Home / Opinion / Columns /  Our Olympic team vests say 'India'. It should be prefixed with ‘despite’

A blatant lie is on the vests of some Olympians in Tokyo. It reads “India". It should actually read “Despite India". The very existence of Indian athletes of global calibre is not because of India, but in spite of India. That is why I plan to form an Olympic bloc called ‘Despite India’.

Russia, banned from the Olympics for its state-sponsored doping programmes, is allowed to compete as ROC, which stands for ‘Russian Olympic Committee’ (but the full form is not recognized because the word ‘Russia’ is banned at the Olympics for now). Citing this as a precedent, I hope to persuade the International Olympic Committee to allow me to raise a team called ‘DI’.

The Olympics often reverberate with the lies of nations. That is what anthems usually are. The typical anthem is a very bad poem written by a poet who was friends with the strongman of his times who had the power to pick a national song. No wonder anthems are generally low-brow cliches about the greatness and goodness of a group of people. The anthem of ‘Despite India’ will be different—it will be an honest song, rendered as an angry rap about a nation that is cruel to the poor, which has no facilities for children to play competitive games, whose stadiums are mostly torturous structures where the experience of watching sports is among the worst in the world, where most towns have no modern training of athletes, scientific advice or healthcare. A nation that offers nothing much to its athletes but is dominated by a lumbering elite and middle class hungry for sporting pride.

There is justice in the Olympics. The world works very hard and spends billions of dollars to humiliate the Indian middle-class once every four years. As the games proceed, people divide India’s population by the number of the medals it has won; they mention the size of tiny nations that have performed better; and they remember the fact that India has never hosted the Olympics.

A sporting talent is an immense burden for the person who has it. People who have any exceptional talent in any field are enslaved by it because they have to nurture it and attain their full potential, or they will forever be consumed by the bitterness of failure. That is why society is so important to the talented.

But then to be young in India and been talented in any sport other than cricket is among the great human misfortunes. The whole nation seems designed to treat every Indian as a poor person. Any comfort, even air-conditioning, is wrongly perceived by administrators as a luxury. If you have ever been on a school or college team, and participated in government-run competitions, you will know how gloomy the sports scene is.

Athletics and swimming meets, even in a city like Delhi, are impoverished, unhygienic and chaotic affairs. Even karate, which is relatively upscale, is run by a provincial bunch of middle-agers who seem to relish starting events many hours late.

The talented poor do not know that they deserve better; that it is very easy for their nation to organize meets that start on time, provide bottled water for every athlete, offer hotel accommodation instead of lodging contestants in unused railway compartments, offer shelters so that athletes don’t wait for their events in the hot sun, ensure that girls are not harassed and no one has to endure the petty politics of sports administrators who use sporting federations as spring-boards to low-rung politics.

Until recently, a typical humiliation that was in store for many female Indian athletes was the accusation that they were men. It would usually come as a shock to them because their testosterone levels were never tested at any point in their domestic careers as athletes. It was only once they started participating in major international competitions that they were tested. Today, such athletes are spared because of a global confusion over the definition of a woman, especially a female athlete, and a moratorium on gender tests in many sporting disciplines.

You may argue that things are better today for Indian athletes. True, but we should stop congratulating ourselves for minor feats. In any case, other nations, even middle-income nations, have progressed much faster than India.

Despite India’s poor assistance to athletes, they have to endure the expectations of the middle class that yearns for national pride. Every failure of Indian athletes evokes public anger. So we have one of the most unfit societies in the world, with a majority who cannot sprint 50 metres, filled with strong opinions about athletes who have reached the global stage despite the mediocrity of their politicians and administrators.

Indian nationalism is chiefly about the rich recruiting the poor to do the difficult job of making India proud. A few months ago, someone on social media identified a buffalo-racer named Srinivasa Gowda as India’s response to Usain Bolt. In buffalo racing, an athlete chases two reined buffaloes. Gowda was timed at covering the 142-metre stretch in 13.42 seconds. Some other people then did the math and declared he was a major sprinter. There was a frenzy. Politicians, too, celebrated him. He was invited to the national sprint trials. But Gowda was smart. He declined. He knew that the buffalos contributed to his pace. And he saved himself from becoming a transient spectacle created to entertain facile patriots.

However, many others who are more talented than Gowda in conventional sprints have to endure race trials, and some of them eventually get to wear that blue vest on which is printed a famous lie.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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