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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

What limits India’s Olympic medals to a trickle

Until India gets rid of its jugaad mindset and tackles the issues of sex ratio, hygiene and poverty, it will fail to produce Olympic champions

A college friend ran into Dipa Karmakar at the New Delhi airport and sent us all a picture of the two of them. This set off a passionate buzz of discussion about our Olympic results and future sporting prospects. No different, I’m sure, from similar discussions that must have happened in many other corners of the land.

In our case, some of us wondered how we can help improve our prospects for medals at future Olympic Games. Should we collect funds? If so, whom should we give the collection to—athletes like Sakshi Malik and P.V. Sindhu who have shown that they can win medals? Or athletes like Karmakar who are almost there? Or other athletes altogether, far from any Olympic limelight? Or sporting bodies?

Though about that last option, we college mates are hardly alone in nurturing a healthy cynicism about their motives and efficiency, leave it there. Apart from the difficulty of making such a choice, there was also the thought that whatever we might do would amount to a mere drop in a vast sporting desert. What difference would it make?

On top of that, there’s much easy talk that we lack a sporting “culture" or “ethos", and we should work to build one if we want better results. Sounds good, but what does it really mean? Do other countries have such an ethos? If so, how did they develop it? How will we know when we have one?

So, really—what will it take for India to start winning medals at the Olympic Games?

In an earlier column trying to answer that, I explored the idea of access. For today, four more thoughts about that question, just my thoughts, and in no particular order.

• Give up our fascination for the idea of “jugaad". In a way, it’s charming and useful to find quick fixes for problems. But as a more general rule, I don’t believe shortcuts help anyone. Instead, they nurture an attitude that anything goes, that mediocrity is OK. They only detract from the hard work and diligence that builds and sustains excellence.

And Olympic success will not come our way without such excellence. No, jugaad won’t get us there.

• Open our eyes to the way we treat our women, instead of hiding behind the hypocrisy that we actually worship them. Take just one indicator of this, the sex ratio. As others have pointed out, Malik comes from a state, Haryana, that has nearly the worst sex ratio in the country (879 women for every 1,000 men). What’s more, Haryana’s child sex ratio (CSR, 0-6 years old) is even lower—and is absolutely the worst in the country, 834. (Census figures from here.)

That dismal CSR suggests that Haryana’s overall sex ratio will only decline further in the years ahead. Will Malik’s success, achieved in spite of this tragic situation in her state, serve to spotlight it?

Nor is it just Haryana. India’s overall CSR has been steadily declining for years and is now at 919.

How do we hope to win plenty of Olympic medals if we consider half—well, sadly, a little less than half—of our population so poorly?

• Open your eyes, too, to the dirty, unhygienic conditions in which too many of us live. I don’t mean just residents of slums and the like—I mean pretty much every Indian.

Whether in our cities or in the beautiful hills of Himachal Pradesh, we live in a land that’s depressingly polluted in every way. You don’t have to go far to find enormous mounds of trash that people like you and I have flung out in the hope that somebody else—always somebody else—will clean up.

Two problems with all this. One is the belief that it isn’t my job to clean up. The second is the belief that I can fling stuff out in the first place. That willingness to evade responsibility, like the embrace of jugaad, only nurtures mediocrity.

But there’s also the effect on our health. Whether malaria or respiratory diseases, they thrive in the filth that surrounds us. How then can we consistently produce athletes who can compete with the best in the world, against other athletes who are not exposed to the same miasma day in and day out?

• Finally, address what I believe is our greatest scourge: poverty. It deprives plenty of Indians of access to sports. It stunts our growth in every way. It keeps our children unhealthy and hungry, which is why so many of them are underweight and malnourished.

Consider just these random indicators of hunger and malnourishment, and thus of poverty: Forty per cent of our kids under five are underweight (widely known, quoted for example in this 2013 paper). Hunger levels in our states, according to the 2008 India State Hunger Index, ranged from “serious" up to “extremely alarming". Nearly 200 million Indians are chronically hungry and thus undernourished.

Ask the question again: how will we consistently produce Olympic-level athletes if many of our fellow Indians are hungry and left out of our economic growth story?

Or if you like, turn the question around. How many more Olympic-class athletes—Sindhus and Maliks and Karmakars, yes, but also Phelpses and Bolts, Murrays and Felixes—would we produce if so many Indians were not written out of the equation to start with?

There’s our tragedy. We are one gigantic 1.3 billion-strong pool of potential athletes—well, perhaps now excluding folks like me. But various features of our country slice effectively and substantially at that number.

I will go out on a limb: Until we face those issues head-on, Olympic medals for Indians will come, if at all, in a trickle.

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

Read Dilip D’souza’s previous columns here.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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