Wednesday, September 03, 2008
Billion Indians, but where are all their medals ??
Billion Indians, but where are all their medals? - Hamish McDonald Asia-Pacific Editor
THERE is something truly Olympian in the disdain that the country with the world's second-biggest population has shown for its lack of Olympic Games success.
China has gone to ridiculous excess in hosting the current Games, combining the fanaticism of a Maoist "rectification" drive with East German-style incubation of athletes in its drive to be top medal winner.
But what of the other emerging Asian giant, India, which has 1 billion people to select from. It has dazzling cricketers with the eye of Sachin Tendulkar; thousands of village wrestlers; shooters expert at shikar (hunting); and horsemen who can skewer a tent-peg at full gallop.
Yet it usually manages to bring home only one medal per Olympic Games. Consistently, India throws out the modelling by economists at PricewaterhouseCoopers that postulates a link between population size and economic growth.
Only twice has India won two medals. First was in Paris in 1900, but that was by an English sahib named Norman Pritchard who received silver in the 200-metre dash and 200-metre hurdles. The second was in Helsinki in 1952 when wrestler Khashaba Jadav won a bronze, in addition to the routine gold for field hockey.
The run of hockey wins, which reaped all of India's gold medals until now, came to an end 28 years ago. This week, shooter Abhinav Bindra became his country's first individual Olympic gold medallist, winning the 10-metre air rifle event.
India, almost alone in the world, seems to apply the notion that sport is all about participation, not winning - the Kiplingesque adage that it doesn't matter if you win or lose, but how you play the game - and all that. Behind the sportsmanship, however is some grinding of teeth.
Rajeev Srinivasan wrote on the rediff.com website: "I am always embarrassed by India's wretched showing in the Olympics, which is a metaphor for the two things that haunt India: lack of a strategic intent, and lack of leadership. It is not that Indians are physically weak or incapable of competing at Olympic levels: in many sports at the junior level, Indians do very well indeed. The failure is in developing that early promise …
"One failure is in identifying an overarching goal: that of being the best in the world. This is an implicit assumption made by Americans: that America is the best of the best. Similarly, China has historically viewed itself as the Middle Kingdom and the centre of civilisation, deeming all others to be barbarians. But Indians have been content to be second-best, the sporting losers. We apparently do not believe we can win."
Shashi Tharoor, the novelist and former United Nations official, puts it even more starkly. "Every Indian who follows the Olympics has cringed scanning the daily list of medal winners, eyes travelling down past dozens of nations big and small before alighting on a solitary Indian bronze in tennis or wrestling," he wrote in his syndicated column this month.
"Worse yet, we have all known the shame of waiting day after day for India to appear on the list at all, as countries a hundredth our size record gold upon gold and Indian athletes are barely mentioned among the also-rans."
The excuses are many. Most of India's people live in villages, with poor nutrition and many illnesses and sports facilities are few. Only the wealthy, who traditionally supplied the cricketers and sportsmen such as Karni Singh, the Maharaja of Bikener who won a shooting bronze at Tokyo in 1964, had time and money for serious training.
The sporting bureaucracies are a byword for cronyism and freeloading, with the politics of the Board of Control for Cricket in India almost as intense as those for the national government.
Tharoor doesn't think failure is encoded in the Indian DNA. "Indian genes in a developing country did not prevent Vijay Singh emerging from Fiji to rival Tiger Woods as the best golfer in the world," he wrote.
"The newly globalised India can no longer content itself with mediocrity in this global competition. For a land with world-class computer scientists, mathematicians, biotech researchers, filmmakers and novelists, sporting excellence is the last unconquered frontier. But 2008 won't be the year in which that frontier is breached."
When it happens, something sort of noble will be lost.