Friday, August 6, 2010

Image seekers

I agree with Mani Shankar Aiyer in essence, although, taken as a whole, his outbursts against the Commonwealth Games sound like axe grinding. The idea I am wholeheartedly with is the need to put money and efforts into excelling in sports, making an international mark and then aspiring to host mega sports events.

One doesn’t know the process by which nations get selected as hosts for these events. Is it enough for them to thump their chests and say we can do it? Or is there a process by which their claims are examined? Are track records checked? Are there parameters against which a nation’s real rather than imagined preparedness determined? How far down the infrastructural ladder can a host nation afford to be if it is to meet deadlines? Are cultural blocks in the way of meeting deadlines such as proven corruption and inefficiency taken into account? Does someone mull over other cultural clues like the phrases by which a nation happily describes its attitudes, in our case “chalta hai” and “we are like that only”?

I have my doubts. But let’s take it from where we are. We’ve asked for this responsibility and been given it. We might even pull it off without too many noticeable glitches. To wish the event to fail as Aiyer has done, is churlish. I’d rather wish everybody involved (Kalmadi and Dikshit in particular) the very best of luck. Having said that, I must return to my original point about the mismatch between the reality and the image we are aspiring to. What will the image bring us if we manage to make a good show of the Commonwealth Games? We will be known as a country that can organise Commonwealth Games, and by extension, other international sports events. That will look good on the country’s CV. But the reality will also be up there on our CV, looking not so good.

The sports environment in India isn’t healthy. A particularly putrid stink has been in the air for the last few weeks around women’s sports. We do not have a consistent sports policy that assures promising young people the rigorous training required for international competition. Cricket is an exception. As the national mania we must leave it out of this discussion, except to point out that the body which administers it hasn’t come out of the IPL scams smelling of roses.

Saina Nehwal has triumphed because she backs her ambition with hard work, dedication, total focus and objectivity in assessing her strengths and weaknesses in the international context. Before her, her trainer Gopichand and before him Prakash Padukone shone in international badminton. Chess is the other golden feather in our cap. Then there’s tennis where there have been a few enthusing ups, neutralised somewhat by acres of plateau and several downs.

Let’s take the Olympics as a measure of where we are. Khashaba Jadhav won a bronze in 1952 at Helsinki. Milkha Singh, “the Flying Sikh” was a terror on the tracks between 1958 and 1960. He won golds right, left and centre. But when it came to the Rome Olympics in 1960, he lost his bronze in a photo finish. Twenty-four years later, another star runner, P. T. Usha, enacted the same script. It was medals galore before the Olympics and defeat by 1/100th of a second in a photo finish at Los Angeles in 1984. Then there was silence till 2008, when suddenly India won one gold in shooting (Abhinav Bindra) and two bronzes, Sushil Kumar in wrestling and Vijender Kumar in boxing. Soon after Bindra was treated shabbily by Indian selectors who didn’t see the importance of the amount of practice he had to put in to stay where he was.
Point is, we don’t really care about sports. Had we cared, we’d have been at the top more often. Look at the pool we can draw from-- 1,150,000,000 (1.15 billion) people at last count. Why then do we compete so fiercely to host mega sporting events and see them as a mark of national pride? I can think of only one answer. Because we worship false images, and we worship MONEY. We see how much of that has been slipping into committee members’ ever hungry pockets.