What ails Indian Sports?

Another leap year brings another bucket full of disappointments. Its not enough that we have 365 days of suffering that every four years we must have an extra day of distress. Just like democracy where people suddenly realize the rampant corruption, the inequalities of society & the downright poor performances of the sitting government 2 weeks before the election even though they didn’t give two hoots about it for 300+ weeks, the Indian public suddenly awakens to realize we cannot produce consistent medal winners in the Olympics.

People who don’t know what a balance beam is instantly become the judges who gave Nadia Comaneci the perfect 10 and talk as though they personally taped Kerri Strug’s ankle and made her win on one leg. Instead of looking at the root cause of the failure the tendency is to just blame and find a scapegoat. The lowest hanging fruit in our case being: Cricket. These folks completely ignore that fact that ever since India, in one of the biggest upsets ever, won the world cup in 1983 we have been one of the most consistent teams in the tournament of the once-every-four-years kind. Our win/loss ratio is 2nd only to powerhouses Australia.

The Indian hockey federation resisted shifting to astroturf till the 90s and kept crying conspiracy while Pakistan went ahead with the changes and were exceptionally successful till the mid-90s. Whilst our national hockey federation was crying & sobbing conspiracy theories, the Indian cricket team went ahead with its business and went on to enjoy some of its greatest successes in the decade of 2000-10.

Not to mention there are enough single sports mad nations that produce consistent winners in major Olympic disciplines. Brazil are as mad about football as India is about cricket but that hasn’t stopped Brazil from producing one of the best volleyball teams, possibly the best ever F1 race car driver and very good basketball players who play for the best NBA teams.

Politicians & Businessmen in Sports are Goooooood!

There is a tendency in India to not trust politicians and businessmen and if politicians & businessmen come together it is apocalypse now. The reason Indian athletes’ struggles at the summit is heavily attributed to politicians running various Indian sports bodies. This has no real basis in truth. BCCI is run by politicians & private businessmen.

M A Chidambaram, M Chinnaswamy, Mamen were tycoons who have done great things for cricket purely out of interest. BCCI’s ascent was powered by NKP Salve the savvy Marathi politician. He brought the world cup to India and the first world cup outside England was a rousing success. BCCI went from strength to strength and once Jagmohan Dalmiya, another businessman, took over, BCCI signed massive TV contracts and filled its coffers with so much money that it made Scrooge McDuck look like a street beggar.

Now wiseguys will ask “Ha what about other sports they are also headed by politicians and why don’t they succeed?”. The difference between BCCI & other bodies is that BCCI is private and most of the other sporting bodies are Soviet-style government bodies and are run by the devastating machinery that is the Government Bureaucracy. There’s a high chance that a politician will do good. It is in their self-interest to do so but it is not so for the bureaucrat.


Believe it or not genetics play a heavy role in sporting ability and the Indian race is not blessed with best of the athletic genes. The most profound example of this is the 100m race. There are exactly 4 men who have broken the 10 second barrier that are not of West African descent. The standard argument against this line of thought is that how come Chinese are able to win so many medals. The Chinese win most of the medals in gymnastics and diving viz basically gymnastics in a pool. Historically, Chinese have had many opera houses which are excellent training stages for acrobats and martial arts. Many Kung Fu action stars like Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Jet Li etc who are all acrobatically athletic are products of these schools. The Chinese communist government tapped into this reservoir and used modern western methods to create a powerful tour de force.

Lack of Sporting culture

India lacks a sports culture. In the west kids play all sorts of organized sports regularly. Though things are slowly changing in India, we aren’t getting there quickly enough. Academics still dominate because its the easiest and, despite rising education costs, the cheapest and highest hit ratio of success.

Many people casually say kids are forced by parents to study and unless that changes India will never win medals. This is a half-arsed argument which is made mostly by unmarried childless folks. The reality is that sports is a very expensive venture with an extremely short shelf life (average 3-4 years) and less than 1% of the competitors make it to the top to make a sustainable living and those who don’t make it will have wasted at least half a decade away from general white collar jobs that are on offer. It is already a merciless competition through sheer quantity if not quality and with a 5-6 year handicap it gets even harder to find employment.

Despite the TV shows & advertisements repeatedly showing an aspiring upper middle class, India still is largely a lower middle class blue collar country. Our families just cannot cope with losing the young & strong next generation to failure and depression through the hit & miss world of sports instead of increasing the quality of their lives through the surer path of academics.

Sports as a political tool sans Cricket

The world evolved into USA vs USSR a few years after world war II and the Olympics became a giant pissing contest between the two powers. There were the two giant boycotts of 1980 & 1984 where many athletes who wasted 4 priceless years of their lives just because the politicians of the nations wanted to score brownie points.

