait of Indian Sport. The author, the first secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, was also involved in the Olympic movement and was one of the forces behind the inaugural Asian Games in Delhi in 1951.

In his foreword to the book, Field Marshall KM Cariappa said, “India now looks forward to the possibility of holding the 1964 Olympic Games, and perhaps also the Commonwealth Games in 1966.” We’ve got the Games 44 years after Cariappa thought we would, but our sport is where it was. In a poor state of organisation, its edifice continues to be corroded by stupidities, and the sportsmen continue to be pawns. We could end this essay on why Indian sport is in the state it is in right here, and it would be complete. Nothing has changed. Nothing will change so long as the foundations remain on shifting sands. And we continue to dream about hosting the Olympic Games.

OF THE three stakeholders in a sportsman’s success, the sportsman himself, the administrators and the public at large, the greatest thrust for excellence has to come from the sportsman. Yet, that is not always the case. For so many years have Indian athletes shown themselves to be satisfied with the perks of participation rather than the rewards of performance that it no longer causes comment. A lifetime train pass, free telephone calls, a plot of land, apparent incentives meant to encourage the athlete to go faster, higher and stronger that act as roadblocks to effort when a performer is too easily satisfied.

In most events therefore, the goal is not to win, but to top the personal best. The gold, silver and bronze are left to those who train for them physically and mentally, but for most Indian athletes, the competition has a much narrower focus. This middle class attitude to sporting contests persists.

Photos: AFP

India’s first woman medal winner at the Olympics, Karnam Malleswari, said after her bronze-winning effort at the 2000 Sydney Games that she had lifted 10 kg more in a previous competition but did not push for gold because “my coaches and I decided to play it safe”. The bronze in hand was worth a speculative two in the bush for a country that had not seen too much of either metal at the Olympics. Lack of success breeds such insecurity.

In the 400m at the same Games, Beenamol timed 51.51 sec in the first heats. This dropped to 51.8 in the next, and finally to 52.04 in the semifinals. She was a spent force rather soon. “We are not used to running three days in a row,” she said. The winner of that gold, Cathy Freeman of Australia, progressed from 51.63 in the heats to 49.11 in the final. The trick in the heats, as the Formula One champion Niki Lauda said about his own sport, “is to win while going at the slowest speed”.

A study by two Indian scientists showed that world champion sprinters had a 20 percent higher capacity in oxygen intake than Indian athletes

THERE IS a simple way to check how far behind the world India is in specific events. Take the 100 metres, for example. The Indian record is 10.3 seconds, attained in 2005. That timing was achieved by the Canadian, Percy Williams in 1930. India trail by 75 years in that event! Forget about Usain Bolt and his 9.58 of 2009.

At the Athens Olympics in 2004, KM Binu clocked 45.48 in the 400 metres, a mark achieved by Louis Jones of the US 49 years earlier. Sri Ram Singh’s Montreal Olympics performance of 1976 continues to tease Indian 800 metre runners. But that mark had already been breached 21 years earlier in 1955. Wilson Kipketer’s current record is more than four-and-a-half minutes faster. The great Jesse Owens was, in 1935, already doing 8.08 in the long jump, a full 69 years before Amrit Pal Singh made it the national mark in 2004.

“We don’t have a sporting culture. The biggest problem is sports medicine. We do not follow the scientific wisdom of the West. Also, not many people actually take part in high-level sports in India. It’s a shame with such a large population. The money going to cricket leads to a direct loss to other sports. But, I have hopes that we will, with the right professional attitude, learn to excel at sport,” says Dilip Tirkey, former Indian hockey captain and the only Adivasi to represent India in three Olympics.

It would be easy to blame the sportsmen and women. But they are part of a system that rewards mediocrity. The system is geared towards producing gracious losers, not aggressive winners. That is why India’s best efforts have come in individual sports. No tennis federation or badminton association or chess federation can take the credit for the successes of men like the Krishnans, the Amritrajs, the Leanders, the Padukones, and the Anands. They emerged from the strong, unbiased, focused organisation that has not been given enough credit — the family. Maggie Amritraj, the mother of tennis greats Vijay and Anand, Sushila Vishwanathan, chess wizard Anand’s mother, Ramesh Padukone, badminton ace Prakash’s father, and TK Ramanathan, father of tennis artist Krishnan and grandfather of junior Wimbledon and French Open winner Ramesh, are national heroes, even if unsung ones. They played the crucial roles in the success of their children, by making sacrifices appear commonplace to inspire them.

