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I-Day Special | The sprint towards sporting glory

G Rajaraman | Updated on August 14, 2021

Forging ahead Youngsters need to embrace sport as a way of life, even if as a form of recreation, with the existing infrastructure   -  REUTERS

From being participative to competitive, athletes have crossed the mind hurdle

You can reach out and feel the euphoria in the air ever since javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra ended India’s Olympic Games gold medal drought of 2012 and 2016. The country’s athletes have returned from the Games in Tokyo with seven medals, India’s best haul in Olympic history. And yet, India ranked 48.

How can India become a sports powerhouse? It is a question that has engaged the country’s thought leaders and there is no harm in attempting to articulate an answer as young India heads into its 75th year as an independent nation. There is no easy solution.

For a country where successive generations have mostly focused on food, clothing and shelter, it is only now that sport is being used as a soft power for societal benefits, including nation-building. And that has led to a greater awareness about sport as career options.

More importantly, from the time Leander Paes won Olympic Games bronze in Atlanta in 1996 to end a 44-year drought of individual medals and Abhinav Bindra became the first India to win an individual gold medal in Beijing in 2008, Indian athletes have changed their mindset from merely participative at the highest level to competitive.

 

Yet, it will take much more for India to be a sporting powerhouse. It will take the collective will of its people to move forward with the thinking that competitive sport is a productive activity.

Doing it right

Can India break into the top 10 in Olympics?

From my vantage as a student of sport for more than five decades, I can see that a great ecosystem for elite athletes is falling into place. It has led to 127 athletes from 18 different disciplines making it to the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

And nearly one in five has returned with an Olympic medal to show. Clearly, there must be something India is doing right.

Of course, it will need refining, but there is no doubt that a sense of purpose binds key National Sports Federations (NSF) and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports as well as Non-Government Organisations so that the elite athlete’s training needs are provided for. However, there are some NSFs that have not supported their athletes as much.

There is one other strong reason that makes the journey to the top 10 in the Olympic Games a distinct possibility. Had India won three more golds in Tokyo 2020, it would have been in the top 20. This would have been possible if the shooting team had come good. Yet to get to the top 10 itself, India would have had to secure at least 10 gold medals.

Let us focus a bit more on some sports that can enhance India’s medal haul in the Olympic Games. Investments in shooting, boxing, wrestling and archery are showing promise. In sports like tennis, India can break into the big league only with structured support at all levels.

At the moment, talented junior athletes wanting to travel overseas to play ranking events are primarily fending for themselves without much by way of support from their NSF, the All India Tennis Association. At some point, India will have to work towards getting medals from swimming, judo, cycling, sailing and even athletics. Of these, athletics is the best placed as a sport in which India has done well at the Asian level but also has the greatest challenge as more than 200 nations send their representatives to the Olympic Games.

Sports as a way of life

So that leaves us with a question of what holds India back and what it can now do collectively to forge ahead as a sporting nation? A simple response will be to hope that all youngsters embrace sport as a way of life, even if as a form of recreation and with the existing infrastructure.

Also, States need to take greater responsibility of identifying and grooming talent at the grass-root level. There are countless youngsters who can do with some support in their journeys from the development stage to the elite level. Instead, right now, States are focussing on rewarding the elite and being in the limelight.

Each stakeholder must accept its role within the assembly line of Indian sport rather than only aspire to celebrate the finished product and claim as its own.

A better ecosystem is needed — understanding parents, great coaches willing work at the grassroots level, district and state associations that buy into the vision.

The writer is a senior sports journalist

Published on August 14, 2021

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