The best way to begin a dispassionate assessment of free India’s sporting odyssey across 75 years is by turning our backs on today. At least from the promos around the 2022 Commonwealth Games, featuring much flag-waving, rapid cuts of random athletes doing sporty things, supported by a lingering montage of Sports Minister Anurag Thakur striding purposefully hither and thither before delivering his piece to the camera. The promos contain too many contradictory narratives — the Empire-created Commonwealth identity, the statism of our sport — and only end up blurring objectivity.
Navigating through Indian sport across the last 75 years does not only involve invoking a cavalcade of champions. Our sport is located in our political, economic and social histories as well as the evolution of sport worldwide. The India sporting nation grew alongside the slow transformation from the amateurism of the post-war era into professionalism in the last two decades of the 20 th Century.
Right at the start though, India played a significant part in creating a post-colonial, pan-Asian athletic solidarity, hosting the first-ever Asian Games. Starting from 11 nations, 489 athletes, 57 medal events in six sports in 1951, the Asian Games have grown into the second-largest, multi-sport event in the world after the Olympics.
For the rest, however, as a young country with myriad obstacles and priorities, Indian sport was left on the back-burner. Its funding was limited, mostly dependent and driven by royal patronage, like from Patiala or business houses like the Tatas and later the Mahindras and peopled by pre-Independence administrators from the urban gentry. After a couple of decades of success in team sport — standout Olympic hockey domination and sustained competitiveness in continental football — Indian sport zigged and zagged as if blindfolded, out of step with a changing world from the mid-1970s onwards. Here, we refer only to Olympic sport. In non-Olympic disciplines, Indians made their mark in cue sports, tennis and badminton.
Elsewhere, through a fortuitous series of circumstances, triggered by India’s 1983 World Cup victory, Indian cricket became the team sport that broke away from the pack, charting its own evolutionary course far different from that of its slow-moving cousins. The growing popularity of the 50-over game, followed by the arrival of satellite television and the opening up of the Indian markets in the 1990s became cricket’s perfect storm. If 1983 was Year Zero, by 2000, cricket had spread through the Indian hinterland, its presence dominating both mind space and markets, all other competition left behind.
What kept other Indian sports alive through these seven-odd decades, regardless of international results, was the support from the state. First, by tying in sporting performance with public sector employment – in the railways, airlines, banks, petroleum companies, military and para-military. This was livelihood, not leisure, and it drew and continues to draw thousands. The government also funded, through our taxes, the federations in charge of running something close to 33 ‘priority’ sports. The majority of those, with powerful, politically-connected leadership, rode the gravy train for decades, many to this day refusing to adopt international sports governance practices.
The staging of the 1982 Asian Games and the 2010 Commonwealth Games helped create new infrastructure and build a pan-India network of training centres, more than 100 across five categories through the Sports Authority of India. The centres still draw in and remain suppliers of the majority of our talent pool, a sustained pathway calendar of events across most sports has dwindled rather than increased across 75 years. To this day, Indian athletes, in the large bulk of sporting disciplines, have fewer opportunities for sustained, seasonal competition than their compatriots overseas, and the Khelo India scheme was meant to plug the shortfall. Wherever organised grassroots programmes and an annual calendar exists across districts, States and nation, that sport does not require its athletes spending most months of the year in training camps away from home. In India, that forms a miniscule percentage.
Cricket’s economic opportunism should have offered lessons for other disciplines to grow and seek sustainability and independence. Instead, cricket’s success was only responded to with resentment. The results began to show. In 1990, India finished 11 th on the medals tally at the Beijing Asian Games, its first time outside the top 10, with a lone gold in kabaddi. It took India 16 years between Olympic medals — from hockey’s gold in 1980 to Leander Paes’ bronze in 1996. The falling away of Indian hockey, football, and in the last two decades, tennis, the failure of athletics to find a star after PT Usha or cash in on Anju Bobby George’s world championship medal, are fundamentally failures of governance. The return and the rise of badminton was driven not by institutional support from its ruling body, but individual efforts from the game’s greats itself.