Most of these champions have had problems with their respective sports associations run by politicians and timeservers who want to take credit for every success but are experts at pointing fingers at others when things go wrong. When such champions continue to be harassed by officialdom, which functions in a heavy-handed bureaucratic manner, what chance do those on the lower rungs of the ladder have?

Running out Archaic training methods and poor infrastructure have shortened many careers
Photo: T Mohandas

The public is largely indifferent to sportsmen till someone wins a world title and then it cannot have enough of him or her.

This has to do not so much with sports as with our overblown celebrity culture. If the officials have been able to get away with non-performance for decades, it also has to do with media indifference.

Our poor standing in Olympic sports has little to do with genetics or nutrition or body structure or muscle fibre. We are not a sporting nation in the way Australia or South Africa or Canada is. Or China has become, through a rigorous system of training and playing the percentages. And we will never become one till there is a change in attitude.

WHETHER WE excel or not is a combination of factors. We need to see how many countries are already competitive in that sport, what the physical demands of that sport are, and how receptive we are to foreign training methods. We will tend to be better at sports with technique, finesse and mental toughness. Pankaj Advani does so well at billiards. Shooting we seem to do well. Now we are doing slightly better at racquet sports. We need to embrace a holistic kind of fitness. There is money coming into sport, it just doesn’t go to athletes. Sports in India is looking up, we see people with grit from humble backgrounds making it. This is a good sign,” says champion swimmer Nisha Millet, an Arjuna Award winner and the only woman swimmer in the Indian team for the Sydney Olympics.

There are built-in handicaps, to be sure. Poverty, malnutrition, and more urgent needs of food, clothing and shelter that are bound to take precedence over the need to break the hurdles record or throw the javelin farther than anyone else. But in terms of sheer numbers, those who can make it in India is still larger than the population of countries like Kazakhstan and Mongolia who did better than us at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Around the 1982 Asian Games, the technical director of sports, Dr S Muthiah, had suggested that we must encourage our children to focus on the mother games — athletics, gymnastics and swimming — the three that form the building blocks of all sport. Running, flexing, and overcoming resistance are elements of training for any sport, from cricket to basketball. There was also a suggestion that while we ought to play as many sports as possible at the citizen’s level, we ought to restrict our international participation to a few medal-winning sports.

The Olympic spirit is all about participation, but the national spirit is about winning and this was a happy compromise. Olympic spirit at home, national spirit abroad. Dr Muthiah’s file is probably fodder for silver fish at some government office in one of their steel almirahs.

THE PANJANDRUMS who run sport in India do not love sport, but are in love with its perks — the government grants, the publicity, the political clout, the junkets, and the kickbacks from contracts. They do not want a serious threat to their positions from the qualified and the committed. They love reflected glory. On his website Suresh Kalmadi, the embarrassing Commonwealth Games Organising Committee Chairman, informs us modestly that “As President of the Indian Olympic Association, (I) got the country the first-ever gold medal in individual event (sic) at the Beijing Olympic (sic) 2008.”

Photos (From Left): Reuters, AP, Getty Images, AFP

It is possible that Bharatiya Janata Party veteran Vijay Kumar Malhotra has been associated with archery since the time of Dronacharya and Arjun. He has been around for so long as president of the Archery Association of India that youngsters may be forgiven for thinking he invented the sport.

When MC Chowhan, whose fiefdom was the Table Tennis Federation of India, died in 2009 at 82, Kalmadi called him a “legend” who wanted to serve Indian sport for “another ten years”. Ask not what you can do for Indian sport — ask what Indian sport can do for you. And it does plenty.

Power, pelf, influence, political clout, international exposure — the sportsmen might be denied all these, but the officials wallow in them. Former world billiards champion Michael Ferreira thinks the officials are “drunk on power”, but that is only a part of the picture. Politicians use sports as a platform, and if they divert sports funds for party work none is the wiser because accountability is not their strong suit. There is too the perk of disbursing profitable contracts to near and dear ones. Perhaps we get the sports minister we deserve.

