India is a land of many talents, but sports isn't really one of them.
The performance of our sportsmen in the last 6 months or so is astounding, the Nehru Cup in football, the Asia cup in Hockey, good show by Sania Mirza in Tennis, World Cup Twenty20 in cricket and most recently Vishwanathan Anand becoming the World Champion in chess. The euphoria generated in the wake could provide a perfect ground for sowing seeds of a sports culture, a dimension sadly lacking in our national life.
As a nation we are proud of our ancient civilization. Our religious culture has produced great scholars and seekers of salvation, enlistment the world over look to India for advice in religious matters; matters related to the soul, the atma.
But sadly, we have never had what could be called a sports culture. Not even in Mahabharata days did we have a sports culture. Archery, boxing and wrestling were used as war weapons. But no contests were held even in these disciplines. And training in these was restricted to the elite, mostly the princes. An Eklavaya with immense potential was refused admission to the training classes of Guru Dronacharya.
The childhood activities of Lord Krishna were tending of cows, stealing butter, playing pranks and the flute, not active sports. Lord Rama did learn 'Baan Vidya' seriously but not as a sports activity.
Sports excellence was used to kill or subdue the enemy or the adversary and not for promoting the higher, the faster and the stronger concepts, the hallmarks of modern sports.
With stress on spiritual matters we paid more attention to the soul and the other world, neglecting the body and the material, physical world. We forgot that a noble sole should have a worthy, strong body.
With the advent of modern sport and the Olympic movement, Indians did put in serious effort in some sports. Dhyan Chand lead the hockey crusade and India ruled the roost for three decades winning seven gold medals. Milkha Singh broke the world record in 400m at Rome in 1960 (but unfortunately three others did the same, ahead of him). P.T. Usha showed the world that Indian women are capable of competing with the best. Prakash Padukone beat the world single handed winning the All-England and the world title in badminton.
But all these are stray cases of excellence and none of them are products of sports culture. They are all self-made greats.
India can at the most claim to have a cricket culture. But cricket culture is not sports culture and it is more a bane than a boon to Indian sports.
If we had a sports culture in place, Dingko Singh would continue to do well, Paramjit Singh would not vanish into thin air, Gopi Chand would have come on the scene much earlier and P.T. Usha's records would have been long broken.
The world's second most populous nation behind China ranks dead last worldwide in the number of Olympic medals won per capita. Paraguay, Niger and Iraq have done better. How bad is India's sporting scene? When international officials stopped by recently to review New Delhi's progress toward hosting the 2010 Commonwealth Games, an Olympics-like sports competition for former British colonies, they noted that the infrastructure work was pretty much on track. But they suggested, not so subtly, that India might want to pay more attention to preparing its athletes, to ward off embarrassment. India, as proud and nationalistic a country as they come, can't seem to get out of the starting blocks when it comes to the race for Olympic gold. Why should that be, particularly with a potential talent pool of 1.1billion people? India does funnel a respectable amount of money toward its sports federations, bureaucratic structures set up to manage competition in each sport and train athletes. But unlike in China, Russia or Cuba, where state-run training programs focus on turning out finely tuned athletes, India's sports centers spend much of their budget on salaries for bureaucrats, while athletes complain about lack of money for track improvements, coaches and better running shoes.Athletes' feelings of being less than a priority were compounded recently when New Delhi officials announced plans to shut all of the city's stadiums over the next few months to facilitate renovation in advance of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, leaving Olympic contenders scrambling to find other practice grounds.
It's time the Sports Authority of India; the state associations and sports federations prove their credibility and worth and put sports culture on firm footing.
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