How our Rio reaction is out of whack

Athletes deserve accolades, but the political overreaction shows why administrators are sport’s biggest problem


P.V. Sindhu with coach Pullela Gopi Chand. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
P.V. Sindhu with coach Pullela Gopi Chand. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

During the first 12 days of the Rio Olympics, which concluded on 21 August, the mood of the nation had become increasingly sullen and, in some part, totally cynical, as athletes across disciplines stumbled and flopped.

Since the Indian contingent was 118-member strong this time—the highest ever for an Olympics—the occasion for lament and breast-beating arose more frequently.

Then, suddenly, as the Games were tapering off, Sakshi Malik won a bronze medal in wrestling, P.V. Sindhu won a silver in badminton, and the pall of gloom was quickly replaced by ecstasy.

The outpouring of joy has been of unprecedented intensity, the celebrations —fuelled by a hyperventilating media—chaotic and hysterical, making for a pan-India jamboree that would be the envy of even the US, which won 121 medals at Rio.

Sindhu and Malik, as well as Dipa Karmakar, who won everyone’s heart with her sterling performance in gymnastics, have been welcomed like heroes. Awards and rewards have flown in thick and fast.

Sindhu, in fact, became a shuttlecock, so to speak, between Telangana and Andhra Pradesh chief ministers K.C. Rao and N. Chandrababu Naidu, respectively. Both tried to appropriate her success by bestowing lavish felicitations and money. Naidu even went to the extent of playing a few points of badminton with Sindhu on the dais at a celebration function in Vijayawada, his footwork ginger and smile smug.

This was a blatant attempt at political one-upmanship, totally bereft of any nuance, and made for a grotesque spectacle—enough to leave Sindhu and her coach, Pullela Gopi Chand, squirming in embarrassment.

At last count, Sindhu had become richer by Rs.13 crore, Malik by Rs.5.6 crore. Karmakar, who comes from a state, Tripura, that has considerably less financial heft than Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, may not have as much in the bank, but she has enough to take care of her future.

Dipa Karmakar with Bisweshwar Nandi. Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters
Dipa Karmakar with Bisweshwar Nandi. Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters

There can be no grudging these athletes the financial windfall that has come their way. Excelling at the Olympics, after all, requires huge talent and years of persevering effort, blood, sweat and tears.

Financial reward, however, can’t be an end in itself. It will not change the sporting ethos. That can only happen with a change in the way government, administrative and public mindsets promote a sports culture.

Here’s how I read the Indian sports scenario in light of the Rio performances:

Clearly, the country is yearning for sporting success. Even more clearly, there is talent to fulfil this desire. And there is no shortage of money: the question is how that money is spent in the pursuit of excellence.

Essentially, the poor utilization of money is due to the lack of a strong national vision and/or policy for sport that aims at excellence and targets medals. Frankly, no one formula works, no one hat fits all.

Countries from different political ideologies have succeeded (the US and China), those whose economies have a high gross domestic product (GDP) rate seem to enjoy strong advantages (the US, Germany, Japan, China and Great Britain), and even some with low GDP (Jamaica and Kenya) have reaped rich results.

The one factor common to countries that excel at the Olympics is that the vast majority of the population has access to sports on a continuous basis and this becomes part of the national ethos. In India, this outreach is low and lacklustre because sport is still seen as a pastime, with a wake-up call every four years when the Olympics are on us. It has yet to become a part of everyday life.

Ideally, sports should be integrated into health, education and community endeavours, involving as many people as possible, without discrimination. For instance, at a sociocultural level, the success of Sindhu, Malik and Karmakar is the strongest statement against gender bias. Over a period of time, increased exposure to sports will widen the base of sportspersons, increase participation, stoke the competitive instinct and make available more elite athletes.

Given India’s track record in the Olympics, my contention is that the government’s role in sports should be minimal. In fact, beyond spelling out the vision and providing funds in the annual budget, it should leave the running of sports to others.

In an article in this newspaper on 25 August six years ago (“No minister”), I had argued that the sports ministry should be scrapped and replaced by a National Sports Council. I see no reason to change my mind.

Governments here can change every five years. And a new government always tries to rework the agenda. In sport, this can be a major stumbling block, for development reaches fruition over a decade or more.

Moreover, politics works on nexus and alliances that can lead to nepotism, safeguarding of self-interest or status quo by officials of national sports federations (frequently also headed by politicians), rather than promoting excellence.

Sakshi Malik with Ishwar Dahiya. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI
Sakshi Malik with Ishwar Dahiya. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

The roles played by the national federations of tennis (in the rigmarole involving the men’s and mixed-doubles pairs) and wrestling (for the Sushil Kumar-Narsingh Yadav and doping controversy) in the lead-up to Rio were dubious and may have affected the prospects of a medal. In athletics, marathoner O.P. Jaisha has alleged neglect by officials at the Games.

The sports ministry (during two different governments where tennis is concerned) has done little to improve the situation. An independent body, funded by the government, would be better placed to audit the performances of athletes and federations.

The allocation of financial resources too should be merit-based, defined by milestones that must be met. It would be in the interest of athletes and sports federations to excel and retain their status. In sports administration, as on the sports field, there is no other way to ensure survival. A namby-pamby approach which sees the government as mai-baap will only feed mediocrity and ego—of both the athlete and administrator.

Of course, one need hardly relate in detail the shenanigans of politicians, including the sports minister, in Rio to understand how piffling and insensitive their understanding of sports is. Ostensibly, they went to “cheer” for our athletes. Sadly, one lot forgot to buy tickets for events where Indian athletes were competing, and the other’s entourage tried out a sporting contest of its own! Would Indian VIP strong-arm tactics work in Brazil? Not surprisingly, the International Olympic Committee was not amused and India was chastised.

On his return, the minister’s most notable act was to announce the names of four Khel Ratna, six Dronacharya and 15 Arjuna awardees, taking advantage of the euphoria surrounding the medal winners.

In the short term, such populist measures may create an illusion of fantastic achievement, but in the long run they could actually throw the development of sports in the country out of whack.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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