By the time Michael Phelps finished at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics, having come out of retirement, he had grabbed five gold medals. This was one short of the six India has won in 70 years since Independence.
But put the swimmer’s four Olympics together, since Athens 2004, and he has 28 medals, including 23 gold. India has 23 medals in total since 1948.
This comparison was cited often after India bagged a disappointing two medals in Rio, a slide since London 2012 when it won—by its standards, a record—six medals.
The low numbers begin to numb after a point when seen in the context of India’s overall size and population (we have the lowest number of medals per capita). India has never played the football World Cup, has won a single individual gold medal at the Olympics and has had only a handful of people ranked No.1 in their sport. The country’s only worthwhile success has come in a sport played by a dozen nations.
When marking the country’s sporting achievements since Independence, the accomplishments seem limited considering all disciplines except cricket—Olympic sports and others like chess, squash, racing etc. In many, participation has been as credit-worthy, leave aside winning anything. Gymnast Dipa Karmarkar, who finished fourth in the vault at Rio, and Dipika Pallikal, who got into the top 10 ranking in women’s squash in 2012, were significant achievements for Indian sportswomen. Yet—and cruelly so—they were no landmarks in the world of sport.
But why is India so poor at sports? Football is a craze in Bengal, Goa and Kerala, then why is the Indian football team ranked No.97 in the world?
Over the years, experts and fans have offered several reasons to explain our lack of success: genetic characteristics, poverty (therefore lack of nutrition), social stratification and an absence of sporting culture.
Genetic characteristics are used to explain why we do well in sports that do not require high athletic ability, speed and strength. Like cricket, billiards, chess, archery, shooting and tennis doubles (as opposed to singles which requires the entire court to be covered). But the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese share relatively the same height and physicality as Indians—China won 27 gold medals in Rio.
If poverty were the reason, then it becomes difficult to explain the success of nations like Jamaica (11 medals in Rio, for example, and Usain Bolt), Ethiopia (8) and Kenya (14) in athletics.
Sporting culture justifies it to an extent. For generations, Indians have felt the need to focus on academics as their ticket to a better life. Many schools and colleges do not have sports programmes, grounds or facilities.
Politics, administration and corruption have played a role too in robbing aspiring athletes of their due and leaving them to despair. Scandals, scams and abuse of power have diminished several associations.
But there are reasons why we are collectively feeling optimistic post London 2012. A bunch of non-governmental organisations are trying (and succeeding) to fill the gaps that administrations have left behind, in providing access and funds to promising athletes.
Thanks to the likes of Suresh Kalmadi and N. Srinivasan, the courts have stepped in to clean up sports administration, though we don’t know how this will turn out.
There is a change in mindset too. Parents are now able to allow their children to focus on sports, believing it to be a genuine career choice.
Accomplished champions are investing in nurturing talent. Be it Geet Sethi, Viswanathan Anand, Prakash Padukone or P. Gopi Chand, they are bringing their star appeal and expertise to back their chosen sport.
Leagues have proliferated across sporting disciplines, which, if sustained and successful, are bound to create talent pools in the years to come, besides being lucrative.
The growth and explosion of cricket, since the 1983 World Cup, through the business acumen of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and thanks to the marketability of Sachin Tendulkar and M.S. Dhoni, among others, has seen the sport grow in small towns.
Class and caste distinctions are less visible in cities, making sport more widely accessible.
India’s growing economic strength is helping too—corporate giants as well as new entrepreneurs are investing money and technology in sports businesses. The under-17 football World Cup to be held in October will, hopefully, further strengthen India as a destination for world-class sport.
The collective disappointment after Rio is a sign, as is India’s 3-0 victory in a Test series last week in Sri Lanka. The modern generation is arrogant, considers itself equal to the rest of the world, does not like finishing second best and will probably not celebrate the gallant loser as devotedly as previous generations did.