Need a middle ground in nurturing sportspersons

Sure it was a disappointment that Abhinav Bindra could not defend his Olympic gold at the London Olympics. But that only underlines the high level of difficulty of winning an Olympic medal in the first place. That Gagan Narang got a bronze in the same event (10m air rifle) shows the level of commitment, grit and skill required to get a podium finish.

Bindra is one of those rare and lucky Indians who did not have to use the state system to hone his talent or to win in Beijing in 2008. Most of the rest have to depend on available infrastructure, money and coaching to perform at an international level. And as we all know (or we should) India falls very short when it comes to nurturing sports talent. The William sisters used public courts to train on — and have dominated women’s tennis ever since they first burst on the world stage a over decade ago. Who in India can manage such an achievement?

Proud moment: Indian shooter Gagan Narang poses with the bronze medal won in the Men's 10m Air Rifle Shooting final at the London Olympics on Monday. Pic/Getty Images 

Given the enormous public interest with which India greets the Olympics and the evident desire for Indians to do better or the pain-filled cynicism when we lose, it is sad that we do not spend any time or money building up our talent base. It doesn’t have to be the Iron Curtain or Chinese way of setting up factories to produce top sportspersons. We can perhaps find a middle ground somewhere.

It hurts after all to be told that we have the least number of medal winners in the world proportionate to our population. But hand-wringing and jingoism are not the answers. And, nor, incidentally, is blaming cricket. The fact is that cricket is the easiest sport to play in India. It has the best support systems and more has been invested in it.

The government has played little or no role in the development of cricket but that doesn’t mean that the government can be let off the hook. Apart from the dismal treatment of athletes there is also the abysmal lack of infrastructure. I don’t know why we have a sports ministry but it has certainly failed in developing and nurturing talent.

And then of course there’s us, the great people of India. All those parents who do not want their children to “waste” their time on anything but swotting to become one more half-baked engineer, all those schools who don’t bother with playgrounds, all those teachers who would rather give you five years of homework in one evening rather than two hours playing time — maybe they have some answering to do when we don’t win medals at international events.

And then we have our moneybags. Rather than commission an ad agency to compose inspirational “go India” songs, why not cough up a little more to set up sports academies and training facilities? I would dare even to suggest that building that fancy Formula 1 track outside Delhi need not have been our top priority as far as sports infrastructure goes.

But enough carping: the Olympics is the greatest show on earth and it has been a delight so far, right from the quirky opening ceremony. It’s not just about India. It’s also about appreciating the best talent the world has to offer. It is about admiring the great effort and years of training that goes into a 9 second race or a one minute swim. It’s about the best and even the worst of being human concentrated into 17 days of action.

And most of all, it is about heart-grabbing moments like watching a 15 year old Lithuanian girl unable to hold back her tears as she realises she has just had the swim of her life defeating all the favourites.

A celebration of being us.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona 

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