The Olympics take place once every four years. India plays Sri Lanka every four days and yet I care more for that than for the Olympics.
The reason for the simple. Any cricket engagement allows me, an Indian, to be optimistic about our chances. In Olympics, leaving aside hopes of superb individual performances from a few talented athletes or a “May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss” walk d’grace from Madame Madhura, we know, even before we take the stage, that on the list of medal winners, we will be near the bottom.
This happens more or less every time and every time, the reaction is equally predictable.
National humiliation… We are a country of so many crores and yet….
Questions are raised in Parliament, people froth at the mouth, humorists have a field day, ministers announce a committee and life moves on.
Of course, there are some who will say that the Olympics are simply an inspirational exhibition of what the human body and spirit can achieve—it’s all about participation, not about winning and losing.
Yeah right. Tell that to the North Koreans. Tell that to the Chinese. Tell that to the jingoistic commentators on CNN who gleefully announce that the US gymnasts made the Russian girls weep. Tell that to the NBC folks who telecast, more or less, only those sports where the US is likely to win.
The Olympics is all about which nation’s dick is the proudest, and Indians perennially seem as if they stepped out from a cold shower.
In order for us to win the apposite number of medals for our population, or at least enough for our collective Nirupa Roys to beam in “Aaj tumhare peetaji kitne khush hote” delight, there are essentially two ways forward.
The first is, of course, the American way. This means investing a lot of money in sporting infrastructure across schools and universities across the country—Olympics size swimming pools, track and field stadiums, the works and putting in place programs that incentivize athletes through college scholarships.
Here’s the thing. We don’t have that much money. And the Americans have a huge huge time-advantage, which unless we have a time machine we really cannot do much about.
But we are so shining right now, aren’t we? Surely we have money. All this cash we put into cricket and that damn blasted, responsible-for-all-evils IPL—surely, some of this can be diverted for such noble sports?
The problem is “Why should we?” And even more importantly is “How should we?” IPL in particular and cricket in general aren’t like Mayawati’s statues, funded by government fiat on tax-payer’s money that we may argue that be re-distributed to “other” sports. Cricket started off, in penury, like every other sport and whether it be luck (winning the World Cup in 1983) and/or through good management (it’s one of the sports not managed by the government), it has become the behemoth it has become today. Let’s not begrudge its success. Hockey has its chance (there was a time after independence when hockey was the number one sport in the country) but it blew it. Badminton was as neglected as other sports but with Saina emerging as a winner, and her getting endorsement deals (1.5 crores worth of it which she rejected) [Link], a whole generation of youngsters may be inspired to take up badminton. Maybe.
Remember that America too has its pro-sports like NBA, NFL and they are as commercial as the IPL, if not even more. Going into such pro-leagues remain the first choice for most youngsters with an aptitude for sports, because they provide opportunities for more wealth, fame and glamour than track and field, swimming and gymnastics. Kind of how it is with cricket in India.
However in the US, no one blames pro-sports for eating into Olympics performance.
Why? Because it doesn’t. That’ s because there is no real conflict between the two, each having their own niches, with sizes being proportional to demand .
The other model,bizarrely favored by many in India perhaps it is the way China “caught” up with the West, is the USSR/erstwhile Communist country model of total government control, now aggressively adopted by North Korea and China. One of the way totalitarian regimes persist is by promoting an aggressive ideology of nationalism, as a means of engendering a collective “feel good” which compensates, in a way, for the deprivation of basic privileges to its citizens, thus stymieing anti-authority dissent . Pwning the world in competitions like the Olympics has always been considered a vital part of such “Bow to the supreme awesomeness of our country under the glorious leadership of the Great Revolutionary Leader” strategies.
Since they have absolute control over wealth in the country, they don’t need to care about trifles like “market” and “demand”. They just pour in the money (cause hey it’s the “people”‘s money) and so, of course, they get amazing results.
But at what human cost?
A long time ago, I saw an interview of a gymnast (too long ago for there to be an Youtube video to linked to) who had defected from an erstwhile Communist country. In it, she detailed what the system was. Children in schools were subject to a series of physical tests and those that met certain standards (for gymnastics, flexibility and balance were much sought after) were shipped to specialized centers. From there, they went through a winnowing process, from sub-division then to province then to state and then to national, all through being subject to military-training-like regimen with boot-camps and tyrannical coaches and indoctrination sessions. And all this, before they had even gone into their teens.
I remember quite a few things about that interview—-of how she was punished physically (she passed out) for stealing a chocolate bar when she was eleven (they had very strict weight limits and dietary restrictions), of how she was never given a choice of doing anything else (she hated gymnastics but know if she ran away from camp, she would be charged with desertion), and of how petrified she was when she appeared in the Olympics, knowing how valuable the price of success (being assured of state support for life, being held up as an inspirational “hero of the people” for others to emulate) terrible the price of failure would be.
The interviewer asked her “What would be the price of failure?” She said that would be a board that would review one’s performance once they got home and if the board determined that best efforts were not put in, the price could be terrible—-from being forced to become a janitor at one of the coaching centers to fates even worse. The worst tyrants in the system, she said, were actually the “failed athletes”, those who just missed the Olympics grade because they were not good-enough or developed a serious injury at the wrong time. These then became the coaches, scouts or boot-camp-instructors, taking out their frustrations on generations of little children, creating a fresh batch of damaged children.
All this for the sake of “national” pride.
Things havent changed much today.North Korean winners get fridges and losers get labor camps. And these are some pictures from what Chinese kids go through.
