Close to four years of my schooling were mostly devoted to sports. My parents were very supportive despite their limited means. Though I had all possible support at my disposal, I achieved very little. So, I am not writing this as an expert but as an observer with some understanding of sports training and athletes.
In the district of Madurai (with a population of nearly three million), there were just five indoor badminton courts in the mid-90s and none of them were wooden ones. Access to these courts was limited. With the help of my dad, I got to play in a government officers' club and was among the lucky few to get access to indoor courts. This way I eliminated most of my competitors. The reason? My dad was a government officer.
Given the costs associated with badminton, I can confidently say that all the top players would have had to come from at least a middle class background...
A pair of proper badminton shoes used to cost at least ₹900 even in those days and a box of 10 locally made feather shuttlecocks set you back by at least ₹220. If two good players are at a game for three hours, they would need at least three-four shuttlecocks. Again, I got lucky here as the club provided a decent number of shuttlecocks at very low membership costs.
As for the shoes, I had to change them frequently as the court surface was made out of tar. Sometimes, we got the cobbler to cut an old tyre in the shape of the shoe soles and get these fixed on my shoes to extend their lives.
The badminton racquets were sure expensive. I had Yonex Aerotus 80, one of the best in those days. My dad bought it for ₹3200. You had to change the strings of the racquets regularly -- often twice or thrice a month -- at ₹90-120 each time. Remember, all this was over two decades ago.
I had no formal coaching and, therefore, no expenses on that front (now, almost all players go for coaching). You can imagine what it took to play badminton back then.
Given the costs associated with playing this sport, I can confidently say that all the top players would have had to come from at least a middle-class background with one parent earning decent money to support the training. It would be a rarity to see a badminton player from a lower middle class or poor background. I have seen one or two during my playing days.
So, if India has to make a mark in the category of badminton at the Olympics, the very first step is to widen the base and make the sport accessible to even poor kids. Or else, we are going to have players from a very limited pool.
Now, it's easy to understand why children from a lower middle class or poor background take up sports such as hockey or football or even athletics. It costs less and training facilities are easy to find.
Set up for failure
Some random observations:
- I studied in a school where the playground was not even half the size of a football ground. And, it was the only one for a total student strength of nearly 3500. As a result, till Class VII, I had just one physical education class of 35 minutes in a week.
- Even this came to an end when I moved to Class VIII. The top 10 students from five sections in Class VII were bundled into a separate section to study under the ICSE syllabus. The rest were to continue under the matriculation syllabus. I think the only time I was ranked among the top 10 was in the final exams of Class VII. Considered to be a bunch of nerds, this group did not have the privilege of having a physical education class. And, this continued for three years until I changed schools in Class XI.
- Whenever I participated in tournaments, it was at the cost of my studies. The school would not offer extra classes to catch up. It's another matter that barring a few, none of the teachers were really good.
Whenever I participated in tournaments, it was at the cost of my studies.
- During the four years (almost) of my playing badminton seriously, I had no clue about the importance of diet and physiotherapy. It was a miracle I suffered no injuries.
- Most of my friends from modest backgrounds who took up sports aimed to get a government job: either at one of the state-run banks or companies (such as Indian Oil Corporation) or at the Railways. Some managed to get through too. Talent in sports has been considered as the means to get a secure government job.
Feeling the pinch
Finally, I will share my "My lost dollar" story. When I was in Class XII, I had shifted to Chennai from Madurai, and just played in tournaments with a bit of practice. I had gained admission at a Kendriya Vidyalaya (KV) school. The KV group used to organize annual competitions among the 1000-odd schools back then. One of my juniors from Madurai had come to play the regional tournament in Chennai. His game had improved tremendously over the last year but somehow, I managed to defeat him. Later, I heard he became a ranked state-level player.
KV had given me a small scholarship to buy shoes or racquets. I think it was ₹1500. This junior from Madurai didn't have enough money to buy a pair of proper sports shoes (I guess it was Puma and cost ₹1600). So, I gave him my scholarship money and asked him to return it later.
It's been 24 years and I'm yet to hear from him. If you are that junior, please return the money with interest!