It would have been best to ignore De’s trivial accusations. She represents an entire cottage industry of socialites who work the media and know how to stay in headlines. Her frivolous statement only reflects her profound ignorance of how athletes perform or what motivates them towards excellence.
But she is also part of a larger problem. De represents a large section of Indian populace who are impatient to see Indian athletes succeed but have no patience to understand why we repeatedly fail. Viewed in another way, her comments are not a reaction to the perceived poor performance of our athletes but a counter-balance to the frothy, unreasonable hype routinely built up by Indian media before each edition of Olympic Games through rosy predictions.
Overwhelming factual evidence suggests that our fractional success at Olympic Games so far has come despite government interference — through a combination of personal enterprise and grit — yet as a nation, we fail to own up to our responsibilities towards that collective failure and reflexively believe that the government has the answer to all our ills, including lack of sporting excellence.
And hence like an ostrich, we shall bury our heads deep in sand and pretend that government programs like ‘Target Olympic Podium Scheme’ (TOP) and hiking up of sport budget are enough to help us gain that elusive medal.
There is no denying that India has historically been an underperforming nation in pan-continental multi-sport events. We have been taking part in the Olympics since 1900 and have only won 26 medals so far, which comes down to 1 medal for 383 million people. Some poor African nations like Kenya and Ghana are much better in comparison.
One of the bewildering questions that routinely grapple us is how a billion-strong nation can fail to produce even one gold medal-winning talent.
Some academic studies have suggested that total population of a country is irrelevant when it comes to Olympic medal tallies, but that rather what counts is the part of a population that participates effectively in sports. Anirudh Krishna and Eric Haglund argued in a 2008 report in EPW that “Olympians are drawn, not from the entire population of a country, but only from the share that is effectively participating. Low medal tallies can arise both because a country has very few people and because very few of its people effectively participate.”
Other studies, like Who Wins the Olympic Games: Economic Resources and Medal Totals, published in The Review of Economics and Statistics, 2004, by Andrew B Bernard and Meghan R Busse show that a large population allied to high GDP per capita was the best predictor of Olympic success.
Then, there are intangibles such as lack of sporting culture. During an illuminating conversation just after the Beijing Olympics, seven-time Olympian and tennis icon Leander Paes explained to Firstpost how India’s lack of excellence is tied to the apathy of the middle class which finds no merit in sports. Parents of this large, more or less affluent section of populace force their wards to pursue academics.
Sports psychologist Madhuli Kulkarni, founder of the ALTIUS Centre for Excellence in Delhi, was quoted by Euronewsas saying: “Parents here have the authority to take the decisions in their child’s life. Especially post-independence, Indian parents gave a lot of importance to academics and sport was considered as a “time pass” activity or just for recreational purpose. Although we have the best of the academic schools and universities, we do not have good sports facilities and good sports academics.”
Then, there are straw man arguments.
Any discussion around India’s repeated failures at Olympics invariably centre around how cricket hogs all limelight and other sports are left struggling for sponsors. Yet, we never pause to reflect on the reason behind it. As a sponsor, would you splash money on a sport or sportsperson who has little chance of success?
If there is one thing cricket has shown — the only discipline where we have a measure of international glory — it is that government interference, where apathy is high and accountability dangerously low, is antithetic to sporting success. Private bodies like the BCCI can use the market better to work through the barriers facing Indians in sporting endeavours.
Hating BCCI is our favourite national pastime, yet cricket’s governing body in India has done a great job over the years in building infrastructure, rewarding merit and putting in place a system that works instead of the tamasha that goes on in say… Hockey India or Boxing Federation of India. Money naturally follows excellence.
Until we come out of this plausible deniability, like De, the Maharani of Muck, we shall forever limit ourselves to taking juvenile potshots at the athletes themselves who deserve our unflinching backing and respect for earning the right to even take a selfie at Olympics.