The power that goes with the office is used to put ‘lesser’ men in place, and cultivate a culture where ministers and officials assume the top positions in the sporting hierarchy, and expect sportsmen to pay obeisance as a matter of course. “It’s simple. We don’t have a sports culture in India. We need to develop it. Individuals have excelled like Abhinav Bindra in shooting, but a broader culture will take time,” says former Indian cricket captain and champion leg spinner Anil Kumble.

For so many years, Indian athletes have shown themselves to be satisfied with the perks of participation than the rewards of performance

For a sportsman to be effective in India, two things have to happen. The sports minister’s post must be delinked from politics and elections; the minister cannot be a politician. Like Nandan Nilekani, the chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, the sports minister has to be a top professional from the field who is given Cabinet rank.

A candidate who readily comes to mind is Michael Ferreira. He is a world champion three times in billiards, but more importantly is articulate and approaches sports and sportsmen with an empathy given to few. He is not likely to be either intimidated by the trappings of power or get into ego tussles with fellow sportsmen. His background as a lawyer is no disadvantage. Ferreira understands the culture of politics in India better than most, and that is important given the low priority sport has in most government set-ups.

Do our sportsmen embarrass us more than our politicians do? Cricket apart — and that is played by only ten countries at the Test level — why do we struggle to hold our own? Is there something within us, a corollary of Indianness perhaps that militates against success at the highest level except in odd individual cases?

Graceful ace Vijay Amritraj owes his success to his family, not the federation
Photo: Getty Images

“You cannot say India is not excelling in sport. Our Commonwealth Games performance has been good and there are hopes of an overall second position. How can we expect more when we neglect the grassroots level? There are plenty of talented young people who do not receive encouragement — they need the right facilities, expertise and diet. Olympic golds are not made in a year or two. You have to invest at least ten to twelve years to achieve success,” says PT Usha, India’s best woman athlete so far, who missed the bronze medal by a whisker in the 400 metres hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

In recent decades, there has been an attempt to give the debate a scientific base, bringing in genetics, diet, rate of muscle twitching and a capacity to take in oxygen, but these are excuses, not explanations. As far back as in 1974, two Indian scientists carried out a study involving such things as “maximum oxygen uptake” and concluded that world champion sprinters, for example, had a 20 percent higher capacity than the best Indian sprinters. Significantly, they found that the difference between the non-athlete westerner and his Indian counterpart was not much.

The reaction was two-fold. To adapt Julius Caesar, athletes concluded that if it wasn’t in their stars then it was in their genes and became fatalistic. The more committed realised that the jump from non-athlete to professional athlete had to be bridged by better training and greater attention to detail.

At most major sporting events in India, a stated theme is ‘Sport for all’ or its variations. Clichés tumble out of the cupboard easily: grassroots level development, catch them young, take sport to the villages, health and fitness for all.

ALL THIS has led to some confusion over what sport means to Indians. And what we are looking for. Are we looking to create a set of healthy Indians through regular everyday sports — in short pumping up the club and fitness culture, call it what you will in the villages and towns. Or are we looking to create competitive sportsmen who will bring the country medals at international meets. Common sense tells us that there is a simple connection between the two. When a huge number of people take to sports, quality must emerge out of quantity.

Half of India’s huge population is under the age of 25, and that has to be an incentive to sporting excellence. Yet the horror stories are too deeply ingrained in the minds of parents, many of whom might have been frustrated by their own lack of success at competitive level because of forces outside their control. Perhaps it is time for a sporting liberalisation in the manner of the economic one that declogged similar ideas in that field.

Photos (From left): AP, AFP, REUTERS, GETTY IMAGES

Recently, two academics at Duke University in the United States, said that the problem for India is the number of people who can “effectively participate in sports”. “Ill health and poor nutrition can hamper early childhood development. In addition, lack of information and lack of access can effectively exclude large swathes of a country’s population,” they concluded, “The resulting small percentage of effective participants helps explain more fully why despite such a large population and a large potential talent pool, a country ends up winning very few Olympic medals.”

The inescapable conclusion, therefore, is that the Indian successes happen despite the system. Corruption is a fact of life, as the Commonwealth Games showed dramatically once again, and the sportsman is at the bottom of the totem pole, the last in the list of priorities.

