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Once every four years a great gloom overtakes Middle India. Out there on some foreign field, rich countries and poor ones, renowned sporting powers and others you couldn’t locate on a world map, are collecting medals at the Olympic Games, the most significant global sporting stage of them all.Making up,Once every four years a great gloom overtakes Middle India. Out there on some foreign field, rich countries and poor ones, renowned sporting powers and others you couldn’t locate on a world map, are collecting medals at the Olympic Games, the most significant global sporting stage of them all.Making up the numbersIndians are enthusiastic participants, with large contingents of athletes and officials for global games. They add colour to opening ceremonies but do not bring the weight of their numbers to bear on the medals tally. Surinam has an individual gold medal in swimming, Ethiopia and Mozambique produce athletes of distinction, Thailand won as many individual medals in a single Olympics as independent India has in its entire history. Let’s not delude ourselves: despite the huge haul at the Manchester Commonwealth Games, India continues to remain a fringe player in world sport.For most part it does not seem to matter – as long as there’s cricket on television – but when the world’s finest athletes gather for the Olympics, the truth comes home. Only then is the Indian’s sense of self challenged and that tired question asked: why can’t one billion people win gold?During the Sydney Olympics, the Australian Bureau of Statisticscalculated that the country with the best performance at the Games wasnot the United States with 97 medals, but Barbados with its singlebronze – because sprinter Obadele Thompson’s 100m bronze was a medalearned by a nation with a population of 2,70,000. The worst performer by that count? India.You could crunch numbers a littledifferently. In truth, India does not have one billion candidates forathletic excellence. What it has is one billion mouths to feed. With 26per cent of the country living below the poverty line, there are 740million people who form the population base from where athletes can befound. Half of those are women, not actively encouraged to take part insport. Even when they decide to, support from family and society iswavering. So, more accurately, India is a country of around 300 millionwho cannot win gold. advertisementTainted awardsWhen the country’s highest award for sport, the Arjuna Award, is turned into a system of favour-trading and hand-outs, it’s time to call for change Truth is a tricky customer, it spots and slips through smokescreens.Just before the 1996 Olympics, two American researchers predicted howmany medals participating nations would win based on their real GDP.Their predictions turned out to be accurate, except even here-operatingagainst a low target of three medals predicted by the study – India wonjust one bronze. In 2000 the exercise was repeated and again worked forthe statisticians but not the Indians. Any which way you calculateOlympic performances – GDP, GNP, per capita income – India fails toweigh in again.It’s not only easy to blame the system. It’s imperative. Internationalsport is not a level-playing field, it is a jungle where survivalbelongs to not just the fittest but the best-prepared. The athlete whois not identified by the time he is in his early teens and taken underthe wing of a modern training programme, has already lost time andprecious medals.When they say the era of the amateur is over, it includes the athlete as well as the entire support structure around him. It is here that Indiafails.It begins with the lack of a culture for sport that surrounds a child: a shortage of playgrounds and facilities is the least of it. In India,school-level sport is not a starting point for talent-scouting as it isin countries as diverse as the United States and China. It’s just a gapin the time-table from the world of books. SUCCEEDING IN SPORTS Professionalise sport by restructuring its administration. The system of “honorary” officialdom is clearly outdated: running sport is a full-time business. Hand it over to private enterprise. Have the politicians and bureaucrats make way for management experts who will take care of fund-raising and managing money. All aspects of sport must be under the charge of qualified ex-athletes who will be paid for their expertise. Channel and prioritise spending on sport. Funding and attention should be extended to those sports which show sustained progress over a five-year period, starting now. Progress will mean a steady improvement in world rankings. There is no sense in putting a country’s energies into sports where India only makes up the numbers and brings up the rear in world. It’s not the Government, nor is it private enterprise that can run sport. There is only one institution that has the infrastructure, the tradition and the culture of discipline needed to make champions. The armed forces. It’s time to hand over athletes’ training to the military. It’s time to accept that India is not an Olympic power. Withdrawing from Olympic competition in disciplines where we are not in the world’s top 10 may work. India needs to focus on the Asiad and other world events to get good enough to contend for medals at the highest level. Opt for a more democratic model for sport. Concentrate on developing a culture for sport. Access to sport for all should be the first step, by setting up cheap, accessible sports centres in cities and villages with a network of talent-spotters. Quality will come from numbers.For the middle class, with access to sports clubs and reasonable facilities, it’s merely khel-kood, a trivial pursuit. For the rich, it’s just another diversion you wouldn’t want to take seriously because, seriously, only the yokels do. Sport in India is one way out of poverty – the reasons our young men and