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Olympics: Running on empty, full steam ahead


CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

Has the quadrennial caterwauling, which is a knotty way of saying "whining every four years, " stopped? If so, here's my two cents (or Rs 1. 10) on why India wins so few medals in Olympic/International sports: All of the above. Which is to say you take all the answers, opinions, analyses that talking heads, administrators, and sundry experts offer, lay them out in multiple answer format, and tick "all of the above. "

Lack of sports culture, poor infrastructure, poverty and the different priorities it engenders, small physical stature compounded by poor nutrition, not being abreast of sports medicine and sports psychology, too much government interference, too little government support, insufficient corporate sponsorship, singlesport obsession with cricket, and acceptance of average as excellence. Add them all up and you have the answer.

Taken individually though, none of the answers stand up to scrutiny. It is not necessarily true that only wealthy nations with good infrastructure win medals. Jamaica won 12 medals (including four gold), and on a per capita basis, stood second in the medals chart with one medal per 225, 000 people (India was last with one medal for 200 million people). Jamaica stands 116th in GDP terms (India is 10th) and at 89th in per capita (India at 140th). It is, like India, a poor country. Besides, countries even lower down in the per capita/GDP list, such as Kyrgyzstan, Uganda, and Ethiopia, won more than India on a medal per population basis.

Some will argue that black people are better endowed physically than Indians. Then what explains the success of Turkey, whose women won their first athletic medals in London, or Mongolia, which has consistently won medals in boxing, wrestling, and judo. How about Kazakhstan, which won 13 medals, including 7 Gold? Besides, aren't Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda better known than India for their hunger, war and disease?

Then there is the theory that most athletes from the Caribbean and East Africa train mostly in the US and Europe. Not true. Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, and Asafa.

Powell are very much products of the Jamaican system, and train in Kingston. In fact, many American colleges offered Bolt athletic scholarships, but he refused them all, preferring to stay in Jamaica.

Nor is it true that coaches need state of the art, cutting edge technologies for their wards to bring medals. Sure it helps. But in many cases, it's all about inspiration and perspiration. Sentayehu Eshetu, Ethiopia's legendary running guru, who has trained the country's greatest runners, says he has no magic wand or formula. He himself never ran. All he does is lay down a tough regimen and inspire his wards to stick to it. Hunger and burning ambition does the rest.

Of course, there's help from the two "B"s. Most of the training takes place in town called Bekoji, which is some 10, 000 feet above sea level and the air is thin (" if you can run in Bekoji you can run anywhere" ) and he feeds his runners plenty of barley. Hey, but we got barley and we got plenty of Bekojis along the Himalayan range. And we have hunger. So then why not?

Our 800m national record is 36 years old (Sriram Singh at Montreal Olympics in 1:45:77); our marathon record is 34 years old (Shivnath Singh at 2 hrs 12 mins in 1978). Gopal Saini's 3000m steeplechase national record of 8:30:88 from 1981 remains untouched after 31 years. Women have done better, but PT Usha's 400m hurdles performance at LA Olympics is yet to be equaled. Is it possible that post-liberalisation we chased gold in the marketplace rather than gold in sports?

Winning is the result of sporting legacy and bequest. It is a habit. Once a country produces a champion or two (in a freak occurrence or planned manner) and starts winning in a particular discipline (swimming, running, boxing, wrestling, anything) it generates interest. If infrastructure and money follow, the medals start rolling in. It has happened to East African countries in running, Caribbean nations in sprints, Central Asian nations in wrestling etc. So can we expect the modest exploits of the Haryana hulks or Manipuri mems to spark off a medal glut?

There is more to sporting eco-system than one-off winners. To produce more than the occasional champion and dominate the sport like the Americans do in swimming and the Russians and Chinese in gymnastics, requires sustained wins for a decade or more. Prakash Padukone's and Vijay Amritraj's consistent presence in world badminton and tennis bequeathed us a modest legacy in these sports, as did Milkha Singh's exploits in the 1960s. If you lose the thread of success - like Pakistan did in squash - you lose the legacy. Wonder why no Indian has run a sub-10 sec 100 meters?

Rio will almost certainly bump up the London tally. But it will be a few more Olympics before we get anywhere near South Korea and Kazakhstan, let alone China and the United States.

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