The crores we are showering on our Olympic heroes is a sign not of our regard for them, but of our utter lack of interest in sport. Now PV Sindhu deserves every accolade and every reward, material and otherwise that she gets. As do Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar. For their achievement goes way beyond winning a medal or fighting valiantly; it is apparent to anyone that they, along with virtually professional athlete in the country, have worked against daunting odds in navigating the thicket of indifference that has become the trademark of sports officialdom in India.
And yet, without begrudging the athletes all the rewards that are coming their way, the fact that there appears to be such a competition to reward these winners after the event points to a deeper problem. At one level, it is heartening that there is such a positive feeling around athletes who have done their best, even if they have not won the medals we would have liked them to, for it shows that there is some appreciation for the spirit of sport. And yet, the fact that we show any interest whatsoever in our athletes only after the event, is the reason why we have such few reasons to celebrate.
The act of heaping rewards on winners has little to do with the athletes and everything to do with us. The rewards given to the winning athletes is the price we are putting on the interest we have designed to show to their efforts. And we have done so only because of our need to feel good about ourselves. The crores that are being showered on these winners today stand out in sharp contrast to the kind of money that is usually available to develop the sport in a more meaningful way. Far from showing an interest in sports, it does the opposite; it shows an almost feudal mindset that showers ‘baksheesh’ on those that please us at the moment. Our interest in our athletes is fleeting and contingent; we fluctuate between utter disinterest and fanatical worship. We either ignore every injustice that is done to our athletes as they toil away in terrible conditions or rain down riches on them when they meet some need of ours.
When Mary Kom won gold, she was vaulted from obscurity (in spite of having been a World Champion earlier) into stardom. And yet, after all, has been said and done, women’s boxing has not gained anything very substantial thanks to this blaze of coverage and exposure. Most of us would be hard put to name a female boxer, let alone have displayed any further interest in the sport.
Whenever the question of India’s poor performance in sport arises, and it does so unfailingly every four years, fingers are pointed at the state of sports administration in the country. For a very good reason. Much has been said on the subject and much more needs to be said and done about it. The sport has historically been low in the priority of successive governments and Vijay Goel’s clueless antics in Rio while aggravating, are part of a long-running narrative.
However easy it is to attribute India’s shoddy performance to the administration, the reality is that the administrators merely reflect and perhaps amplify a larger indifference that exists in society. And the truth there is that while we want winners, we don’t much care for sportspersons. In a larger sense, the market for outcomes is large and well developed but the market for input and process is virtually non-existent. This is the reason why the extremely passionate demand for sporting achievement does not get translated into action.
In this case, our patriotic fervor needed an address, and we supported any athlete with the slightest chance of winning a medal with great passion. We were uncharacteristically gracious even when those we supported lost, for we recognized that the athletes involved worked against great odds. But the desire to come back from the Olympics with some dignity intact, however strong it might be, is no substitute for a real interest in the sport.
Like Mary Kom, there is every likelihood, that in the case of Dipa Karmakar and Sakshi Malik, in particular, the plaudits and other rewards that they receive today, will do little for Gymnastics and Wrestling respectively. PV Sindhu’s case might be a little different, if only because Badminton as a sport, has always enjoyed some following in the country.
It is telling that even when it comes to cricket, our interest in the sport has a lot to do with the fact we are good at the game. It helps of course, that only 8 countries play this sport at a competitive level, so being world champions in cricket is not quite the same thing as coming in 4th in Gymnastics. Whenever the team starts slipping in terms of performance, our interest in cricket wanes and our support for Team India turns into carping and cruel criticism.
We need to support our athletes more consistently and we need to do so by following sport consistently. Of course, the Olympics are special, but till we start giving sport some attention on a more regular basis, there will be little reason for the administration to change its ways. The little banana republics called sports federations, each with its tinpot despot, will continue to thrive in benevolent obscurity. As it turns out, it is a good time for sports bodies too, to take a hard look at themselves for this a moment of real opportunity. If they get their act together, there is a real possibility that some of the patriotic passion we have seen in the last few days will translate into more lasting support for sports other than cricket. A start has been made and regardless of the somewhat self-serving reasons that drive it, there is a glimmer of an opportunity to change the script that has bedeviled Indian sport for so long.