P.V. Sindhu has made every front page today, courtesy her silver medal at the Rio Olympic Games. She will probably make a Sports page headline tomorrow as well. The day after, she will find space in a corner with other statistics. Two days after that, she will find no mention, right up to the point when she wins her next tournament.
The problem with finding backing in Indian sport is this – the average Indian looks at the Rio Olympics as nothing more than TV entertainment. The occasional Indian medal-winner is glorified, deservedly so, but none of that momentum translates into nurturing our next set of winners. How many of us actually care about any Olympic sport in the four-year interludes? Do we as the common masses find too many instances where youngsters are encouraged to follow sport and make a career out of it? We are so engrossed in the plastic praise of a medallist that we do not care about inclusivity of sport in general.
The chicken-and-egg conundrum is true – winning is facilitated by infrastructure, yet infrastructure crops up only when a sport produces winners. What we need today is a dedicated governing body of officials and trainers to supplement our dedicated athletes. Athletes need funding, support staff and amenities in order to compete with the best in the world. When we completely negate their requirements and only place expectations, the process is bound to fail. Take team Great Britain, for instance. A friend of mine remarked that GBR spent £5.5 million per gold medal, and so I went back and checked. Turns out, not only is that true, but two-thirds of the entire UK Sport budget goes to specially selected 14 – 25 year olds – preparing winners of the next decade. They also have a policy of backing the winning sport and not just the winner – which means that if a British national wins a gold in Cycling, the entire sport of cycling is allocated a higher budget, thus allowing youngsters inspired by the medallist to have access to better facilities.
One can argue that India perhaps cannot afford to follow the UK model based simply on the money available for Indian sport. What we can do, however, is make the money available more efficiently, as Britain has been doing, and the results are there for all to see – they have come up from finishing 36th in Atlanta 1996 to current 2nd place holders at Rio 2016.
Then comes the lethargy of the sport enthusiast. With all the razzmatazz that surrounds Indian cricket, nobody really cares about people doing consistently well in other sports. Leave alone the lesser known sports, how many people have followed the careers of the London 2012 medal winners in the past four years? Saina Nehwal may be one exception as she has managed to somewhat galvanize the country’s interests. Sushil Kumar’s name only comes up once every four years, even though the man has been a top performer throughout. The same is the case with Abhinav Bindra. How about the Indian Hockey Team, the one which has taken giant progressive strides in recent years? Does Leander Paes get the level of recognition he deserves even after years and years of winning the most prestigious trophies in tennis? Did anybody know of Sakshi Malik before she won the bronze medal? How about Dipa Karmakar? Will we remember her two years from now? Will we back Deepika Kumari despite her poor showing at Rio 2016?
The talent and dedication of Indian athletes is beyond question. These men and women face countless hardships just to find their way to the coveted Olympic stage. Then, we create mini-celebrities of the winners for some time before they are cast aside when latest news brings in something more sensational. This sporadic interest is what kills sporting talent in India, just as much as a government that does not seem to strive for excellence and a body that provides more funding to officials for tourism purposes than to the athletes who are fighting for glory.
In an age where the success of a sportsperson is apparently determined by the number of TV Commercials she is signed for, Indian Olympic performances are staring at a dark future. We look at our medal winners as glorious stories, we cherish them, but we make no effort to take their place. We seem to take for granted that the road to the medal must necessarily be strewn with financial ignominy, below-par facilities, shameful conduct of officials and ultimately an underdog story that we can talk of for a week.
It is time we wake up to the fact that we cannot afford to deprive our talent pool and still hope for improvement. Maybe it is still not too late for the Indian sport ministry to devise a plan that puts India on the map in Tokyo 2020 – because for a country of 125 crore blessed with amazing talent, charting 64th on the Olympic Medal Tally simply isn’t good enough.