In the last few months of this decade, India had its moment of athletic epiphany. It saw women with grips that melted bone as they wrestled, and men whose fights featured muscle memory of both weaver and warrior. There were eagle-eyed archers and runners of invisible muscle and unconcealed will. One boy used child-sized hands to push off pommel horse and floor to show us how to fly without wings.
Centrepiece: A view of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium during the closing ceremony of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
Another produced a 24-second exhibition of sea creatures, ranging from serene dolphin to noisy speedboat. A shuttling girl proved that great walls could be built outside China, and four more showed how a team could be tied together by the wind. There were mothers who boxed and fathers who meditated. And they were all ours.
At the end of a breakthrough decade, the Commonwealth Games (CWG) and the Asian Games became Indian sport’s set pieces shown to its widest audience. The country’s athletic community didn’t miss a step. Over 100 medals at the CWG and India’s best-ever Asiad. If there has to be a lingering memory, let it be the sight of Indians walking out on opening night, a community of the confident. Beijing gold medallist shooter Abhinav Bindra, who carried the flag in Delhi and usually competes in silent halls, says it was the loudest ovation he believed Indian athletes had received from, “our own people. We knew they were rooting for us”.
They had to, after this decade in which our athletes have shattered glass over and over again. Glass that was actually a ceiling, glass that restricted access, created boundaries, sealed borders. Our athletes swung the hammer of their intent at all of it, around them.
Some did so quietly, some loudly, some with their fists pumped, others with looks of cold titanium. They did so across sport, in those we thought we couldn’t play, did so in those in places Indians usually never went. We may have been dazzled by a string of brightly-lit achievements, headlines and medals today, but before all this happened, the decade was about the gritted teeth and unseen sweat of Indian sport’s history makers.
Arjun Atwal’s victory on the PGA Tour was preceded by the lonely journey of Jeev Milkha Singh, the first Indian to set out on the European Tour in 1998. It is only appropriate that the man in Saina Nehwal’s corner today is Pullela Gopichand, who, in 2001, won India an All-England badminton title after a gap of 21 years. Early in the decade, long jumper Anju Bobby George became the first Indian to win a world athletics championship medal in 2003, and Sania Mirza the first Indian woman tennis player in the world’s top 30. Squash player Ritwik Bhattacharya didn’t treat his sport as an admission ticket into an American university, hit the pro tour in 1999, won titles and a career-high ranking of 38. This was the decade Narain Karthikeyan found his way into the most expensive and exclusive clubs in international sport, the Formula 1 grid. The decade that began with boxer Gurcharan Singh weeping on his knees after losing his Olympic quarterfinal match in Sydney on countback, ended with Vijender Singh’s Beijing bronze and Guangzhou gold.
Sydney 2000 was Bindra’s first Olympics, when the general mood in the Indian contingent was “defensive, closed”, clouded by what looked like an “inferiority complex”. It was, he said, “as if we were almost embarrassed by our skill levels versus the best in the world”. Michael Ferreira, a four-time world billiards champion, speaks of setting off to the West in the 1970s. “One almost had to apologize for being Indian.”
Now Ferreira laughs, “It’s like, hey, listen bugger, we’re Indian—who are you?” In many ways, this decade has produced the perfect storm for Indian sport: a changing economy, an aspirational younger population, and as Mahesh Bhupathi summarises it, “the support of the private sector and the urge of more kids to take to sport as a career”. A deep-pocket private sector has put its money outside cricket and the first elite sport projects such as the Mittal Champions Trust or the Olympic Gold Quest have begun to shepherd India’s best. It is the forward-looking sports federations and ambitious athletes that have benefited the most.
The Indian Boxing Federation has signed a four-year marketing deal with Percept, and Shailendra Singh, its joint managing director, says he has generated funding of around Rs 10-12 crore in the last 18 months. Along with supporting the country’s best boxers, it’s introducing the “Fight Night” concept to “build boxing as a sport-entertainment property and connect with the audience and consumers”. The Big C is still extremely mega, but the rest of the sporting landscape has widened, opened up. Cricket may still be the lion on our sporting Serengeti, but now there’s room for other smaller, more nimble game.
While private enterprise may deserve its “zindabaad”, let’s not forget the little guy. When asked who he dedicated India’s first individual Olympic silver to, shooter Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore certainly didn’t: “To the taxpayers of India,” he said.
An armyman who had fought insurgents in Kashmir, in 2002 Rathore embarked on his own Olympic campaign two years before Athens 2004. He applied for leave, sought permission from the Indian Army and the sports ministry for funding. He filled in forms in triplicate and received around Rs 66 lakh for training and travel. That silver at the Athens Games in double trap was the result not of chest-thumping speeches about desh ki izzat, but logic and planning. As was Bindra’s gold. As will be others.
The taxpayers behind Rathore are still at work. Of the Rs 318 crore sports ministry grant from August 2008 until the end of the Guangzhou Asian Games for the training, competition and training infrastructure for athletes, sports federations received grants worth Rs 68 crore (the rest went to creating training infrastructure, conducting camps).
The athletes won a total of 165 medals. Even if the cost of hiring foreign coaches and equipment were to be doubled and the figure turned to a highly over-estimated Rs 150 crore, that would work out to approximately Rs 90 lakh per medal. The paucity of success in Indian sport today is not because of financial reasons. It’s to do with sporting expertise and the lack of accountability of those in power over what, in athletics terms, is the last 10m of any sporting campaign.
All that is left now, however, are those final metres. We are now past the crossroads and wondering where to go. On its way to finally stepping onto the global state in sport, India is looking out over the last mile, and must now understand that it is a vertical climb. Bindra doesn’t do metaphor, and to him, the decade gone by is gone. The only big picture that matters is what lies ahead. “This is a new decade, a new generation. We need a new administration because we have the talent, we have the numbers.” He says the government funding that worked for the CWG needs to be sustained but also spread out to start junior and development programmes. “Let sport be run by professional people. These are changing times. Those who have run our sport for all these years can go retire and play some golf. It’s time to bid them goodbye. Indian sport deserves better.” The strongest, thickest, most dense and powerful piece of glass is waiting to be shattered.
Sharda Ugra is a sports journalist and currently a senior editor with Cricinfo.com.