August 21, 2008

State of Play

The following article appeared in The Indian Express on August 21, 2008.

Purists will disagree, but sports are a continuation of politics. The Beijing Olympics have, from the outset, been about the People’s Republic of China taking its rightful place in the world as a major power, a culmination of a journey that began with its being granted a seat at the United Nations in 1972, and progressed steadily with Deng Xiaoping’s post-1978 reforms and the WTO inclusion in 2001.

With the Indian Olympic Association hoping to bid for the 2020 Olympics, India’s debutante ball may be twelve years down the road. By then, its GDP would be about 90 percent of what China’s is today, and the games would — like those in Tokyo, Munich, Seoul and Beijing — signal a power’s arrival as a player on the global stage.

But for all the celebration and glitz that would surround a successful Delhi Olympiad, there should be fears of possible downsides: organisational failures in a country where infrastructure is occasionally held hostage to public dissent; politically motivated demonstrations when the world’s attention is focused on every aspect of India’s profile; and, perhaps most embarrassingly, the host country’s sporting performance during the games.

Historically, India has shown its ability to host and perform respectably at large sporting events, although nothing yet of the level of the Olympics. India finished second in the medals tally as hosts of the inaugural Asian Games in 1951, but that was before China and several other major states entered the fray. In 1982, India finished fifth when Delhi was once again the venue for the Asian Games. The country has, of course, hosted two cricket World Cups, as well as other major cricket tournaments. By 2013, when the host of the 2020 games are decided, India will have also had the 2010 Commonwealth Games and another cricket World Cup under its belt.

India has also witnessed a steady improvement in its overall sporting performance in the past two decades. Despite well-documented declines in showcase sports such as football and hockey, India has certainly made strides at the sub-Olympic level, finishing eighth in the last two editions of the Asian Games and fourth in the past couple of Commonwealth Games. Yet it has consistently fallen short at sport’s largest stage, when faced with opposition from not only its Asian and Commonwealth rivals, but also the United States and much of continental Europe. In fact, India is at a disadvantage even before the games begin. In Beijing, Indians qualified for only 13 of the 34 Olympic sports, and have so far been in the hunt for medals in only six: archery, badminton, boxing, shooting, tennis and wrestling.

Following Abhinav Bindra’s much-feted victory, it was surreal to see India above perennial sporting powerhouses Russia, France, Germany and Cuba in the medals table, albeit briefly. Add to that Sushil Kumar’s bronze, and India already has its best Olympics in 56 years. But are two, or even three medals enough for an emerging economic power of a billion people? What can a country like India - so poor yet increasingly so rich — do to improve its performance on the field, around the court and in the pool?

There are three models to follow among successful sporting nations. The first, possible only in state-controlled societies or economies, involves the government and its agencies taking responsibility for talent-scouting, training and development. This system had been behind the sporting successes of the former Soviet Union and erstwhile Warsaw Pact states, as well as Cuba and China, but would be difficult to implement in India given individual freedoms and a lack of government planning and resources.

The second model is the school- and university-based system, which has had the greatest impact in the United States. US universities, for example, helped develop much of the American Olympic squad - particularly in athletics and swimming. However Indian universities, already struggling to provide adequate resources for academic endeavours, are unlikely to replicate this model.

The third system, common in Europe and a handful of Asian countries, is based on private sports clubs or corporations, who provide support and resources to help develop internationally competitive athletes. For example, PSV Eindhoven may be best known as a top Dutch football club, but it has also been home to Olympic gold medal-winning swimmers. Similarly, Japanese corporations, such as Toyota, have employed Japanese Olympic gold medallists. This could conceivably work for India, with cash-rich cricket teams subsidising training in other sports, or private corporations providing resources for aspiring athletes.

The latter two systems do not just benefit nationals. Sports is becoming increasingly globalised, and it is no surprise that private clubs in Italy and Australia have helped train Olympic champions from Argentina and South Korea, respectively. US universities have assisted athletes from several other nations, including four of the eight finalists in the men’s 100 metres dash at Beijing, gold medal-winning swimmers from Zimbabwe, Brazil and Tunisia, and a number of international basketball players. India should take advantage of the resources other countries have to offer, and in some sports it already has. Somdev Devvarman, possibly India’s best hope for a top 100 men’s singles tennis player, is a two-time US collegiate champion.

Since 1960, every host country of the Summer Olympic Games has figured in the top six of the medals table, with three exceptions: Mexico in 1968, Canada in 1976 and Greece in 2004. Mexico and Greece won three and six gold medals respectively, with each finishing a respectable 15th in the medal tally. Only Canada ignominiously failed to deliver a gold at home in Montreal. By starting to develop budding athletes aged between 7 and 12, India could boast a competitive medal haul should the Olympics come its way in twelve years. But that would mean starting now.