We have built and refurbished stadia for the Commonwealth Games. Will the ordinary Delhiite or even the professional athlete have access to them at the end of it? Of course not. Part of India’s problem is that we see ourselves as a developed nation when we are not. We have a developed nation’s ambitions with a developing nation’s infrastructure. Maintenance is not our strength, whether it is stadiums or flyovers or playgrounds. Our officials are a self-perpetuating mechanism for creating more officials, not for discovering talented sportsmen.

“There is no lack of human potential. India is simply rife with talent. The onus is on experienced players to guide the young. And this doesn’t mean only in the cities. Scouting for talent needs to be far more widespread. Once our ground level issues are sorted and we have proper training academies, there is no reason not to have regular Olympic gold medalists,” says Karnam Malleswari, the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, at Sydney.

IN 1982, sepak takraw, a game India knew nothing about was a demonstration sport at the Asian Games. Soon a Sepak Takraw Federation of India was formed, which meant some more officials got on to the gravy train. Grants were applied for and given, and a sport no one had heard of had a valuable vote, which was on sale during the elections to the Indian Olympic Association.

The 1982 Asian Games, in fact, ought to have been the starting point for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Twenty-eight years is a good period in which to watch seeds grow into fruition. Yet, those who were caught young then were dropped young soon after, the stadia were in a state of disrepair, Indian hockey has hit its nadir having failed to qualify for the Olympics, football ranking continues to be low down on the list, and except for PT Usha and Anju Bobby George, we have not produced any athlete capable of threatening the world’s best in any discipline.

It cannot be that we lack talent. But the insecurity of sport as a career — much of it built into the profession itself, which after all is short and could be cut shorter by injury, non-selection and politics — drives away the hopefuls. The practical parent tells his ward: “Try your damndest till you are 18; if you haven’t made it till then, concentrate on either academics or a vocation.” This is sound advice, for apart from the built-in insecurities, sport in India brings with it the avoidable insecurities like corruption, provincialism, politics, lack of infrastructure, lack of a plan, and a slew of pot-bellied politicians all sportsmen are expected to pay obeisance to.

Even in cricket, which despite its politics is better managed than other sports, some of the developments are hilarious. Sharad Pawar heads the International Cricket Council, both as a tribute to India’s clout in the world and the politician’s clout in India. His father-in-law might have been a Test cricketer, but what Pawar knows about cricket will not threaten the careers of our television experts.

Individual sports in India are sustained by families — badminton, tennis, table tennis, golf, billiards and snooker, chess and it is no coincidence that our world champions have emerged from these sports. Those who can afford to pay for coaching, participate in tournaments abroad, or as in Bindra’s case build a shooting range at home, are better equipped at the world level than those at the mercy of the government-inspired system in India, which is bureaucratic and usually innocent of knowledge of sport. Lack of information is a major hurdle too. Drugs are rampant, as Usha has pointed out.

Rare success Renu Chanu (centre), 58 kg weightlifting gold at CWG 2010
Photo : AFP

THE WHOLE process of selection for the Olympics brings together the maladies of Indian sport in a nutshell. Lack of testing at qualifying events encourages sportsmen to go past the qualifying mark using performance enhancers. Selection is the end of the ambition, and not a stepping stone. Then, when the performances fall below par at the international meet, the media and the public come down heavily on the competitor.

We forget that the original performance was drugs-induced, that such drugs are usually supplied by coaches looking for a promotion, and that there is no effective communication among the different bodies governmental and otherwise. As the recent drug charges against the weightlifters, swimmers, and others showed, information is not disseminated effectively to our sportsmen.

We’ve built and revamped stadia at the CWG. Will the ordinary Delhiite or even the professional athlete have access to them at the end of it? Of course not

In the early 1990s, beauty queen Madhu Sapre barely failed to become Miss World when she answered a question honestly. Asked what she would do with the money if she won, she said she would contribute to building sports stadia in India. It was a passionate thing to say and so much more honest than the usual Mother Teresa line favoured by beauty contestants. But it sounded strange to foreign ears. Sapre lost. Indians understood, and sympathised.

Athletes struggle because their life span is short and they need focused attention from the federations. If our national bodies put as much energy into promoting sports as they do into promoting the careers of their office-bearers, we would be in the China league by now. Since 1984, we have won three Olympic medals. China has won 420. Enough said.

Menon is a commentator based in Bengaluru


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