July 26, 2012
These are not the happiest of times for the aam admi. A paralysed government, an obstructionist opposition, an economy in decline, a deficit monsoon, why even the humble tomato is selling at Rs. 60 per kg in some markets. Which is why the 2012 London Olympics could not have been better timed. If the ancient Olympics provided a welcome break from war, its modern avatar inspires hope and positivity. As the founder of the Olympic movement Baron Pierre De Coubertin famously remarked: “The Olympic Games are the quadrennial celebration of the springtime of humanity.”
But while the world soaks in the Olympic spirit, India’s role has been that of the enthusiastic spectator on the margins. Eight Olympic gold medals in hockey reflect a sepia-tinted nostalgia for another era. Four bronze, one silver and one gold in individual sport represent a pitiful tally for a billion-plus country. Why even tiny Jamaica, with a population equal to a Mumbai suburb, has claimed 55 Olympic medals since its independence in 1962.
All that could change in the next fortnight. Never before has an Indian contingent gone to an Olympic Games with such high expectations. When Rajyavardhan Rathore won a silver medal in Athens eight years ago, we were stunned. When Abhinav Bindra won a gold in Beijing, we were pleasantly surprised. This time, we will actually be disappointed if we don’t return from London with at least half a dozen medals. London 2012, in that sense, could be a tipping point for Indian Olympic sport, the moment when we emerge from years of celebrating mediocrity into striving for excellence.
What is responsible for this dramatic transformation? After all, the officials still are the same, even if mercifully fewer of them are going on a junket to the Games this time. Many federations are still run in the same autocratic, mai baap manner. The government still offers limited incentives for sport, the school system is still desperately short of playgrounds while the private sector remains obsessed with cricket. Truly if Indian Olympic sport is on the upward curve, it is despite the system, not because of it.
Olympic glory can be related to three competing worldviews. The first is the belief that sports represents the ultimate triumph of a ‘state’. In the Cold War years, the Soviets and the countries of the Communist bloc saw in the Olympics an opportunity to proclaim the supremacy of their ideology. Trained in the highly secretive and regimented world of communism, their athletic achievements were designed to prove the ‘superiority’ of a political system. What the Soviets, East Germans and Cubans successfully attempted through the 1970s and 80s, the Chinese have taken to another level in recent years. Number one in the medal tally in the Olympics is seen as confirmation of China’s ascent as the new global superpower.
The second successful Olympic model was designed by the Americans. At its core was the affirmation in the American ‘way of life’, a belief that sports was best practised in open societies based on the principle of equal opportunity. It is no coincidence that Jesse Owens was the first American Olympic superstar. What even elections in the 1930s could not provide the American black — a right to vote — Owens was seen to provide on the sports field, a right to equality and dignity. Since then, American triumphs in the Olympics have revolved around the principle that sports can break all barriers, aided by a dynamic market economy that sees every medal won as having commercial value.
The third medal-winning Olympic model is built around the belief that sporting success is intrinsically linked to birth, race and environment. The Kenyans and the Ethiopians in middle and long distance running, the Jamaicans in sprint, the East Asians in sports like table tennis and badminton are seen to be beneficiaries of a body type and an environment that promotes excellence in specific games.
We in India, by contrast, have borrowed elements from the other models but eventually created a unique model of our own. Central to it is the spirit of democracy. It is in the ‘democratisation’ of sport, the realisation that sporting success, like an IIT or IIM degree, is now a vehicle for upward mobility in a highly aspirational society that lies at the heart of the rediscovery of Indian sport. So long as Indian sport remained an elite pre-occupation or was confined to clubs and gymkhanas, we had no chance of competing with the best. The day Indian Olympic sport (much like cricket) discovered the maidans and the far-flung remote corners of the country, the dynamics were changed and new heroes thrown up.
The remarkable boxing mother of two, Mary Kom is a reminder that there is more to Manipur than blockades and insurgency. Deepika Kumari’s story is proof that Adivasi girls from Jharkhand can overcome all obstacles to excel in a tough sport like archery. The Phogat family in Haryana with their success in women’s wrestling help defy the conventional stereotype of a state burdened by khap panchayats and declining sex ratios. That states like Manipur and Jharkhand have dominated the National Games is a healthy sign, evidence of the vaulting ambitions that cannot be restricted by social or economic neglect any longer.
Sports, in that sense, has come to represent the ultimate Indian dream of a more merit-driven, egalitarian India. Politics is a closed shop dominated by dynasts. Economic opportunities too tend to be monopolised by those with access to better education. It is only on the sports field that the rules are now fairer, where individual growth is directly linked to talent and determination. We may still be well behind the Olympic superpowers, but the gap is slowly narrowing. And by 2020, don’t be surprised if the Indian medal tally reaches double digits. The journey to the top has only just begun.
The views expressed by the author are personal.