The Olympics are on—that brilliant spectacle of man at their sinewy best; straining to go higher, stride faster and show they are stronger than their competitors. A spectacle of sports, sportsmanship and togetherness. Of nations competing against each other in an atmosphere of conviviality. Even as we watch the coverage in July 2021, the event titled Tokyo 2020, is a stark reminder of the pandemic the world has gone through.
We are just a few days old into the games and have witnessed brilliant performances and heartbreaking failures. Of swimmers equaling records, of three skateboarding podium winners with a combined average age of under 16 years, of champion gymnasts failing to qualify. We marvel at the determination and skill of these champions. As we celebrate Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, we wonder when will India be figuring with the regularity of a USA or China, or even a Kosovo, as on July 27 with two golds, on the podium. Why is it we are not able to produce winners?
Ericsson, Prietula and Cokely have argued that expertise is the result of sheer hard work. Of intense practice and focused coaching; that you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone, follow a strict disciplined regimen, of ‘engaging on deliberate practice’—on improving themselves to the point where one can get over deficiencies. They famously concluded that to become an expert you would need to practice a minimum of 10 years (or 10,000 hours) before one could win an international championship.
While the timelines can be disputed, (we have 13- and 16-year-old winners in the Tokyo Olympics who obviously could not have put in 10 years) the short point is that intense practice is essential to become a champion. To put it differently, to suggest that Indians cannot win gold because of their physique or diet is not correct. Champions are not born—they are made.
So, what then is required?
Obviously at the outset is the ability, discipline, determination and focus to work hard. Financial support and an ecosystem which can encourage a sustained focus on practicing your sport are essential. The Australian 2021 Budget has ‘future-proofed’ high-performance sports by allocating a budget of US$320 million dollars with an eye on the Paris Olympics and a sporting school programme—aimed to identify young talent.
Parents need to identify talent early and invest in the child. To expect the child to excel in studies and in sports will be unfair to the child and to both her studies and the sports programme. Counseling is required as much for the sportsperson as for the family of the sportspersons. This brings us to the need of assuring the parent that the future of the child is going to be bright. The corporate sector has to step in-which, fortunately, it is doing now. The government should stress CSR funds be used for encouraging sports, sportsmen and providing employment.
Funding should be available for the diet and nutrition of the sportspersons. Each sports discipline has a different requirement of body type and diet-strong and muscular for weight lifting and sprints, sinewy and lithe for long-distance and gymnastics, and so on. Dedicated nutritionists and physical trainers are needed to be available for a core group of sportspersons. What needs to be taught from early on is mental conditioning—the ability to withstand pressure situations; that it is alright also to lose but to have the ability to come out stronger from the loss.
The sportspersons need exposure and this needs to be handled carefully. Too early an exposure to too intense competition would destroy confidence and effectively end a budding career. Sportspersons should be taught to enjoy the sports item they are doing. This is essential to make the long hours of training —if not 10,000 at least 5,000, not being reduced to a chore. Fierce ambition needs to be inculcated. It should be ingrained in the mind of the athlete that success does not come easy-that there are no shortcuts. The sportsperson needs to be told the success stories of a Milkha Singh and a Mary Kom.
In this background what then do we lack? Our sports funding leaves a lot to be desired. The last Budget had allocated Rs 2,596 crore to sports—down by about 8 percent when compared to the previous year. The flagship Khelo India programme started in 2018 designed to promote a sports culture at the grass-roots level and spot talent young has seen an increase in allocation. This is a welcome step. Sports is a state subject and a lot of coordination between the Centre and States would be required.
FICCI had in 2012 represented to the Central Government to give industry status to the sports. Given the fact that the global sports market is estimated to be in the range of $400 billion, the proposal deserves serious consideration. This will facilitate easier institutional borrowing and also boost the dormant sports manufacturing industry in India. Niti Aayog had in the wake of the poor performance in Rio de Janeiro, come out with a 20-point programme to improve India’s medal prospects—the ambitious aim being of winning at ‘least’ 50 medals at the 2024 Olympics. Niti Aayog also refers to the popular phrase: “Kheloge kudoge to honge kharab, padhoge likhoge to banoge nawab” (If you will play, you shall be spoilt; if you will study, you will live like a prince) to highlight the prejudice and societal barriers.
The report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee for the preparation for the Olympic Games 2021 (presented in December 2020!) makes interesting reading. It highlights the shortage of, coaches, sports equipment, human and technical support, lack of financial support, funding, investment and the need to recognize sports as an industry-in short, a dismal state of affairs. These are the requirements for us to produce successful sportsmen; becoming a sporting nation may not result in medals but would certainly make us a healthier nation. And as Nelson Mandela has said sports have the power to unite people.
Ronojoy Sen in his 2015 book ‘Nation at Play-a history of Indian Sport’ focuses on the obsession with cricket and the enormous patronage it enjoys despite being a ‘foreign' sport and our failure to do well in the Olympics citing several reason-poor levels of health, education, lack of facilities and infrastructure compounded by the ineptitude of sports administrators. These challenges remain. Our fascination with cricket to the exclusion of all other sport is something which is hurting other sports. To paraphrase CLR James, what do they know of sports who only cricket know.
Time will tell if the initiatives will result in medals. In the meantime enjoy the Olympics and fingers crossed, hope that we improve on the Rio tally of two.
—Najib Shah is retd. Chairman of Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs. The views expressed are personal
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)