women take to sport is not to set the fields of the world alight, but to keep their home fires burning.advertisementIndian sport also works as a welfare state; the average athlete knows that and sets his or her sights low. The state is the patron, the benefactor which can provide an athlete a job in the public sector. Once that is sealed it is the rare athlete that wants to let go of that safety net and pursue athletic excellence.An unknown Ghanaian who plays in Delhi’s local leagues made an observation once: “In Ghana, footballers from the smallest clubs talk about playing in Europe, for Juventus, Inter Milan. In India, they talk of getting a job.” If the athlete’s reach and his grasp have very little to separate them, then who would aim for heaven?This is a peculiar kind of contentment, one that eats away at the soul of aspiration; but it is arrived at only after the athlete’s will is gnawed into once he has dealt with the establishment and the world of feudalism, intrigue and compromise.The administration of Indian sport is two-pronged: the Ministry of Sport, served through its monster-child, the Sports Authority of India (SAI), and the national federations that run individual disciplines. It’s a circus made up of politicians, bureaucrats and career sports administrators, the latter belonging to either one of the first two categories.Once elected to office in a sporting federation – where the voting process involves allegations of bribes, arm-twisting tactics and intimidation – power is not easily relinquished. An Indian succeeds not just because of hard training , but because the gods have decided his federation has a well-meaning set of officials who know what to do with their elite athletes and how to plan their careers.The reason India won only a single medal at Sydney in women’s weightlifting, a discipline in which it had dominated world competition before the sport made its Olympic debut in 2000, was corrupt officials, poor planning, favouritism and biased selection. The same officials, selectors and coaches are still in charge. By now the most dedicated and deserving lifters would have got the message: toe their line or else. Indian hockey could be a metaphor for Indian sport itself, so badly has it slipped-and been allowed to slip-from public consciousness.advertisementTopsy turvyLike the wrestler in this photograph, the Indian athlete can be thrown about-by officialdom. His career is dependent not on his skill but on the quality of officials, mostly unaccountable, who run his sport. Such anarchy exists in a vacuum of leadership and vision. Government control over sport is restricted to the functioning of the SAI, the running of sports hostels across the country and the clearance of special funding and teams for overseas competition; not to areas like keeping an eye on federation elections and a scrutiny of accounts. Moving sport to the Concurrent List will give the Government those rights but its own track record is poor. Poor, in fact, says it all.The national sports budget totals Rs 150 crore, of which the SAI receives Rs 104 crore for maintenance of existing infrastructure, salaries and assorted projects. The outlay for the creation of new infrastructure, promotion of sport in schools and colleges and installation of artificial surfaces does not total more than Rs 16 crore a year. The structures that exist are in a state of disrepair or disuse. When the centre cannot hold, things will keep falling apart.Nothing epitomised the decay in Indian sport as the Arjuna Awards controversy which proved that the prestigious national awards in sport had been turned into a programme of compromised hand-outs. In the list of 2001, India’s greatest male runner, Milkha Singh, was named alongside a sacked hockey coach, a gymnast with no international competition on her CV and an athlete with one half-marathon victory to her name.There will always be two schools of thought on the approach that India must take to sport: whether to concentrate on spending big on putting up stadia and hosting multi-discipline meets and spreading excitement and a buzz around sports, or whether to strengthen the framework on which such grand dreams must essentially rest. Whether to build up the grassroots base from where the numbers will come or to pump money into training a select band of athletes from disciplines that show progress internationally.Ground realitiesThere is a pattern with Indian stadia. Just before a major event, crores of rupees are spent to upgrade the venue, after which maintenance is never a priority, as is evident from the astroturf at this Uttar Pradesh ground. When Indian athletes do well, as the Manchester medallists will testify, administrators, officials and people in politics jostle with each other to organise felicitations and shower them with cash. Everyone likes being fussed over but the more circumspect athlete will say that had they received all that funding and even half that support during training, they could have been slightly better performers. In a world where nano-seconds and millimetres separate a medallist and just another loser, “slightly” embraces a universe. What does Indian sport need more: the Afro-Asian Games (which will cost more than Rs 100 crore) and another set of world-class sports stadia we struggle to maintain once the Games are gone? Or a foolproof, corruption-proof, red-tape-proof programme of nurturing elite athletes and making champions? Champions are the only catalysts that can cause an explosion of interest and enthusiasm around their sport.The 1983 World Cup victory put cricket in a different universe compared to other Indian sports, a universe it still does not share with any other discipline. The burgeoning of chess talent in India has been attributed to the global success of one man, Viswanathan Anand. If India seeks sporting excellence, it will have to rid its establishment of the mediocrity that defines it.