Now that the dust of Rio 2016 has settled, it is time to not only celebrate the successes of the Indian athletes but, more importantly, to start working towards Tokyo 2020. There may be those who feel that Indian achievements have been below par, but this line of thinking reveals obliviousness to the historical problems that have plagued athletics and sports in this country. It may also be unfair to make an assessment based solely on the medal count in the present Olympic Games. But, if the government, sports administrators and the rest of us can take on board certain lessons from Rio, we can aim to make our presence felt in Tokyo.
The matter of politics
With a total medal count of six -- two silver and four bronze -- India placed a respectable 55th in the London 2012 Olympic games. If either of the two silver medals had been a gold, then we could have potentially been 42nd or 43rd in the world. In Rio 2016, India finished at 67th place with two medals. The tally could have easily been higher if not for the narrow loses by Sania Mirza-Rohan Bopanna and Dipa Karmakar in the tennis and gymnastics events respectively.
[O]fficials accompanying the Indian delegation were unqualified and less interested in the games than on making the most of Rio's nightlife.
It has been widely reported that officials accompanying the Indian delegation were unqualified and less interested in the games than on making the most of Rio's nightlife. On a closer look, the names of these officials reflect the political stranglehold on Indian sports and reveal how even the Olympic Games have become a means to disburse patronage by the powers-that-be. A larger argument around how Indian red-tapism and bureaucratic apathy have damaged our chances has also gained traction of late.
Before we attribute all our failures to the "system", the role of government in promoting sports needs to be explored in detail. India's recent sporting successes can be traced to strong private coaching establishments. Tennis has had Britannia Amritraj Tennis which unearthed Leander Paes (Bronze Medal in Atlanta 1996) whereas P Gopichand Academy has reaped consecutive medals in Saina Nehwal (Bronze Medal in London 2012) and PV Sindhu (Silver Medal in Rio 2016). Such specialist private coaching centres headed by former professionals have definitely helped in grooming young players.
At the same time, the most success we have had recently have been in shooting, with Rajyavardhan Rathore (Silver Medal in Athens 2004), Abhinav Bindra (Gold Medal in Beijing 2008), Vijay Kumar (Silver Medal in London 2012) and Gagan Narang (Bronze Medal in London 2012) making a mark. Yet, when one looks at the National Rifle Association of India, it has always been dominated by political personalities. The first three Presidents of the NRAI were GV Malvalankar, Pt Govind Vallabh Pant and Lal Bahadur Shastri -- all considered as founding fathers of the Indian Republic. Raninder Singh, son of former Punjab Chief Minister and present Member of Parliament Capt Amarinder Singh, is the current President. Though we did not secure a medal in shooting this year, not many would argue against the contention that this discipline has been and will be amongst India's best chances for Olympic medals.
A first order analysis of Great Britain's performance reveals that the government invests the equivalent of around ₹45-50 crore for each medal it secures at the Olympics. The rate of returns may not be appealing to "investors" but this is the sort of money which governments allocate in setting up infrastructure, technology and training.
More government investment, international exposure, a grassroots competition culture, cross-national collaborations and, most importantly, a positive emphasis on sports are part of the equation.
Even a smaller country like Australia, through the Australian Sports Commission, allocates the equivalent of around ₹1250 crore every year to fund its sportspersons. In contrast, the total annual budgetary outlay of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports for the year 2014-15 was around ₹800 crore -- which covers running of various schemes, finding talent, giving scholarships and awards, maintaining hostels, building infrastructure, funding state-level federations and so on. Also, the Indian Olympic Association -- the organization which is responsible for preparation and participation of Indian athletes in the Olympics -- received a grant of only around ₹20 crore for the year 2014-15 from the Government of India!
Developing an Indian model
The argument that more money invested in sports will secure better future returns is true but has its limitations. For one, the country does not have that kind of money to invest across all disciplines. Secondly, there is the age-old problem of leakages, corruption and inefficiencies inherent to the system. One possible way may be the China model, whereby the state invested strategically in disciplines which yielded the greatest results. For example, swimming is a sport which has an abundance of forms (different strokes) and so do track events (different running distances). Both these disciplines could be encouraged by building good quality swimming pools and maintaining athletic running tracks. This way, the "low hanging fruits" of the Olympics could be targeted.
On the other hand, there is the Jamaican model which emphasizes the need to hold sporting events up from the grassroots level. The reason for Jamaica's phenomenal success in track events is attributed to the strong and popular competition called "The Champs" which are held at the school-level across the nation. This is analogous to the prevailing wisdom on the high level of basketball talent across the United States of America, which has a hugely successful National College Association of America (NCAA) competition.
Will Modi, who has a former Olympic medallist in his council of ministers, help take the country to the podium in Tokyo and beyond?
As always, though, India must find its own model, which could draw from the established success stories. More government investment, international exposure, a grassroots competition culture, cross-national collaborations and, most importantly, a positive emphasis on sports are part of the equation. Will Prime Minister Modi, who has a former Olympic medallist in his council of ministers, help take the country to the podium in Tokyo and beyond?