India are no strangers to the political boycott. The Indira Gandhi led govt refused to let the Indian tennis team to play the Davis Cup final vs Apartheid South Africa in 1974. This was an anomaly though. India has always failed to see beyond cricket to see sports as a political tool. The Chinese used Beijing 2008 to show how far they have come as a nation. Today they are dominant in almost every field. Every achievement in sport is seen as showing China as a superior powerful nation.

India hardly use their (few) successes to score PR victories. This is not limited to sports. India fail to use our successes to score PR in any field. The Silicon Valley would not be a cradle of innovation had it not been for Indian engineers. Isn’t Sundar Pichai’s Google CEO analogous to an Indian tennis player winning the Wimbledon singles’ title? Not only do we not praise but we actively disown these great success stories. With this sort of inferiority complex we can never aspire to achieve greatness not only in sport but any field.

Indians & Skill-based sports

As mentioned earlier, India are genetically unsuited less suited for purely athleticism based sports like sprinting, long distance running, swimming, diving, gymnastics etc. It is highly unlikely India will produce a sub-10 second 100m runner in 10-15 years from today. Having said that India have had no problems in acquiring proficiency in skill based sports. Despite general apathy, lack of proper infrastructure & most of the players not even seeing an astroturf field until their late teens, India still produces highly skilled hockey players at international level.

Netherlands, a country which is about as big as Haryana, has about 300 astroturf hockey stadia. India, the most successful nation ever, has just 30 astroturf stadia. Even a simple doubling of this number & giving U-16, U-12 teams access to these facilities will see instant uptick in results thanks to the greater repetitions from an earlier age.

Even in racket based sports like tennis & badminton, India produced top class players like Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj, Leander Paes, Prakash Padukone, Pullela Gopichand all of whom were top players in their disciplines. Almost all of their formative years were in the debilitating uber-socialist era of Indian bureaucracy.

Don’t Put all your eggs in one basket(s)

India has decent talent pool in a few sports and we must identify how our traditional sports can be used to translate those talents into their nearest equivalent of Olympic sports. Traditional Indian martial arts still exist in various forms. We must study how these traditional skills, that are second nature to the practitioners, can be translated to Olympic sports like fencing and judo. It is even possible to tap gymnasts from these village grounds given the amount of acrobatics that is required for a skilled fighter.

We have had centres of wrestling colloquially for centuries. Remember that India’s first individual medal came in wrestling as early as 1952. Funding for wrestling must be increased multi-fold to create a much bigger pool of wrestlers to compete at the Olympics & world championships. Again our traditional style of wrestling must be codified and combined with modern diet & fitness techniques to get the best of both worlds. Tradition, more often than not, exists for a reason because it works!

Shooting is another sport India must focus upon. The Indian army is one of the best trained armies in the world and we have a wealthy pool of talent to chose from to train. It is important to identify the men who had the best shooting records and the training provided to these men can lead to a high degree of sophistication in Olympic competitions.

If India, through means private & public, concentrate on these sports i.e. archery(4), fencing(10), judo(14), wrestling(18) & shooting(15), we will compete for 159 total medals. With a thorough road map and exact targets at each step, even if India win 10% of the medals we will end up with 16 medals in an Olympics. We should also invite experts from countries that dominate medals in said sports i.e. Japanese Judo experts or South Korean archery experts to train our fledgling aspiring Olympians.

Most Important factor of them all: Money

Now comes the most important resource of them all: money. We must spare no expense for the training & dietary regimes for these athletes. Medical support is just as important. These athletes, especially the wrestlers & racket sportspeople, push themselves beyond the edge of what is humanly possible. It is inevitable that the occasional bend becomes a break. Proper surgery and rehab is not cheap. It is a very expensive affair but it is also most necessary.

The value of a medal or a trophy is priceless. The Olympic prize money is a pittance compared to amount of time and effort that an Olympian puts in. There was news a few days back that Brazil had spent $14 billion for the world cup they hosted 2 years ago. Had they won their 6th world cup in Maracana the said $14 billion would have been worth less than a torn rag when compared to the priceless trophy that Thiago Silva would have lifted in front of their home crowd.

Lastly, we must draw inspiration from whatever semi-success we had in the past and aim to better it. Dipa Karmakar is an inspiration to all gymnastic aspirants in India. She overcame injury, lack of facilities and official apathy to just qualify for the vault final. She was not even allowed to take a personal physio, a bare necessity that is taken for granted by the top nations, with her before the final jump. She overcame impossible odds to miss out on a bronze medal by a hair’s breadth. If she had even half the resources available to Simone Biles how well would she have done?

This is an abridged version of a 3 part post on whitericevellasamy.wordpress.com. Parts i, ii, iii.