India is a vibrant country that has always carried a fevered pitch and fervent excitement for sports. Yet as of this writing if one is to pit the Olympic medals ever earned by the great Michael Phelps against the all-time total of India, the number that separates the two can be counted on one hand—with the disparity between gold-medal totals even greater in Phelps' favor.
Considering India has had a bit of a head start—with the Baltimore Bullet's first Olympic race coming in 2000—it is a sadly comical tale. Different reasons have been insinuated for the country's lack of propensity to stand atop a podium, so let's touch many of the common explanations and then at the end try to offer at least a modicum of solutions for the future.
No one in history has ever claimed any government is perfect. For the most part, the mad men ruling the roost seem to have their own agendas at hand. One need look no further than India, where government officials of the developing country quite literally turn their backs on millions of competitors.
Without going down a list of Parliamentary names that none of us have ever heard of, it is safe to say their government has undoubtedly failed their athletes by the lack of subsidized training, facilities and gear. India Today reported that 2008 Olympic gold medalist Abhinav Bindra echoed these sentiments as he tore into his country's sports infrastructure.
The raw talent can only take these athletes so far, since support and encouragement—whether financial, emotional or physical— are essential aspects that any athlete requires, and without them, his cause can be hopeless.
P.T. Usha, arguably the greatest track and field star the country has produced, was reduced to tears due to governmental negligence. 2012 Olympic bronze-medalist hopeful Mary Kom was also a victim, as she was shocked by the substandard food during the National Boxing Championships. For a country that boasts itself as a future world superpower and carries the fourth-most billionaires, these acts are inexcusable and boggle the mind.
Keep in mind that although India's overall GDP may be in the bottom quartile of the world, its administration is far from destitute, as many believe. The country, along with sponsors, funnels billions of dollars into cricket, while thousands of brutal testimonials on the living and training conditions that other gifted competitors are forced to endure can break one's heart.
It is as if the nation has resigned itself to its fate before even lacing up sneakers. Of course there is a twisted reason behind it all. The depressing mentality that the government has is that there is "no point to encourage it." The money (which is not always spent wisely, evidenced by the upper and lower classes drifting away from one other at an alarming rate) comes from over a billion citizens that follow cricket as their second religion covers their bases.
Alas, that does not always work, especially in this day and age, when they get embarrassed in prime time by nations with resources far less than theirs.
I agree that there are more pressing matters that the country needs to take care of instead of shaving .03 seconds off someone's 100-meter mark, but is the money that is not going to the athlete always headed toward a more noble cause? What if they worked toward a grass-roots movement that helped develop and foster the rural inner-city children with a structured support system?
The country needs to understand that an escape through sports can be a solution for the impoverished and raise their standard of living. Imagine the hundreds of millions of talented individuals that would stop wasting their gifts, if only given a ripple of hope.
While the regime in India is bent on pumping money elsewhere (maybe into their back pockets), the biggest hindrance to working out a winning resolution for the sports division (and many other problems) is corruption.
Just like a weed, it runs rampant on all levels, and when one is stomped out, another springs up. Corruption, defined as "the misuse of public power for private benefit" runs rampant on all levels. and according to the world-renowned Corruptions Perceptions Index, in 2011 India was still in the red zone.
Cricket matches are routinely fixed, alongside politicians and other head honchos who are indiscreetly involved in the selection committee of several sports. This included a recent hoopla for tennis during the lead-up to the 2012 Olympic Games.
The controversy involved several higher-ups forcing the hand of several Indian players in playing with partners they did not want to. At the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the selection process was considered such a sham that, later, 13 of the winners of the Arjuna award (highest honor for an Indian athlete) along with as many as 25 other international athletes created an uproar due to the corrupt practices of the sports bodies that control the infrastructure.
One of the main reasons some athletes got snubbed and even threatened? Simply because they asked for monetary help.
I'm not going to even attempt to say that I understand the root of the problems of corruption, but I do know that it can sometimes be a cultural norm. Having said that, if everyone is held more accountable with stiffer penalties and indictments from external institutions, India may be able to clean it up, possibly resulting in a more balanced budget for the sports division.
As a hasty generalization, if a youth growing up in India is wanting to carve out a career in sports (save for cricket) it is a strong possibility that he/she is considered to be breaking bad.
