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Miles away from Champions' League
One gold, two silver and four bronze. Take away the hockey medals and that's our combined haul at the Olympics. What hope do we have of being a first-rate sporting nation?
Two different interactions, one in 1920 and the other in 1992, best answer the question, "Why isn't India a first-rate sporting nation?" At the first athletic meet organised by the Deccan Gymkhana in 1920, Sir Dorabji Tata, president of the association, found that the competitors were "all boys of the peasant class working in the fields and living off poor fare..." Naturally, they had no idea of European game rules or modern training of any kind. On attending a meeting of the Gymkhana, Dorabji found that they were proposing to run their 100-yard heats round a bend without strings. To the peasants, running was running, and they had little idea of what was required to participate in the Olympics or of the standard of performance essential to qualify for any of the events.
For instance, a key member of the Gymkhana, when asked what time he thought was standard for a 100-yard race replied that it could be anything "from half a minute to a minute". He was "astounded" when told that it was not a matter of minutes but one of tenths of seconds.
Exactly 72 years later, just after he was eliminated in the second round of the Barcelona Olympics, a crestfallen Limba Ram, India's best medal hope at the 1992 Games, had pleaded, "Please organise the competition once again and I can promise you I will beat my opponent. "
Failing to sensitise Indian athletes to the pressures of the big stage, a result of not having a proper sporting culture, and the by-product of a deeply politicised sports establishment with little accountability demanded of the men at the top, ensures that India continues to languish at the bottom of the world sports heap with just a solitary individual gold to show for 88 years of participation at the Olympic Games. India's sporting scene is in crying need of an overhaul and unless the government, national federations, Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and corporations come forward and embrace Olympic sport, the outlook for sport in India will continue to look bleak.
Such an expectation is actually an illusion, thanks to the deeply politicised nature of India's sporting officialdom. Virtually every sporting body is controlled by a politician or a bureaucrat, and once entrenched, most manage to stay on for years, if not for decades. The list is long: Congress MP Suresh Kalmadi, president of the IOA for over a decade;BJP MP VK Malhotra, president of the Archery Federation for more than three decades;and former Congress MP K P Singh Deo, president of the Rowing Federation for 24 years. In addition, BJP leader Yashwant Sinha has been running the Tennis Federation since 2000, V K Verma has been in charge of badminton since 1998, and the INLD's Ajay Chautala has been charged with table tennis administration since 2001.
This is apart from the complete dominance of cricket bodies by politicians. To name just a few, the NCP's Sharad Pawar is head of the MCA;the BJP's Arun Jaitely runs the Delhi Cricket Association;Narendra Modi heads the Gujarat Cricket Association;and National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah is in charge of Jammu and Kashmir cricket. It is just that, despite being in the grip of political interference, cricket has exploited the new economy of television better and thus has emerged as the preeminent Indian game.
After Independence, as Nehruvian India grappled with the challenges of welding together a polyglot nation-state, many princes sought to integrate themselves with sports governance. Deprived of their kingdoms, the princes saw sport as one of the few arenas of power and social capital still open to them. This, for instance, is why Patiala continued its pre-Independence patronage of the Olympic spirit with an even greater vengeance and the house of Patiala has had an almost permanent presence in the higher structures of the IOA since 1947. Patiala scion Randhir Singh continues to be India's International Olympics Committee (IOC) member and secretary general of the IOA.
As the politician emerged as the pre-eminent dispenser of favours within the license-permit raj, his gaze shifted towards the sporting arena - viewed as yet another virgin territory of power and patronage. In line with the changing equations of democratic India, powerful and ambitious politicians cutting across the spectrum gradually managed to usurp control over sporting bodies. V K Malhotra summed up the phenomenon best in 2004: "Being a politician helps in getting things done. . . It's easier to organise sponsors and get clearances from government since we are influential. "
However, that the people at the helm aren't always efficient enough is borne out by the incident that took place after Vijender Singh had won India's first ever medal at the World Boxing Championships in Milan in 2009. As is the norm in world championships, the official photographer called Vijender for a photograph with his teammates soon after his bout. Five boxers posed for the camera, each in different attire. When prodded to wear the official Indian jersey, the organisers, to their astonishment, were told that the Indian boxing contingent for the world championships had not been given an official blazer by the national federation.
Vijender's tryst with officialdom does not end here. Here's what he revealed at a panel discussion at the India Habitat Center on March 29, 2010: "Before the Beijing Games, I had applied to the federation for a grant to train abroad. After I had returned from Beijing where I had won a medal for the country, I received a response stating that my request had been granted! Only 16 months had elapsed in the interim."
It is the long-term secretary or the all-powerful president, more often than not a politician, who is at the crux of the problem of India's sporting failure. With Indian sporting bodies operating in splendid isolation, as private bodies answerable only to the rules and strictures of the global bodies they are affiliated with, the government often finds it impossible to intervene, a problem further compounded by the strict mandate of the Olympic charter, which militates against any form of governmental intervention.
Are we then condemned to a sporting system that will remain locked in place forever with no hope for change? Will India ever be at the forefront of the global sports scene? Perhaps not. The wider forces driving Indian society - the media and the economic incentives of liberalisation - do exert some push and pull. Change, though not easy, is still probable. Sport, after all, is only a mirror that reflects the deeper imprint of a society.
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