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Overnight, Dipa Karmakar, Sakshi Malik (in photo), PV Sindhu and Lalita Babar have become household names—as big as our cricket captain, Virat Kohli. Photo: Reuters
Overnight, Dipa Karmakar, Sakshi Malik (in photo), PV Sindhu and Lalita Babar have become household names—as big as our cricket captain, Virat Kohli. Photo: Reuters

Once upon a time, there was cricket

Rio Olympics marks a defining moment for Indian sports: the beginning of the end of cricket's hegemony

The curtain on the Rio Olympics will be formally rung down on Sunday. But not before breaking several glass ceilings. It is not just about the outstanding performance from the women in the Indian contingent (it is rapidly becoming a way of life after India began rebalancing gender relations); neither is it about the god-like ability of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt to transcend physical barriers and stay on top of their game; not just in one but, incredibly, three Olympics (in the case of Phelps it is even longer).

Instead, from the Indian point of view, it is of the ability of sports, other than cricket (the informal religion binding all Indians), to entertain and obsess us for the last three weeks. Overnight, Dipa Karmakar, gymnast from Tripura; Sakshi Malik, the wrestler from Haryana; P.V. Sindhu, the shuttler from Hyderabad, and Lalita Babar, long-distance runner from Maharashtra, became household names—as big as our much-loved cricket captain, Virat Kohli.

This is huge. Actually, a defining moment for Indian sports: the beginning of the end of cricket’s hegemony. The politics of sports is being redefined as games with mass following—such as athletics, swimming, tennis, badminton, gymnastics, football, hockey (a comeback, actually) and so on—begin to attract eyeballs.

Unlike cricket, most of these sports are not restricted to a few nations and, hence, a global contest is for real. If indeed this trend does pan out, then Indian sport is set for a major overhaul—with a wider base and global medal winning talent as we have discovered in badminton and wrestling is inevitable.

Last week, a colleague wrote a piece, on this phenomenon, while reacting to an argument that all other sport is ignored because India won the cricket World Cup in 1983, largely due to the heroics (by taking the spectacular catch of Vivian Richards at a key point in the final) of its captain Kapil Dev.

I would flip this and argue that the history of sports, other than cricket, would have been less unfavourable, if in the following year, P.T. Usha, had not lost out on the Olympics bronze medal in the 400m hurdles by a hair’s breath. Even her near success inspired many budding runners, but the impact would have been fundamentally different if she had made it to the winner’s podium.

Breaking a glass ceiling—believing that ‘yes we can’—is one thing, but to convert this into a trend is another. The self-belief of India’s athletes is unbelievable, as it comes against tremendous odds. For women, they have to, especially in Haryana, overcome social odds; this is over and above the hoops—lack of infrastructure, callous administrators, poor diet, among a few examples—that athletes have to jump through to become world class. The good news is, albeit slowly, an enabling environment is falling in place.

ALSO READ | Why Indian women’s Olympic feats are even more admirable

Luckily for us, social media tools have become a great vehicle to mobilize public opinion, both in favour of the athletes and in calling out errant administrators (as it happened in the Rio Olympics). Further, the commercialization of sport (thanks to broadcast television) is infusing some funds into sports other than cricket. India has talent, but it will take more than just money to monetize these into medals at a world stage. As a nation, we have to undergo a change in mindset.

Politicians have always been associated with sport. Understandable, as it is a perfect vehicle to offer patronage to youth and also further their political careers. But, over time, they have reduced sports bodies in the country to personal fiefdoms and, sometimes, even engaged in wanton corruption; this has to cease. Whatever achievements our sportspersons have managed so far is despite these handicaps. Imagine what is possible once they get a conducive environment.

In the final analysis, it is clear that Indian sport is on a cusp. The future is what we make of it. Till then, it is comforting to know, like Dilip D’Souza wrote in Mint On Sunday, that India has, besides two medals, several world-class athletes: among seven billion people in the world, it has the second best women’s badminton player, the third best wrestler, the fourth best gymnast, the 10th best 3,000m steeplechase runner, the 17th best rower...

Seen this way, it is probably India’s best Olympic performance ever; and, presumably, the beginning of a new era for Indian sport.

Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus

Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com

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