Sixty years of independence have seen Indian sport go through a roller coaster ride of successes and failures. But before we analyse the pros and cons of our sporting policy and culture, it would be prudent to define ‘The Indian Sporting Culture’. The sporting culture of any nation is not defined by the mass hysteria generated by a single team event such as football or cricket or baseball, but by a country’s performance in disciplines which form part of the Olympic sports.
In any case, even in cricket, which attracts passion and involvement from all cross-sections of our achievement starved society, we have been mediocre at best at the world level with the only creditable feat coming in the 1983 World Cup, where we were “the world champions”. But our sporting identity and our sports policy revolves around those sports which fall under the purview of the Olympic platform and it is here that we have failed to deliver, given our huge talent pool.
Our eight gold medals in hockey are in the distant recesses of our collective memory and the sport has declined to abysmal lows thanks to the indifferent attitude of the games governing body, which continues to function with biased inefficiency and arrogance. This deplorable state of affairs has frequently attracted media attention and editorial comments which unfortunately have always fallen on deaf and old ears.
Except for hockey and a Milkha Singh in the first 20 years of our independence, there was little to cheer about as our policymakers were involved with the more important tasks of figuring out how to erase poverty and unemployment and implementing the ‘licence raj’. The direct outcome of this preoccupation of our policymakers was felt by our international athletes who were treated with disdain, and more as irritants rather than ambassadors. Running from pillar to post to get air tickets sanctioned and trying to obtain clearances for foreign exchange was the pre-tournament preparation of all our top athletes. Starved of money, infrastructure and moving around the world with the tag of one of the poorest nations in the world, our athletes succumbed at the highest level, providing overwhelming proof of the existence of a correlation between economic development and performance in international sport.
The early 1990s saw the opening up of the economy providing hope for our athletes. The growth of IT and the subsequent creation of new age billionaires, along with the sustained economic growth, has changed the perspective with which our citizens view the world and how the world views our people.
The Indian athlete today is a world citizen and global exposure has ensured that we think big and aim high. But, the government still has a mental block when it comes to allocating funds for our sports budget. About Rs450 crore seems an insignificant amount when compared with China’s sports budget in excess of Rs4,500 crore. The correlation between money spent and number of medals at the Asian Games and Olympics provides further reinforcement when one sees China win 10 times the number of medals at both the Asian and Olympic level.
It is not that we can’t spare money. Come 2010, and the country will be spending in excess of Rs5,000 crore in creating fresh infrastructure for the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Infrastructure which in all likelihood will lie wasted and uncared for after the games. This lopsided view must change. If we are willing to spend colossal amounts of resources on one event lasting two weeks, surely we must complement this with additional funds on an annual basis for our various sports which find representation at the Asian Games and the Olympics.
Lack of timely funds is one of the most common reasons for the inability of our athletes to attain world standards. The gap between what the sports ministry allocates to the various federations and what is actually required is too wide. Private donors and funds are recognizing this problem and trying to plug the gap but sometimes find resistance from the federations who feel threatened that their power or control over the athletes will get eroded.
The only silver lining has been the special tax-free awards which have been instituted to incentivize our top athletes when they win medals at the Asian and Olympic Games. These awards provide enough funds for athletes to further their exposure in their respective sport to attain higher standards.
But for sustained results, we need to inject at least 10 times the amount we do currently on our sports annual budget. Till then our country will chug along providing sporadic achievement, sometimes in chess, sometimes in billiards, more recently in tennis and golf and, of course, in shooting. Clearly, we need more thought, analysis and strategy to convert this erratic sporting performance into consistent medal winning efforts at the highest level.
Geet Sethi is an international billiards champion and author of the book, Success Vs Joy. He promotes GoldQuest, which is committed to supporting sportspersons with Olympic medal winningpotential.