Dipa Karmakar showed us everything that was right about sports in India and everything that was wrong.
She brought a country together. Even the Twitterati paused their normal squabbling to watch with bated breath her Produnova vault on Sunday night. When she landed, the country exhaled. It was not good enough for a medal but she was still our hero. And she had a story that was made for Bollywood – the humble beginnings without proper shoes or a costume, the gym that leaked in the monsoon, mats piled on top of each other instead of a vaulting table. She defied all odds in getting to the final. She was the pride of India.
And she was India's shame as well. She had come as far as she did because of her grit and her coach's perseverance. India had little too do with it. She had asked for her longtime physiotherapist to accompany her to Rio. That was denied as too "wasteful" until she qualified for the final. What was not "wasteful" were all those officials who flew business class to Rio while the athletes were crammed into coach.
Swati Chaturvedi reported for Scoopwhoop that India's chief medical officer at the Olympics was a radiologist who spent most of his time hanging by the pool and prescribing Combiflam. He also happens to be the son of the vice president of the Olympic association. Abhay Singh Chautala, son of the former Haryana CM, now out on bail is partying in Rio and apparently boosting athlete morale. And then there was the selfie-taking sports minister Vijay Goel who sent out an encouraging message to Karmakar before her event. It had his own picture and misspelled her name. Shobhaa De was almost right with her much maligned comment about going to Rio for selfies. But she should have targeted it not at the hapless athletes but the babus.
Now a report by The Telegraph shows why India fails its Dipa Karmakars so consistently. Despite all those bureaucrats who flew business class to Rio India's sport policy, The Telegraph says India's sports policy "shows bipolar swings year-on-year."
In 2009, the sports ministry picked athletics, archery, badminton, boxing, weightlifting, and shooting as probably Olympic medal targets. It then added tennis and hockey to that priority list. But as the report shows it did not follow through with sustained funding and investment. Athletics got 81.04 lakh in 2012-13, then 1014.37 in 2103-14 and down to 83.55 in 2014-15. Boxing got 1145.49 lakh in 2013-14 which went down to 99.36 in 2014-15. Weightlifting went from 229.35 to 530.22 to a mere 83.47 over those same three years. And that does not go into whether the funds were utilized optimally. The odds are stacked against any Dipa Karmakar in a system like this where the national federations are led mostly by politicians, not sports professionals.
As Olympic champion Abhinav Bindra told Scoopwhoop, "It's only after you win that you get government attention. This sort of system and planning cannot produce champions."
Now that Karmakar has come so close to her medal, she might get an extra boost in training for Tokyo. But there's no sign that anything else will change on the ground for the next unknown gymnast from a small town somewhere in India.
The odds are stacked against any Dipa Karmakar in a system like this where the national federations are led mostly by politicians, not sports professionals.
We care little about sports and the unsung years of investment it needs to produce true sports stars instead of the occasional meteoric exception. Instead as Amitava Kumar writes in the New Yorker "if for the rest of the world the Olympic Games represent glorious achievement through sports, for many urban, educated, middle-class Indians, they offer only a ritual wallowing in a feeling of failure."
And that feeling of failure has only been exacerbated in post-liberalization India where we have been told we can get to Mars on the first attempt and at a fraction of the cost. The immediate gratification of medals and glory is even more urgent now. Luckily we finally have got our shot of gratification.
Sakshi Malik has won a bronze in wrestling ending India's medal drought. The Prime Minister has been quick to congratulate her on winning on the auspicious day of Raksha Bandhan. She's now a sister who has made all her brothers proud. Of course the irony of that goes unnoticed by most. Sakshi Malik is hardly seeking the protection of her brothers. Just like Karmakar came as far as she did despite the Indian state, Malik succeeded despite many of those "brothers".
As Huffington Post reports Malik comes from Mokhra near Rohtak in Haryana where the male:female child sex ratio is an abysmal 834. Her coach said locals protested when he took her on. "She has given befitting reply to people who say women can't be wrestlers," said her mother.
Karmkar said she wished she had come fifth or sixth. Then it would have hurt less.
The tragedy of our Olympic story is that it is filled with these pinpricks of light – Dipa Karmakar, Sakshi Malik, Abhinav Bindra, PT Usha, Milkha Singh, Mary Kom. But what have they added up to? Most of them come with the same against-all-odds story over and over again. It makes for an uplifting Bollywood script but shows the gaping holes in any consistent sports policy. Have the lessons of their struggles made it any easier for the next generation of athletes?
Or are we doomed to repeat that old Star Wars joke again and again? May the fourth be with us? PT Usha, queen of Indian track came 4th in the 400 meter hurdles in the 1984 Los Angeles games. In the 1960 Rome Olympics Milkha Singh came fourth in the 400meters. There are bio pics about some of these athletes mythologizing the almost-won moments. Deepa's fourth now gets added to that tally. Karmkar said she wished she had come fifth or sixth. Then it would have hurt less.
But that fourth, that almost-medal moment is important too. It is a reminder once again of both our potential and our failure to unlock it. The question is how many reminders will it take for us to act upon it?
Or will we just be happy now that Sakshi Malik has saved the face of 1.3 billion people with her bronze?
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