Let us use sports to build national character

Indian athletes will get Olympic medals when bureaucrats and politicians get the boot
Voices Opinion Tuesday, August 09, 2016 - 14:54

From the bottom of my heart I hope when the magnificent Indian gymnast Dipa Karmakar returns home from Rio, we don’t hang clothes on her and make her walk the ramp. That would be grave injustice to the lady whose road from Agartala to Rio is already the stuff of legends. We need to leave her alone to chart her next course of action in the quiet and solitude of people she trusts.

See her story beautifully captured by India Today here. 

I dare to think that her heart must have been a key compass. You don’t get to these heights without unimaginable sacrifices, focus, humility and passion, especially in India, and especially if you are a woman.

In a country where children are packed like sardines in academic pressure cookers and wanting to pursue sports as a career is still seen as a momentary pastime, Karmakar’s achievement is three times gold. None other than one of the greats of gymnastics Nadia Comaneci applauded her work while back home India’s G-37 were commenting on her faulty landing as if it were a rarity – shame on us.

Key roadblocks on India’s way to sporting glory have always been the same, now more petrified and desperate with age and incompetence. High on this list are corrupt and venal bureaucrats and politicians, blatant nepotism, servile and slavish committees.

The new vultures on the block are PR companies. As there will always be an uncle on the committee, over-ambitious parents pushing untalented children complete the circle of failure. It is not for nothing that the Lausanne (Switzerland)-based International Olympic Committee (IOC) had banned India for alleged corrupt practices in 2012.

In a first-ever, the ban was lifted during the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 in time for our athletes Himanshu Thakur, Shiva Keshavan and Nadeem Iqbal to participate. Imagine the stress and mental agony they went through. And how can we forget the Commonwealth Games, that bottomless pool of money and greed which served as a watering hole for all except athletes.

Most athletes heading to the games at all levels including the Olympics fearing daunting competition. Indian athletes carry an extra burden - they live and travel in the perpetual fear of competitive corruption from amongst their own and all around from a merciless and decrepit system.

Wrestler Narsingh Yadav accused of doping only to find that he was allegedly ‘fixed by’ a fellow Indian is a case in point. Instead of being able to focus on the fine points on the eve of Rio he was battling corruption and bureaucracy. After all this, think of what our athletes go through when they arrive in the Olympic village and see the kind of facilities, technology, doctors and therapists their competitors have.  I have said this often and will repeat it till I am blue in the face – nobody lets India and Indians down more than Indians.

We can break this and we can use sports as one track to build the woefully missing element in India called national character the touchstone for which is team spirit. This means ego out, talent in and may the best win. This means us, before me. This means the government is not doing athletes a favour – it is the other way around. Imagine if we trained children of our fisher-folk to become Olympic swimmers? Or if we took children who perform incredible body contortions while we wait in traffic signals and train them professionally with the best in the world.

How many natural gymnasts and swimmers would we unleash on the world? Track and field and swimming, beach volley, for example, football, do not require enormous investments in the early stages of talent-spotting. To unleash this force on the world, we need to destroy current structures – there is no other way forward. We have to learn to see others' success and blossom. We have to accept that the cleaning lady’s child could be a potential Olympic sportsperson. Most Olympians are regular people, from regular homes -  there are no lifelong gravy trains for them. 

A member of my European family is an Olympian. He's now in some other business. My late father played Ranji Trophy and was one of the top sportspeople in Holkar College Indore. The Maharaja wanted him as a close associate, but he went on to pursue other work. I have worked with Ferrari in Maranello (Italy) and on the tracks, interacting with the F1 greats - almost all of them have moved on when appropriate.

Knowing when to leave is one of the greatest things sports teaches you. Since Indian politicians hang on to their spots in sporting organisations by hook or by crook, booting them out will be a very healthy exercise. 

Children who swim for livelihoods can certainly swim for a medal for a country. I have always marvelled at the fish-like prowess and stamina of children who live along India's vast coastlines - here's a ready talent pool. 

Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee who some two years ago was swimming to save her life and others in the Mediterranean won the opening heats of the 100-metres butterfly at Rio. She made international headlines. Mardini will have another chance to advance to the medal round when she swims the women’s 100-metre free style today. In my book the lady is already a winner – the podium can go for a swim. This is the Olympic spirit - upwards against all real odds, not manufactured ones that fly first class and sit on committees and parliaments. 

Think about it this way - the very fact of going through daily life in India prepares us for competition, for survival under extreme conditions. Those who thrive in India’s ruthless conditions may also be home to the country’s most talented. We need to find them nurture them, train them and send them to the world’s best training centres – then we will be talking and winning. And we may even have grown some national character as a corollary. Game?

Postscript:  Among the first stories I did from Switzerland was a bid for one of the games at the IOC. I skip which one because it can serve to identify the Indians I am referring to. While officials from other countries were briefing journalists, interacting with experts, doctors, therapists trainers and nutritionists, our officials were going from stall to stall collecting gifts. Not one set to which they were entitled, but several to bring back for Bitto and Gunnu. 

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