The tide turns with the millennium
The Indian athlete, however, is not easily crushed. At the turn of the century, the ambitious found support and real-time investment. The path to sporting success, it was obvious, was not linked to divine intervention or magic genes, but methodical planning, timely expert intervention and the persistence to secure government funding. The first decade of the 21 st Century was to also mark the creation of entity, unique only to Indian sport, proof of administrative indolence. Private bodies turned up as intermediaries between the aspirational athlete and officious gatekeepers and/or government red tape to ensure funding, training and competition plans came through quickly. From the early 2000s, Olympic Gold Quest (2001), Mittal Champions Trust (2003, now-defunct), Go Sports Foundation (2008, the first to support para sports), Lakshya Sports (2009) Anglian Medal Hunt (2012) and JSW Sport (2013) appeared on the scene and their impact has shown results.
In Beijing 2008, rifle shooter Abhinav Bindra won India’s first individual Olympic gold, along with bronzes in boxing and wrestling, India’s multi-medal Olympics after Helsinki 1952. The attention and praise drawn by these private sporting bodies was to sting other stakeholders. Some federations like wrestling today, are trying to prevent their athletes from signing up with private bodies. The government, still the largest funding pool for sports, created its own funding and training programme for elite athletes — the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) in 2014.
As epochal as Bindra’s gold was for Indian Olympic sport (it would take four days short of 13 years for India’s second gold from Neeraj Chopra), 2008 was to also mark a tectonic shift in Indian and world cricket. The launch of the world’s first T20 franchise competition, the Indian Premier League, had shaken and stirred global cricket and its economy for ever.
Seventy five years have given Indian sport much to celebrate and mull over. Like the old business houses once supported Olympic, new industrial leaders like JSW and Reliance are investing vast chunks of corporate social responsibility funds into creating privately funded world-class training institutes, centres of excellence and running sports-specific programmes.
In cricket, India has become a successful touring side across formats, armed with battery of fast bowlers, but curiously for close to a decade, has not won a major ICC title. The IPL has grown into gargantuan proportions and is on the verge of challenging and consuming the international calendar.
What should India@100 be like?
If 75 brought us here, where should the next 25 years take us? To start with, Indian cricket should be distributing its gravy around far more evenly than just at the top of the table, full of its most famous men. Maybe, India@75 is the fork in the road of our sporting development elsewhere. It could be time to break away from the medal-procurement mania and push to give millions of Indian children greater access to sport and competition in a safe and healthy environment.
In any case, the blindfold of the 70s and 80s is off around our Olympic sport and the uber-elite athlete is far better served in the new millennium than the predecessors. Olympic champion Bindra says when it comes to cash awards, no athletes in the world are better rewarded than Indians. What remains to be upped is governance, the use of advanced sports science and prioritising performance-enabling environments. “That’s still a work in progress,” he laughs.
What has also emerged is the fusing of sporting performance into every stream of hypernationalism. Those who give cash always call in for greater returns. The Indian sportstar must become social media supporter of state policy. Statism today is more deeply entrenched in Indian sport than even the public sector job. The star athlete, now richer than in the past, also signs up as cheerleader.
Even in these best of times for sports fans, there comes a serendipitous counter to the rah-rah endless flag-waving jingoism that suffuses our sport today. Released late last year, a documentary called Taangh (Punjabi for longing), featured, among many things, the story of the refugee players from Lahore on the hockey team that won free India’s first Olympic gold in London 1948.
After a screening in Bengaluru, director Bani Singh, daughter of double Olympic gold medallist Nandy Singh, was asked about the use of the 1948 footage of the Indian flag and the national anthem in Taangh and its interpretation in contemporary India. Her father and the rest of the 1948 team, she reminded us, had grown up as subjects under colonial rule. To see the flag going up in London 1948, above the Union Jack “wasn’t jingoism, it was sombre, it was a love”. Like the anthem, “I do feel we need to re-claim these symbols in the way we understand them… to say no, the flag belongs to all of us. I wanted to show it the way it meant to them in 1948.”
For all the promise of a better sporting tomorrow, our past reminds India@75 of much that was precious that should not be forgotten.
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