The spotlight is undoubtedly on the seven medal winners who did India proud at the Tokyo Olympics, but if we aspire for more glory at the world’s biggest sporting xtravaganza, sportspersons at the bottom of the pyramid need complete economic, technical and scientific support at the very initial stage to transform from potentially talented to medal-winning athletes.
By Chander Shekhar Luthra
As the Covid threat was looming over the Tokyo Games, so was it over athletes worldwide who were hardly getting a chance to compete with the best in their respective disciplines. India was no different as the disastrous first and second waves of the pandemic swept across the country, preventing any training for the sports fraternity.
Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra didn’t compete on the international stage for 17 months, between January 2020 and June 2021. Weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu went
without competition from December 2019 to April 2021. Shuttler P.V. Sindhu featured in just five tournaments from March 2020 till the start of the Games.
Pugilist Lovlina Borgohain exhausted all her money which she received as part of her Arjuna Award for the treatment of her mother’s kidney ailment. Wrestler Bajrang Punia had to forfeit a match a month before the Tokyo Games after injuring his right knee. And his knee remained strapped throughout his contests in Tokyo.
And the men’s hockey team was mostly practising amongst themselves inside the Bengaluru Sports Authority of India campus during the last one-and-a-half years.
Yet the 2020 Tokyo Games concluded as the most successful in India’s 120-year history of Olympic competition. India finished 48th in the medals tally, its highest ranking in over four decades. The previous best in this period was the 51st-rank finish at Beijing in 2008, when India won three medals, including Abhinav Bindra’s gold in shooting.
Ask any of these athletes and they will tell you how the most difficult part of the journey was graduating from national level to international level.
This may not be the best-ever finish for India, considering it had finished significantly higher in the era in which it used to win gold in hockey. But the eras are not really comparable because of the dozens of countries that have come into being since then and the expansion in the number of sports and hence medals.
For example, India finished 23rd in the 1980 Moscow Games by winning just a solitary medal, the hockey gold. Because a complete bloc of US-led countries boycotted the Games.
Story of two weeks
Even though weightlifter Mirabai opened India’s account with a silver on the very first day of competition, the opening week was largely about disappointments as fancied shooters failed to create any impression in Japan. And the old debate of why a country with over a billion people can’t win medals at the Olympics began back home in India.
However, the second week started with boxer Lovlina Borgohain first bringing some cheer to the struggling contingent. And when Sindhu defeated her Chinese compatriot to win a consecutive Olympic medal, all attention was next focused on the men’s hockey team who were gearing up to end India’s 41-year medal drought with a bronze.
In between, grappler Ravi Kumar Dahiya finished on the podium to make it a fourth straight Games where wrestling saved India the blushes. It is another matter that the fancied Bajrang Punia finished below Ravi Kumar in terms of medals by winning a bronze.
Then, Neeraj Chopra provided the icing on the cake with the country’s second individual gold and the first in track and field by hurling the javelin to 87.58m to end India’s campaign on a high.
And then the Indian government agencies (Sports Ministry, Sports Authority of India and various National Sports Federations) jumped to term it the country’s best-ever performance in the Olympics. Not just that, this performance was termed a potential gamechanger that can help build the much talked about “sports culture” and lay the
foundation for India to produce many more champions in the future.
There cannot be any doubt that Neeraj’s gold can make many more youngsters take up sports as a career in the coming days. But building a sports culture right now with such low sports budgets and without any significant corporate backing looks a far cry.
It is common knowledge that India’s sports budget was slashed by more than Rs 230 crore in an Olympic year. This was a significant cut and scary for all our sportsmen because it came at a time when the pandemic had already played havoc with the minds of all our sportspersons.
To be precise, the allocation for sports for the financial year 2021-22 was reduced to Rs 2596.14 crore, down Rs 230.78 crore from last year’s Rs 2826.92. Not to forget that a year before, the revised sports budget saw a cut of nearly Rs 1000 crore – citing “lack of activity caused by COVID-19 pandemic”.
Successive governments in India have displayed a penchant for grabbing headlines in the name of sporting accolades without actually trying to improve our sports ecosystem. In simple words, the champions can only be produced by broadening the base of the pyramid and building from there.
But in India, the entire effort is concentrated only at the top of the pyramid.
Does anyone really care?
Having a close look at how athletes are raised in any country, one would know that no top athlete requires government financial support after reaching a particular level. Be it Neeraj or Ravi Kumar or Sindhu or Bajrang, all of them have the support of one corporate or another.
It is basically those at the bottom of the pyramid who require not just funding but the right technical and scientific support from the government to transform themselves from potential talent to medal-winning individuals. However, it is the other way around in India where only top players get all support from the government, the various NonGovernmental Organisations and even the corporates.
The corporate sector only jumps onto the bandwagon when an athlete reaches a particular level or achieves a certain status in their professional career.
Ask any of these players and they will tell you how the most difficult part of the journey was graduating from national level to international level. Rather, the toughest is when they come a level up from district level to national.
Any athlete needs complete technical and scientific support at the initial stage. Once a faulty base is established without the help of experts, it will only be an uphill and impossible journey from there on.
In India, most sportspersons come from a humble background and unless they win a medal like Abhinav or Neeraj or Sindhu, they cannot afford to dream of a good life. Most of them are without jobs and carry the pressure of “what will happen if injured during this journey”.
No government till date has shown any urgency in securing the careers of these bravehearts. On the one hand, the governments keep working towards providing various “quotas” to one or other section of society such as the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes or Other.