Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

How many Dutee Chands have we lost?

Sporting dreams are often nipped in the bud in India due to elusive access to athletic facilities

The title of my last column was something of a misnomer. It asked “Why don’t Indians do well in track and field at the Olympics?"—but instead of answering the question, the column examined the gap between Indian athletic records and world marks. (A substantial gap, as it happens.)

Why this gap exists—and thus why Indians don’t do well in track and indeed many sports—is a hard question. But I have always wanted to attempt an answer, and a few responses to that column also suggested—some rather sternly—that I attempt one.

There are explanations offered, of course. Like: The Indian physique is not conducive to feats of athleticism. Or our diet leaves us weak and stunted compared to the rest of the world. Or there’s corruption in our athletic federations, politics in the way they are run. Or our lack of training facilities. Or... there are more reasons, I’m sure.

To some extent, all these have elements of truth. For example, compare the athletic facilities you will find at an ordinary university in the US to those you will find at an ordinary university in India. There is no comparison, really. Pretty much every American university has large open fields and equipment available for almost any sport you care to pursue. In India, only the more elite of our institutions—Manipal, the IITs and BITS, etc.—offer their students something akin to that level of access.

But the explanations are also belied in different ways.

Physique? Even if we accept that the average Indian is an unathletic weakling, in a country of 1.3 billion, the strong and fit outliers must number in several millions at least.

Diet? Much the same applies: statistically, there must be plenty of Indians who eat and remain healthy.

Even just this pool of potentially athletic Indians probably exceeds the populations of many smaller countries—pick just Morocco, New Zealand and Cuba—that have produced Olympic track and field champions. That is, going by the numbers alone, these explanations don’t stand up.

What about politics and corruption? Certainly plausible, but again, they plague other countries and athletic federations too. (Think Fifa and Sepp Blatter.)

No, the more I think about it, the more I come to believe the real answer is a word that, going back many years, often runs through my mind—a word I tossed out two paragraphs ago.

In a word, “access".

Through the years I lived in the US, I played tennis every chance I got—often four or five times a week. Now, I had played tennis in India before moving abroad—but only while at college and at a management institute in Hyderabad where I had permission to play. Other than those, there were no courts I knew of where I could play the game regularly.

Naïvely, I expected much the same difficulty when I got to the US. To my amazement, I was totally wrong. Besides indoor and outdoor courts at university, I played on public courts the city maintained. There were such courts, I found, in every city I visited in that country—Dallas, Providence, Sunnyvale, Austin, Detroit and more. Besides those, the complexes where I rented apartments had their own courts too.

The same with basketball, once I got to playing it regularly: public-access courts everywhere. All across one of the more urbanized spots on the planet, New York City, you will find basketball courts open to everyone. For me, it’s one of the great joys of walking about there: turn a corner somewhere in Manhattan and you can stop to watch some tough, take-no-prisoners hoops. Even join in, if you think you can handle it.

Playing on courts like these is such a routine thing that I didn’t even think about it much. “Let’s play at the Caswell courts at 5," an Austin buddy would say, and I would turn up and we would hit for a couple of hours, and we would pay our one-dollar-an-hour fee and go home, pleasantly exhausted. The next evening, I would join some other friends for a basketball game, and that court was free.

That’s access for you: reasonable sports facilities available to pretty much anyone, anytime.

At some point while using them, I got to thinking, is easy access like this why the US manages to produce so many world-class athletes in so many sports? How good can you get at your chosen sport, after all, if you don’t need to belong to a club and pay stiff fees just to play; if there’s instead somewhere to play nearly any time you want, for a minimal cost?

Is this at least partly the reason for the rise to greatness of such American sports icons as Larry Bird and Serena Williams, Mia Hamm and Carl Lewis?

Whenever I think on these lines, the wistful nostalgia bubbles up—oddly enough, for a couple of parks near where I live in Mumbai. These used to be simply large, open spaces, available to all. On one of them, I have played boisterous games of cricket, as have many other groups of friends from the neighbourhood. On the other, I have watched gangs of kids play football innumerable times.

Until... about 15 years ago, for whatever reason, the municipality turned over care of the second park to a private organization. They promptly laid paths and built a gazebo and put up a board with daunting rules and hung a lock on the gate and generally “beautified" the park to the point that no kids can think of running around without a care, let alone playing football.

And the first park? Its owners have built a club there now. Very nice, pleasantly manicured and everything, but what’s left of the open space is hardly in use to the extent it used to be. It’s been years since the last of those boisterous games of cricket.

The question nags as I walk past the parks: with access so difficult, so often taken away, how many Virat Kohlis and Dutee Chands and Baichung Bhutias have we lost?

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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