Olympics - Neeraj Chopra
Olympics - Neeraj Chopra Image Credit: ANI

India has at last struck gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The man who did us proud is Neeraj Chopra, whom few Indians had heard of till his unprecedented achievement. Not only is he a debutant Olympics gold medallist, but the first Indian to win the highest prize in the field of athletics. He is also the second Indian to have ever won an Olympics gold medal, after shooter Abhinav Bindra’s 2008 feat.

Chopra had already set the world record in the 2016 IAAF World under-20 Championships with a throw of 86.48 metres. In the Tokyo Olympics he bettered his performance to 87.58, winning the gold. But he has thrown better in the past, notching up 88.06 metres at the 2018 Asian Games to win the gold. Given that he was already a front-runner, Chopra should have been better-known at home. But sporting fans anywhere aren’t always fair or even-handed in their adulation.

In our cricket-crazy country, other sports often get step-motherly treatment. This has been the lament of field hockey supporters, a game in which India has traditionally excelled and even today holds the world record for the maximum number of medals. In fact, India’s return to international hockey glory, with a bronze medal, has been the talk and toast of the nation during this Olympics season.

Neeraj Chopra
Neeraj Chopra Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

A few other sports have also received some attention in India, largely because of the stray success of individual stars. Badminton, boxing, wrestling, weightlifting come to mind. In all of these, India scored medals during the Tokyo Olympics. PV Sindhu’s heroic bronze in badminton made us ecstatic. Though Mary Kom lost, Lovlina Borgohain of Assam bagged a bronze in the women’s welterweight category.

Haryana lad Ravi Kumar Dahiya justifiably made us proud with his silver in the men’s 57 kilogram freestyle wrestling. Fellow Harayana wrestler Bajrang Punia won a bronze in the men’s 65 kilogram freestyle bout. With a total of 7 medals, including one gold, this is by India’s best performance in its entire Olympics history.

Yet, ranked at 47, India, with its population of 1.4 billion, is so far behind the top three that this is surely a cause for concern. China has 38 golds, 31 silvers, 18 bronzes, and a total of 87 medals. The United States leads with 39 golds, 39 silvers, 33 bronzes, making up more than 110 medals. That is over 100 medals more than India, which is four times its size in terms of population! Very small countries such as Israel, Qatar, Bahamas, or Kosovo have already fared better than India.

India's slow rise to the top

If it is a truism that great nations also excel in sports, then why is India so woefully behind in all games other than cricket? This is by no means a new question. Every Olympics it is raised, a variety of solutions proposed, but soon it is business as usual. It is not that India will never do well in sports. It will. In a country as passionate about sports, our slow rise is inevitable even if we do practically nothing.

In no other part of the world does a hockey or boxing bronze make headline news. In no other country are medal winners photographed with presidents or prime minister, given state honours, jobs, and lavished with millions in prize money. With so much enthusiasm for sporting heroes, sooner or later, India is bound to do better.

But there is also a flip side to this adulation. The adoration of individual genius or accomplishment in India, whether it is showered on beauty queens or expatriate Nobel laureates, stems from a backhanded admission that they have excellent in spite, not because of, the system. When most of our systems are so hampered by politics, favouritism, government interference, regionalism, caste and community considerations, not to speak of endemic bureaucratic bungling or “babudom,” it is a wonder that we do even as well as we manage.

It is not as if means and money are lacking. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, with restricted sporting activities, the Union budget for sports was a whopping Rs. 2,596 crore. Surely, better results might be expected with such a generous outlay of public money. Of course, one might complain that this budget is considerably less than that of China or the US investment, but in the latter country, sports are not state sponsored at all. It is not the money, but the management that is faulty.

Achieving sporting excellence

Not that this is not known. Everyone who has even a modicum of knowledge of how sporting excellence is produced has pointed out that there are simple, even obvious measures, that need urgently to be taken. These include identifying areas where we can win, improving talent scouting and spotting, giving adequate support and training to potential winners and their families, investing in better coaching, sports medicine, psychological training, and, finally, incentivising winners in a rational and well-defined, rather than chaotic and capricious manner.

Companies and businesses in India have always supported sports as have public sector enterprises. There are sports quotas in education and jobs in the railways or the army for sportspersons. But what we need is to reduce the inefficiency and streamline sports management.

Rather than being spread across the centre, states, and other bodies, the huge outlays may be better utilised in rationalised public-private partnerships, which can be decentralised and tailor-made to specific sports and individual sportspersons. These and a variety of simple measures may easily be undertaken to improve our performance across the board.

Why has India failed to take these steps to increase our tally of Olympics medals? The answer is simple. We are yet to create a culture of excellence, let alone exploit our huge diversity in body-types and ethnic potentialities as far as sports are concerned.

Lack of clear thinking about a nation’s goals in addition to failure in taking concrete steps to achieve reachable targets ensure that we continue to lag behind in the world of sports.