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Leander Paes's Davis Cup Ouster Is Yet Another Example Of India's Sporting Failures

We need professionalism, integrity and above all, good form.

07/04/2017 4:09 PM IST | Updated 20/04/2017 3:01 PM IST
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Not much is right in the world of Indian sports. The subcontinent has not made a football World Cup in seven decades and holds the worst Olympic record in terms of medals per capita. How is it that a nation of a billion-plus people fails to such a humiliating degree on the international sporting stage? How is it acceptable that Shiva Keshavan, the country's sole Winter Olympian, was forced to use a makeshift sledge, practice on dangerous Himalayan roads, and rely on crowd funding to make his way to the Sochi Games? How is it tolerable that long-distance runner OP Jaisha literally collapsed at the Rio Games because Indian officials failed to provide her with adequate nourishment? Contrast this glaring lack of national support with countries such as China, which pours almost 3 billion dollars into its Olympic contingency, or the United Kingdom, which spends approximately 4.5 million pounds per medal earned.

On full display is the same favouritism, lack of transparency, egotism and petty rivalry that shattered India's hopes for a London Olympic doubles medal.

India punches well below its weight for a multitude of reasons, but none is as obvious as the fact that athletics have never been a national priority. While India is quick to glorify its few success stories, it does surprisingly little to sustain the hard-fought journey. The lack of quality training facilities, reputable coaching, and overall infrastructure give proof to the country's subpar sporting federations, most of which are chaired by apathetic and ignorant bureaucrats. Poor management, systemic corruption and general apathy are widespread, which does little to generate sporting interest. Beyond the poor management and systemic corruption, a lack of public health precludes a large percentage of the country from even participating. India has the highest rate of stunted growth in children as well as perhaps the poorest air quality in the world, which makes consistently competing at an elite level nearly impossible.

In the face of this reality, the fact is that Indian athletes who have achieved international success do so not because of but rather in spite of the country's sporting system. And as a sports-fanatic NRI who was born and raised in the USA (a country that understands neither the premise nor the popularity of cricket), I can confidently state that no one has done more to put India on the global sporting map than tennis ace Leander Paes. Sports is as much about captivating hearts and generating interest in the game as it is about winning, and no one has done this better than him. With 18 Grand Slams and an individual Olympic medal under his belt, not to mention an unparalleled dedication to the game and an unheard of devotion to his country, it comes as quite a shock that the man who epitomises Indian tennis has been unceremoniously dropped from the Davis Cup squad. That too for a rag tag bunch of mostly no-names. On full display is the same favouritism, lack of transparency, egotism and petty rivalry that shattered India's hopes for a London Olympic doubles medal.

Passionate athletes, such as Paes, Keshavan and Jaisha, are India's true heavy hitters and should be placed on a pedestal worthy of their sacrifice.

The juvenile chat messages simply prove that the final decision was premeditated and designed to humiliate. No one is claiming that Captain Bhupathi guaranteed a spot for his former mate. Instead, early March messages show him hedging a final decision, stating that "form and results over the next 3/4 weeks" is what will determine his call. This verbatim quote is the point of contention, since his ultimate criterion was neither formnor results, proven by the fact that Paes's recent doubles victory fell on deaf ears. Instead, Bhupathi seemed to decide his team composition based on rankings, some arbitrary "fitness test", serve speed, and which day of the week players landed in Bangalore. Yes, the Captain has every right to choose his team according to self-determined factors; but if those factors were immutable, then there was no need to build suspense and incite drama by waiting until the day before play to announce the line-up. Indeed, a simple phone call stating that his decision had been made based on long-term objective data that he was not willing to look past would have been the courteous thing to do. Yes it still would have been hurtful, but at least the ensuing theatrics would have been avoided.

This sort of play calling is unacceptable and quite honestly an embarrassment to the Indian community at large. If the country cannot clean up its act when it comes to simple sporting decisions, how will it begin to grapple with larger issues such as education, infrastructure, health, and sanitation? Passionate athletes, such as Paes, Keshavan and Jaisha, are India's true heavy hitters and should be placed on a pedestal worthy of their sacrifice. Thankfully, the current Modi government seems to understand that investment in sport not only burnishes global reputation, but is also a critical driver of lasting socioeconomic change. Perhaps his Olympic Task Force will infuse a much-needed dose of professionalism, integrity and above all, good form, into the world of Indian sports.

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