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74 Years After Independence, It’s Time For India To Rise As A Sporting Nation

India celebrates National Sports Day every year on August 29, in honour of hockey wizard Major Dhyan Chand. It’s a good time to look back at how Indian sports has evolved, especially in the 74 years since India attained independence.

Cricket is our most popular sport, but it’s a game which is played at a high level in a handful of countries only. The sporting proficiency of a nation is often evaluated by its performance in Olympic Games.

For a populous country whose population has now crossed 135 billion, India has been a perennial under-achiever in the world’s biggest multi-discipline sporting extravaganza.

The recent Tokyo Olympics was a ‘success’ by Indian standards, as its athletes brought home seven medals – more than from any single Games. Many are happy, but our best-ever haul included just a solitary gold medal. The post-mortems have not been as scathing as they are after most other Olympic Games, but some voices have been raised in certain quarters asking why India didn’t perform to expectations which were higher.

To comprehend why India has been a sleeping giant in sport, we have to focus on our general mindset. We want more success and more medals from our athletes, but often fail to act appropriately when it comes to supporting them.

The Union government as well as state governments, together with municipal bodies, are pumping huge amount of money to transform their cities into Smart City by facilitating development of concrete blocks and encouraging real estate boom as index of growth.

But one wonders why politicians, writers, journalists, bureaucrats, sportspersons and the civil society don’t question why these cities can’t integrate sports infrastructure in neighbourhood city planning by providing citizens access to world-class facility and help them become future Olympians or at least fit individuals.

We have a hereditary problem in our system wherein we love to blame politicians and bureaucrats for intervention in sports, see injustice on athletes as they travel in economy class while administrators travel business class, look forward to covering or reading stories on how athletes struggles to make it big, love to offer cash prizes to athletes who perform well in major world events. But rather than seeking inspiration from these soft stories, have we tried to do scientific evidence-based analysis which would help in identifying what went wrong in the Olympics and how to improve?

We are preparing to celebrate our 75th Independence Day in 2022 in a grand manner. Shouldn’t we pause and reflect on the fact that we are having to be satisfied with just one gold and seven medals in all to be placed at a lowly 48th in the medals’ tally? Why can’t we be among the top 10 sporting nations in the Olympics so many years after earning freedom?

We won a hockey medal after 41 years and a first-ever athletics gold in Olympics earlier this month. We should make sure that we don’t wake up during the 2024 Paris Olympics to discuss the same old story. Let sports be part of our city development and not a novel to read struggles of athletes coming from humble backgrounds and overcoming obstacles. Rather, let’s take inspiration from some stories of real success.

Take the example of The Netherlands, a small country with smart sports complexes and multiple sports infrastructure in every neighbourhood so that everyone has access to sport without any restriction.

There are similar stories in China, Japan, Korea, Africa, America, etc.

Perhaps we would have accepted our limitations had we not won a medal in hockey, like in the past editions. Many of us would have gone into depression as if the world has not been kind on us. But that’s not how it should be.

Serbia didn’t go into mourning because 20-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic didn’t win an Olympic medal in tennis. The small country had other heroes and went on to win the waterpolo gold. Even Jamaica didn’t bag the men’s 100m gold after several years. But they will have to accept that others have improved and they will need to work harder, rather than getting depressed or finding excuses.

We Indians have to look at sports beyond just medals and focus on how to build a nation where everyone will be drawn to sports rather than seating in front of TV or playing Pokeman Go or developing apps etc.

The key is to develop a system and mindset where everyone the youngsters will be engaged in sporting activities.

A serious course correction is needed. To begin with, we must make introduce five-day weeks with eight hours of work per day. Our sports infrastructure should encourage all to use facilities. It should not be the case that a hockey astroturf or indoor badminton hall is out of bounds for those who haven’t played at the national level.

Every school should teach students sports, including indigenous games, as many students don’t even know what is played in the Olympics.

Schools also must design curriculums so as to produce scientists as well as sportspersons, rather than students spending the entire day on books.

Another important aspect is to stop considering successful sportspersons to be Gods. They are normal human beings like all of us and we need to study how they have reached that level.

Every state should set up an Olympic sports centre in one of its cities, while sports infrastructure has to be integrated in neighbourhood city planning.

A way has to be found for proper worklife balance in every household, with dinner by 8 pm to make India obesity free.

Cash incentives for creditable performances are fine, but the government and other authorities meed to pump in cash to build sports infrastructure for future athletes.

Last but not the least, we must help athletes get ready for Olympics just like the education system helps us graduate from school to college to university.