The culture in India is one that seems to have an absence of pride in doing a "physical" job as opposed to a more "mental" one (though one could argue winning at sports takes greater mental strength). The power of education is king, and sports are only seen as recreational activities for the millions of youth who are striving to be at the very top of their class in a country where there are more than 100 million unemployed.
Time spent on the field could mean lesser opportunities for the future economic stability for the household. Generally encouragement seems to be given only after achievement, so no matter how gifted one can be at a particular event, he may be forced to give it up for a greater chance at a stable well-paid job.
In a Western country, if an average teenager is to spend several years training for a medal and it doesn't work out, he or she still has a great shot at a middle-class life. If the same person tried that in India and wasted years of time that could have been spent on education or training in the workforce, the middle class would be yet another faded dream.
The risk just does not outweigh the reward.
In a country where spheres of influence sharply divide, many times partaking in extracurricular activities has to be undertaken covertly. Ask boxer Mary Kom, India's latest hope for a medal at the 2012 Games.
As a female, her parents strictly forbade her from entering the squared circle, and it was only after they found her picture in a newspaper from a tournament victory were they able to somewhat come to terms with it. Along with gender lines, as a traditional and socially conservative republic, many sports that can "expose" the human body are simply out of reach for Indians.
Tennis sensation Sania Mirza withdrew from the Bangalore Open in 2008 amid concerns for her safety regarding her attire. Since then, there have been no WTA events sanctioned in India. Societal pressures from all sides for both sexes can hinder athletic progress as well, with certain societies needing to be married by a certain age, among other things.
In addition to social complications, the straightforward basics can turn out to be a royal pain.
What do I mean? Just getting to the training zone can become an all-day affair. Additionally, the country's playing fields are dwindling, as cricket legend Kapil Dev lamented that "a small country like Holland has over 200 astro turfs, but in India we have just 15."
Combining that with poor food habits, inept coaching, terrible rehab facilities, increasing competition in schools, shortage of exercise with physical education, long commutes from work and a lack of awareness of many Olympic sports results in many talents getting wasted.
Bringing national pride through sports can become a unifying lining in a country where each state harbors underlying tones of racism toward one another. In India, each state has different languages and customs; even the people look different.
No doubt the caste system is a form of prejudice, but in a region where tensions run high, sports—especially the Olympics, where patriotism is at its finest—can truly unite a nation divided by class. The nation lauding and recognizing the value of all its athletes is the first step; cultivating the young person seeing his hero win is the next.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
As alluded to earlier, in India it seems as though encouragement is given only after achievement. In the Economic Times, Abhinav Bindra candidly spoke on how "winning on the world stage is not about one massive thrust of support every once in a while" and "in a short while, the euphoria will diminish, and we will be back to the same old problems that have bogged down our Olympian dreams for generations." India needs to stop being happy ''just to be there." It needs to want to win.
It's all good to celebrate the accomplishments of an Olympic medalist, but make sure to carry the momentum forward. India should not coyly acknowledge it as a way of saying, "Hey this guy made it in spite of us, not because of us."
In a perfect world, these are some methods that India can use to fix the madness:
• Don't be satisfied with simply competing.
• Encourage the young children (especially girls) and build up by channeling more money into better facilities, equipment, training, coaches, rehabilitation, etc. Help the parents understand that sports can be a lucrative field by giving more scholarships to athletes in colleges.
• Start scoping out talent in the rural areas in addition to the urban slums. Never know, fishermen may make amazing swimmers.
• Feed your athletes.
• Fewer malls, more multi-sport complexes.
• Focus on sports where they have a natural advantage (for example, badminton over basketball).
• More accountability, transparency and penalties at every level of government to combat the corruption.
• India can only benefit from it. If every other country thinks of athletics as a geopolitical advantage, India should, too.
• Popularize different sports by showcasing exhibitions during the break time of cricket matches.
Before the IPL (exhibition cricket matches) hundreds of players would have squandered their talent because of a lack of room on the international team. The revenue flowed right in; now imagine what the country can do when it exposes its citizens to other sports.
Lastly, recall the Olympic commercial that helps you remember that it's amazing how far one can go with a little help along the way.