India recently put up its best show at the Olympics, winning total of 6 medals including 2 silver. This show came on the heels of strong showings in the Delhi Common Wealth Games 2010 and the Guangzhou Asian Games 2011. No doubt the showing by the athletes is commendable, but do we think that it is a big achievement that we still crave for a single gold medal even though we are the second populous country in the world?
For long we have taken pride in being the world champions in hockey and boast of players of the caliber of the hockey wizard, Major Dhyan Chand. The Major had such mastery over the ball that in Berlin, 1936 the officials broke his stick to check for magnets. No one could comprehend his level of skill. India's record of retaining the hockey gold for 24 years is still unbroken. Yet, if you took at the medal tally it would say one medal. For about 60 years India's best showing was 1 gold+1 bronze by Kasaba Jadhav, which was bettered in 2008 Beijing games. For 3 consecutive games from Atlanta 1996 to Athens 2004 we gloated over a solitary medal for our showing, either silver or bronze. Certain countries like North Korea would wonder what we are celebrating so much when small countries like them can win 3-4 gold medals at one games.
Many of us would feel that given our manpower, we should do better and win 3-4 gold medals at least, if not 30-40 which USA/China consider as regular. And this "many" would include a considerable number of foreigners also. We did win 3 medals at Beijing, now doubled that at London and we aim for 10 medals at Rio, which is a distinct possibility also. The current generation of winners should inspire the next generations and we should produce more and more winners over the decades. That sounds good on hearing, but we also need a reality check. Fact is, we can become a sporting superpower but the way things are now, I do not see it happening.
Everyone wants to get his share of publicity by giving big rewards to the winners. When the river is flowing, wash your hands in it. When the people are overjoyed, spend a little and come in the news for it. Fact is, the facilities at the grass root and the system remains the same as before. Sushil Kumar still has to train in a ghetto sort of room with 8-10 wrestlers in one room with just one fan for his stay.
So whats it like in the current sporting superpowers? Lets take a brief look. Firstly, we consider USA. In USA the grades of every students are tied to excellence is sports, and you are free to choose the sport of your choice. So the schools as well as parents are bound to provide facilities for sports. As a result, by the time you pass out of school, most of the students play at least two games at a competitive level. In contrast, 90% of us Indians are not even aware of most of the games, let alone know how to play it. For instance, you did not even know what "double trap shooting" is before Colonel Rajya Vardhan Singh Rathore won that silver at Athens, perhaps you still dont know but do understand its a shooting event. So how do we excel at sports when we have never even played the sport in our life? Olympic sports like boxing and wrestling still remain the poor man's sports as there is virtually no glamour or career scope perceived by the middle or upper class. People take up sports to serve as a means for landing a government job, or some seat in govt college in sports quota.
As for China, they are a classic example of what a communist nation can achieve. Everything is provided by the state, and the individuals work for the state. China did not participate in the Olympics till they deemed themselves worthy of winning. They first participated in the games in 1952(only in one event) and then were a regular from 1984 when they won their first gold medal. China has taken a strategic approach to maximizing the number of medals. In the Olympics, maximum number of medals can be won in individual events. Like in athletics, one person can participate in multiple events like Michael Phelps participates in races of varying lengths, and also in the relay race. Whereas in team events, about a dozen people combine to win a solitary medal at best. This also reflects in China's showing where they dominate the individual events but come a cropper in the team events like football and hockey. Either they don't participate, or participate and come last in such events. Having said that, they have pumped billions of dollars in their sports like table tennis, badminton etc where their level of domination is beyond belief. Like in table tennis, they sweep all medals across the disciplines like singles and doubles. But their domination does not end there. A majority of the players representing the rest of the countries are also from Chinese origin ! They took to playing for other countries since the competition is too tough in China. China provides top class facilities to its players even at the grass root level.
If we contrast that with India, we would find that for a long period we were dominant in only hockey. So, no matter how good we were, we would get only one medal, and nothing was done about the other sports. Now, there is some shift in this scenario and we are now producing more competitive players in individual areas and at the same time we are flopping in hockey. So the number of medals is expected to go up only. Although, the facilities that our players get cannot begin to compare with the facilities and system in China.
The third place in the London Olympics went to hosts England, and we were a hard to notice #55. Its true that they would have got certain decisions in their favour, but we fail to notice their preparation expenses were also 10 times more than us. We were supposed to be a superpower in archery, boasting of the likes of Deepika Kumari who is the world number 1. But everyone flopped and lost in the first round, including Deepika. Stats show that England, which is not even a known superpower in archery, had spent more than 4 times the amount we spent on archery. The way our archers displayed nerves it is evident that they need a psychologist, though the windy conditions in England also created problems, and England did have the home advantage.
So how do we approach the olympics and what can we hope to achieve? We are not physically very strong but we are good in sports that require skill. So we can do well in sports like shooting, badminton, wrestling, archery, boxing etc but we would struggle to make a mark in athletics I believe. We can target such sports initially and make them our string point for the times to come. Our current contingents become nervous when it comes to the crunch so we lack mental toughness which should be ingrained. If we give top class training facility and equipment to our players and they display tough character and temperament we should be good enough for 2-3 gold medals with our current contingents, which should be a realistic target. If we want to become a superpower, it wont happen until sports are embraced at school level and we target sports like we targeted literacy at one point.