The Olympics represent the pinnacle of human endeavour. This once in four years sporting spectacle captures the imagination of the whole world like nothing else.
Sports like archery, shooting, fencing, and many others that otherwise don't get much attention take centrestage during the games.
The medal standings are rather predictable year after year. In the last couple of decades, the United States and China have been competing for the top position, followed by Russia, Australia, Japan and a few other sporting powerhouses. Before the fall of the iron curtain, the Soviet Union was the most dominant sporting power. Smaller countries like the Koreas, Kenya, Canada and Italy also bag a decent medal haul every year in a few events that they have traditionally been strong in.
There is factionalism, nepotism, negligence, sycophancy and all sorts of corruption, which prevent Indian athletes from achieving their fullest potential.
One major country that has been a perennial underperformer has been India. Barring hockey, India has not enjoyed global domination in any other sport, and since the 1970s, it has faltered even in there. A country of over a billion people struggles to make its presence felt in the world of sport.
In all fairness, India has made significant strides in recent years. From returning empty handed through most of the '80s and '90s, India has been winning a handful of medals in every edition since 1996. Most notable has been a steady stream of boxers, wrestlers, shooters and archers who have been competing and winning, and thereby establishing a measure of presence and reputation in these disciplines.
It is also significant to note that the number of Indian athletes qualifying for the Olympics has gone up. The Indian contingent for the Rio Olympics on 2016 is 118 strong, which is its largest ever. That itself is no mean achievement when you look at the stringent qualification marks for athletes to get the ticket to the main event.
Encouraging as this trend is, there is still a lot left to be desired in terms of India's performance at the world's premiere sporting contest. A country of India's size and heft must do more than just compete well at the Olympics.
As the green shoots of a sporting culture emerge in a rapidly growing India, more and more youngsters are getting exposure and the opportunity to take up sports. While most parents still stress the importance of studying hard and getting a job, many are willing to encourage their children to play more. The success of the IPL in cricket and the growth of leagues in sports like football, hockey, kabaddi and badminton has shown people that it is possible to make lucrative careers in sports today.
The sporting infrastructure has also witnessed improvement and there are several government programs that invest substantial amounts of money to nurture talent. However, the biggest challenge that India must overcome is its own bureaucracy and sports administration.
Potbellied bureaucrats who don't know a pole vault from a high jump are not the best people to look after the interests of sports and sportspersons.
Much of the good work gets undone by a combination of ineptitude and apathy on the part of the officials entrusted with growing sports in the country. Many officials run the sports bodies like their personal fiefdom, sacrificing players' careers and interests at the altar of their own egos.
There is factionalism, nepotism, negligence, sycophancy and all sorts of corruption, which prevent Indian athletes from achieving their fullest potential. A great example of this is the suspension of the Indian Boxing Federation in 2012 by the AIBA for manipulation of its elections. The momentum that India had built in boxing in the preceding years came to a grinding halt. The biggest sufferers of this ban were the young boxers who could not participate in tournaments and therefore did not get adequate exposure and experience. As a result, the number of Indian boxers in Rio is just four, versus eight in London.
Similarly, hockey witnessed a major power struggle between two factions, which ultimately led to the players suffering. In addition to politics, athletes have also been affected by poor planning. Coaches being moved around at the whims of the officials, hastily planned tours, and insufficient preparation for important events hamper the performance of players.
Governments across the world play a big role in funding sports bodies in their countries. In fact, government support is essential for the survival of many disciplines that are not economically very self-sufficient. Not every sport has the mass appeal and fan base of cricket, football or basketball.
However, that support must be channelled efficiently with adequate checks and balances to ensure that the officials in charge do not misuse their authority and actually work for the betterment of sports in the country.
It is important to pick professionals who know something about the sport to be in charge of its administration. Potbellied bureaucrats who don't know a pole vault from a high jump and a shot put from a discus are not the best people to look after the interests of sports and sportspersons in the country. Get experts who can understand the needs of a sportsperson and the challenges they face. Such administrators would be able to address the gaps, get better results and ultimately deliver more bang for the buck.
The next step would be to institute performance metrics and greater accountability with corporate-style functioning.
The next step would be to institute performance metrics and greater accountability with corporate-style functioning. What the BCCI has achieved for cricket is a fine example of what such an autonomous structure can achieve for the sport. Such a corporate structure would lead to better management of sports and greater opportunity for athletes.
These changes could result in significant improvements in the system and make it more responsive. A better run sports administration would have a major impact all the way down to the grassroots level. It would make it easier to spot talent and then groom it to produce world-beaters. This is the way to create a pipeline of champions across various age groups.
Freeing up the sports administration from the grip of bureaucracy also permits more innovations and transparency. More leagues in more sports, with ample participation from foreign players will help popularize sports and expose Indian players to the best in the world. The recent success of the Indian hockey team is due in large measure to the Hockey India League, which gets the best players from around the world to play in India. A similar league for women would serve to strengthen their performance as well.
Indian boxers, weightlifters and shooters have also shown that Indians can compete with the best in the world. It is just a matter of providing the right infrastructure and a favourable environment that allows talent to flourish. India is in the midst of major reform in all spheres and if the right steps are taken in sports, the nation will truly be able to look forward to many more medals in future Olympic Games.