Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Olympics: an alternative take

The quadrennial sporting jamboree is upon us and has the nation riveted; more due to raised expectations and missed opportunities than any real reason to celebrate.

Since the Rio Games began, we have come to realize, as ever, that it is going to be another disastrous outing for India at the Games.  There have been several jokes and memes on the dismal performance of our athletes in yet another world event.

One of our dear socialites has once again found her foot in her mouth, as she so often does.  

And another cross-border scribe has felt the collective fury of a nation's sports enthusiasts at his typically cretinous comment.  (By the way, has anyone observed; these guys are more obsessed with India and its affairs then their own country).

In the coming weeks, articles will be written in the dailies and periodicals lamenting the missed opportunities; TV news anchors will cry hoarse demanding answers from indifferent sports representatives about the disaster, which you will be told, the 'the nation wants to know' about.

Public memory being short, and even as one breaking news knocks another off the pedestal, this brouhaha, much to the delight of the sports ministry, will be forgotten.  For the next four years.

In the meantime, USA is at the top of the medals tally - no surprises there.  As are a few other western countries.  China is the sole Asian representative in the top-5 list.  And we have somehow managed the 64th position (at the time of writing this); we may still go lower.

However, the good news is that over the last few days, we have witnessed three girls doing the country proud, culminating in the badminton silver which has the nation in a collective frenzy.  

Sorry, I never watched the entire event, or any of these three games.  

Whatever these three girls have achieved, is a huge bonus.  Because I wasn't expecting any medal.

Now before you troll away, let me explain.

What are the Olympics?  An 8th Century BC Greek phenomenon that was revived towards the end of the 19th Century in the West.  

The West - that's the key word here.  The West formed the rules for the western events, and the West included the games and sports invented in the western countries.

Take a look at the events in the Summer Olympics.  Barring a handful, none of the events have originated in Asia, let alone India.  

Basketball was invented in the US, and badminton derives its name from the Duke of Beaufort's house in England.  

Even hockey has its origins in Eurasian countries other than India.  And less said about golf as a sporting event, the better.

Or why not consider the Winter Olympics for a moment?  Bobsleigh, curling, luge and Nordic Combined.  Yeah, I haven't heard of any of these sports either.  Probably conjured up by some bored westerner when he or she had nothing better to do.

The point that I am trying to make is this: we are participating in their Games, which include events made up by them, and governed by them.  Naturally, we are competing against giants of the games; against athletes who have been training for these events for much longer and harder than ours, and in far better facilities.  It will be a long time before we can catch up with these athletes.

The one game that India excels in - cricket - is not an Olympic event.  And you can pretty much forget about kabaddi ever making it as an Olympic sport.  Contrast this with something called whitewater slalom, which originated in Europe and made its Olympics debut in 1972, and you will see what I mean.

So if our athletes win medals, that's great; but if they do not, I understand.  

But does this mean that we should be cry-babies?  Should this be our excuse for our underwhelming performance in the Olympics?  

Do we just lament the fact that our games have been left out and we have been cold-shouldered by others?  


What had to be said had to be said - about the western hegemony of sporting events.

Now what has to be done has to be done - by us and our policy makers to uplift the status of sports in the country.

Actually, it had to be done a long while back, but better late than never.

But the question is, can it be done?

Because you see, sports are recreational activities.  This means that one becomes inclined to undertake a sporting activity after he or she has been fed well, educated, and has a steady income.  

Westerners can conjure up games creatively because of just that; they really have nothing better to do.  They have finished establishing their roads, economy, educational and health institutions and benefits schemes.  Therefore it is easy for them to go out trekking, cross country running and quad biking.  It is possible for them to make sports a part of their culture that they and their children can actively participate in.  

But in a country such as ours, where even today, the divide between rich and poor is so vast, sports can only be a luxurious undertaking for many.  You cannot expect the hand that is busy trying to make ends meet to hold a tennis racket or volleyball.

Every successive government - including the present one - has done precious little to improve sports infrastructure in the country.  The recent edition of The Week reports that the budget allocation for sports has been repeatedly cut down by every government that has come to power.

Probably understandable at one level.  There are other priority areas that need attention: health, education and poverty alleviation, for example.  

The Week issue also includes write-ups from sporting legends of India about the disastrous outing in the Rio Olympics, and what is to be done to redress this.  Among other things, every sportsperson has touched upon one significant issue: that people from sports background should govern the sporting bodies in the country.

One cannot see this happening in a hurry, considering the fact that as recently as 2008, an ex-policeman held on to post and dear life as the president of the hockey federation, even as allegations of corruption mounted against him.  

And what can one say about our organization of the Delhi Commonwealth Games, when the chief minister of the state and the incompetent politicians handling the affairs blamed everything from difference in hygiene standards between us and the West to Indradev for the abysmal preparations.  

They blamed everything and everybody, that is, except themselves.  

Leave the politicians and government aside for a moment.

What about ourselves?

Go to any mall on any day.  You will find hundreds of students who are there with their shoulder bag of books, having bunked the classes for a good time out and to catch the latest film in the multiplex - all expenses provided for by their doting parents.  This number jumps to several thousands over the weekends, when they come with their boy/girlfriends, and on some odd occasions, with their parents.

The proportion of youngsters who utilize the same time to train in sports is tiny.  Because sport is backbreaking hard work, and demands years of discipline and dedication.  There simply isn't time or inclination for this kind of commitment in our lives.

Sports are not a priority even among the well to do.  How many select sports as a career option?  Is it not common for us to admonish our children for playing too long, when there is homework waiting to be finished, or the upcoming exam to be prepared for?

A recent WhatsApp forward summarized our attitude towards sports rather well: 
Who are we?  Indians.  
What do we want?  Olympic medals.  
What do we want our children to be?  Doctors and engineers!  

In fact the only reason some parents allow their children to pursue sports on the side is because there is a sports quota allocated for college admissions and jobs.  Sport is not a career option, and the government has not done anything to make it one.  Even the ones who somehow managed to achieve something in their chosen sport have been reduced to penury. 

Bookish knowledge, school, college, exams, jobs, marriage, children, grandchildren, festivals, TV serials, films, elections, superstars and their tantrums, social media: these are our priorities; not sports.

To put it bluntly, we simply do not have a sporting culture.  

So there you have it.  This is the reason for my equanimity in the face of the Rio fiasco.  This is why I said that I wasn't expecting any medals. 

Having said that, let us take a moment to remind ourselves of what these three girls have managed to achieve.  In winning these medals, they have beaten all odds; government apathy, lack of sporting culture, and most importantly in our country, gender bias.

So thank you girls for giving us our quadrennial bonus.  

We can rest easy for the next four years.

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