So we want to be a sporting superpower. The Big O has lit the flame within, it’s given us ideas, made us believe we too can get there. At least within touching distance of China, and to have fun like the Brits had. And how dare Kazakhstan get seven—seven—gold medals?

The good news is that sporting success is not down to genetics or any natural or racial predisposition, so really anyone has a shot. The Chinese have won medals in athletics and swimming, a Dutch gymnast won gold in London and the Americans and Japanese dominate women’s football. Athletics medals in London were distributed among 41 countries—including the javelin gold to Trinidad and Tobago’s Keshorn Walcott, who grew up practising with bamboo sticks on his neighbourhood beach.

So we’re all fired up, we’ve got the adrenalin pumping, neurons wired, lactic acid in reserve. Hang on. Sport is not as closed a club as we think it to be, but there are rules of membership, a vetting process that requires us to first answer a few questions—of ourselves, of our own appetite for the game, the depth of our desire, the limits to which we are, all of us, willing to go. Because it takes more than a handful of athletes to produce winners; it takes a nation. All these years we’ve celebrated with these winners; now we have to run the race with them.

The stars: India’s 2012 Olympics medal winners (from left) Vijay Kumar, M.C. Mary Kom, Gagan Narang, Saina Nehwal, Yogeshwar Dutt and Sushil Kumar. Photo: Manish Swarup/AP

First, why do we want this? Will it change the way we are? Conventional wisdom and consensus opinion suggest that winning more Olympic golds will boost our self-confidence, change us as a nation. I’m not so sure; has winning the cricket World Cup twice had an impact beyond the sport? Indians have won five World Chess Championships, 22 tennis doubles Grand Slams, innumerable world titles in cue sports, shooting and boxing, and we have the world’s No. 1 ranked woman archer. But it didn’t really affect us (except perhaps for the tennis) because those wins were not on TV, they were not sexed up with HD broadcast and smooth commentary that made things easy for us. For the athlete, winning is everything; for us, it is merely a suspension of reality, similar to the escapism of a 3-hour Bollywood movie. Yes we will celebrate (we love celebrating) but there’s no takeaway. Not in one or two generations.

Are we willing to change our lifestyle? Sporting success is not about the 11 or 15 or 22 people who go out to play, nor even the dozens who have directly or indirectly coached them or taken them to where they are. As Eric Liddell said in Chariots of Fire: “Where does it come from? It comes from within." Sport has to be an organic process, where the medal winners don’t lift and hold up a nation but are instead pushed up by the heaving grass-roots. The US is not at the top of the pole because of one generation’s achievements; it is because sport—in its simplest form, physical development—has been organic to the nation’s culture for decades, if not centuries. So are we prepared to engage with sport, to integrate it into our curriculum, to allow our children as much time on the field as at their desks? Will we risk our middle-class dreams—or will we pass the responsibility of sporting excellence on to someone else’s children?

Are we willing to spend? Olympic medals cost money—big money. The top seven on the London medals table were: US, China, UK, Russia, South Korea, Germany and France—countries with a long or, in the Korean case, strong, sporting track record. They spent more than £400 million, or around 3,504 crore (Team GB raked in the medals at London but each medal cost them more than £4.5 million), on Olympic prospects in the four years prior to London 2012, of which approximately £100 million was on the four core sports of athletics, rowing, cycling and sailing. It was paisa vasool (worth it) in the end, with those four sports returning an astonishing 17 gold medals (32 overall)—but it’s a lot of spare paise; can India afford that? The Union government sanctioned $48 million (around 266 crore) for Olympic training approximately a year and a half before the Games. It needs massive subsidizing by the corporate sector, far more than the Tatas, Mittals and Ambanis do now—Union sports minister Ajay Maken put it best when he said India’s corporate houses need to do more sport-building as opposed to brand-building. But will they do it where the returns are not guaranteed?

Which begs this question: Can we deal with failure? Success is never guaranteed in sport and the true test of a sporting culture is to take triumph and disaster (especially the latter) in its stride. We must expect the world of our athletes, but shrug it off when they don’t deliver. It’s not the public’s job to sit in judgement, there are experts for that; our job is to make sure we root for them the next time they perform.

Finally, are we willing to face, and tell, the truth? This involves facing up to realities—when you lose, accept defeat. Do not go looking for excuses. Most of our defeats in individual sports in London were accompanied by excuses—wind, weather and, in contact sports, biased refereeing. We also need the media to be reporting in greater depth, with greater accuracy and without spin. Wrestling, boxing and shooting can’t be on our pages once every two or four years; these sports need the oxygen of publicity, and only by being more in the public gaze will the public get to understand them. The media has to be objective, factual and informed—how else can it expect the public to be so?

Sporting success is not in itself a stepping stone to, nor a measure of, a society’s greatness. A dozen Olympic golds make for a dozen heroes, and their backroom staff; it won’t make us great. Seven golds won’t make Kazakhstan the world’s most liberal, livable place, and all of China’s stunning success in the past couple of decades hasn’t turned it into a Shangri-La. Sport can’t fill stomachs but filled stomachs can foster sport.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.

Write to Jayaditya at extratime@livemint.com

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