It shocks me when I hear Indians say “This kind of training is exactly what we should we doing.” There is of course an assumption here—-they themselves or their children should not be subject to such “put adult foot on young child’s knees” the training ; after all the assumption always is that someone else should “sacrifice for the nation” for the sake of my patriotic rush. They also do not understand that such draconian training can be done only in totalitarian regimes where people, under fear of terrible state retribution, do not have the right to say “No”.
There is a false analogy often made here to provide a form of moral equivalence-based justification for the “Communist” model. That being that even in the US, there are tyrannical parents that push their children inhumanly, in the same manner that many Indian parents drive their children into nervous breakdown for the sake of academic achievement. So how is the Chinese state model any worse?
First of all, leaving aside a few demented souls, parents will, in general, treat their own children much better than government-apppointed coaches that have strict performance targets to meet and with their own issues to handle. Second, there is also a big difference in expectations between behavior of individuals and the behavior of the state, where the state is held up to a higher standard (as an example, every country witnesses murder, but only the truly dysfunctional witness spate-sponsored murder as a matter of policy). Third, even if we assume that the effect of a totalitarian state and tyrannical parents are exactly the same on the development of a child, once that child becomes an adult, he/she is under no obligation to continue doing that which he/she has been forced to.When someone goes to IIT and drops out to become a stand-up comedian, the worst that can happen is his Dad never speaks to him again. This, I believe, is infinitely better than being forced by the State to break stones in a camp in the Himalayas for deserting the path chosen for him by “the glorious peoples”.
The other essential problem with the sporting system under totalitarian systems is that the system can produce results only in the presence of infinite state sponsorship and the absolute lack of transparency. East Germany was a sporting powerhouse once.In 1988, East Germany won 102 medals and was second in the total medals tally (above USA). (Taking West Germany’s 40, the total tally for the Germanies would be 142). After unification, Germany (East and West together) won 82 medals (becoming third) in 1992. In 1996 their medal tally had become 65. In other words, the so-called infrastructure the Communists imploded spectacularly once the political system was no longer in place. Successful East German athletes, who had been spoilt by infinite government largesse into their training , could not adjust to the leaner market demands of a capitalist economy (basically the same thing that happens to nationalized industries once exposed to the market). In addition, West German sporting authorities were not entirely sure that the training regimens of their erstwhile East German comrades were as “drug-free” as mandated by the IOC. Which is why many of them were not even fielded to avoid embarrassment. Needless to say, performance-enhancing drugs can be administered with much less risk in totalitarian regimes where the government itself may be complicit (as opposed to the athlete himself) and where there is little risk of whistle-blowing or exposure in the press. (In 2000, Germany had become 5th with 56 medals and in 2004, it became 6th with 49).
Our Indian government, of course, likes to assure us that they will, like China and North Korea, plan our success in competitions like Olympics. They know they lack the absolute power of totalitarian regimes to force people into programs and the absolute authority to underwrite these programs to the extent needed to get actual results. This of course does not prevent them from cutting some ribbons, making some speeches and keeping up the facade of “strategy”.
And for good reason.
It enables them to siphon off taxpayer money to the different bureaucrats, association heads, the politicians and the power-brokers. The only difference with totalatarian regimes is that their intent is to give their people a sense of false achievement so that they do not revolt against those deemed responsible for this achievement. In India, the driving force behind governmental sporting initiatives is primarily moving money to dark corners.
Which brings me to the point of the post. Its time to stop thinking of our Olympics performances as national humiliation. There are bigger national humiliations that require our attention, like the woeful condition of the national health system, the state of rural electrification, extreme poverty, and of course I could go on.
Remember this. When you make a noise about the Olympics, the government is only too glad to come up with “solutions” (committees, commisions and recommendations). And Kalmadi and his ilk take home the gold. Literally.
There is the other alternative. Since we claim to be so concerned about the Olympics and national pride, we can, let’s say, watch the National Games. Maybe buy tickets and go to the stadium. Maybe tune in to it when they show it on DD (I presume they still do, they used to a long time ago). And maybe once advertisers see people at stadiums, they can put up billboards and buy advertising slots on TV and athletics would be privately funded, as cricket is. Maybe instead of complaining on social media as to how “Indian media shows only cricket” (Guess why? Du-h), they can pledge to support by buying products from companies that contribute to successful private initiatives like Olympic Gold Quest. And of course act on that pledge.
Maybe that can work.
Am I going to do that? Not likely. Given an hour of leisure, I am going to spend it on cricket. Which is why I believe I have no right to wring my hands and shout “It’s a national humiliation” when we are found hanging to the bottom of the medals tally. And I have even lesser right to expect the government to “deal with it” when I have no sustained (the word “sustained” is crucial, I of course am a Vijender fan when the Olympics come around) interest in the fate of the Olympics sports and those that play them.
Of course, I will not say this aloud, on my Facebook status I will say “Ravindra Jadeja earns in a day what Mary Kom will not earn in a life-time. Share this if you believe this is a shame”
Also, I believe, the Olympics is hardly the glorious competition it is marketed to be with medals on sale, and with amazing levels of politicking by countries like the US who stuff the Olympics with games they can win, games that hardly have true global appeal. Thus, short of the streamrolling national investment of the Chinese, it is virtually impossible to break in to the circle of privilege, in a major way.
So I personally have ditched the once-dream of competing with China in the Olympics as a surrogate for national achievement.
The human and financial costs of that, I believe, are something we as a nation can ill-afford.
I will, of course, be happy for those that won medals. It didn’t come easy to any of them.
But I will definitely try not blame those that didn’t.
I was not a witness to how they came to where they are. And so I have no right to feel cheated or humiliated by their failures.
If I want my chest-thumping Hoo Haa India nationalistic hijinks (and we all need that), there is always an India-Sri Lanka cricket match going on.
Or at the very least, IPL.
I hear India always wins that tournament.