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Opinion | The heartbreak-hope-heartbreak cycle of Indian sport

Every time a multidisciplinary sporting event begins, it underlines the heartbreak-hope-heartbreak cycle of Indian sport

Hima Das celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women’s 400m event at IAAF World U20 Championships on 12 July in Tampere, Finland. Photo: Getty Images
Hima Das celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women’s 400m event at IAAF World U20 Championships on 12 July in Tampere, Finland. Photo: Getty Images

Dhing. Nongpok Kakching. Kangathei. Mayurbhanj. Rasulpur Kalan. Idukki. Tiruchirappalli. The best sporting stories are playing out in our villages and small towns. Most of our athletes come from places you haven’t visited. Archer Deepika Kumari grew up in Ratucheti, and practised with bamboo bows and arrows. Sandeep Tomar grew up in Malakpur, which has produced several international-level wrestlers before him. Kabaddi player Kavita Thakur grew up at a dhaba in Jagatsukh. Aspirations and athletes are linked strongly in other India. The story of Indian sport is the story of our lesser-known geographies.

This is one of six themes that played out in Rio (2016 Olympics), the Gold Coast (2018 Commonwealth Games) and all other global championships in recent years. They will definitely be repeated in Jakarta at the ongoing Asian Games. Every time a multidisciplinary sporting event begins, it underlines the heartbreak-hope-heartbreak cycle of Indian sport.

Women are the real superstars. Indian attitudes towards girls playing sports may not have changed that much but our sportswomen are in the spotlight like never before. Nike paid homage to them in a 2016 ad. At Rio, India’s only two medal winners, wrestler Sakshi Malik and badminton ace P.V. Sindhu, were both women. Malik is from Haryana, one of the worst states in India to be born a girl. And since everything and its opposite holds true in India, it’s also the state that generates the strongest, fittest athletes, both men and women. Malik trained with boys through much of her early wrestling career, and was often told that it was not a sport for girls. Another Indian athlete who didn’t win a medal but impacted our hearts and the headlines was gymnast Dipa Karmakar. India learnt what a Produnova was when Karmakar executed the “vault of death" at Rio. A serious knee injury put her career on hold for two years until she returned in July to win a gold medal at an international tournament. All three women will compete in Jakarta.

There’s always a new hero. After every international event, a few new names are added to our list of sporting heroes. From the Gold Coast, we embraced javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra and teenage shooters Manu Bhaker and Anish Bhanwala (yes, our sports stars are growing younger and that can only be a good sign). Almost every sporting hero’s story is miraculous and, in true Indian tradition, so much stranger than fiction. Chopra, for example, grew up in Haryana’s fields, overweight and with no access to any sporting facilities.

Sometimes a new hero can be an old hero that many of us haven’t previously cared about. At the Gold Coast, we rediscovered table tennis star Manika Batra and weightlifting record breaker Saikhom Mirabai Chanu. Alas, Chanu won’t be competing in Jakarta.

It’s usually a hit-and-miss tale. Most of our best runners never had money to buy shoes. Virtually none of our athletes in any discipline had early access to any sporting facilities. New running sensation Hima Das, 18, won a World U20 Championship less than two years after she first began competing. Imagine how many youngsters from tiny villages across the country aren’t lucky enough to be spotted by a coach at a district meet. And this when Indian sports is in a more visible place than it has ever been.

Cricket is the only sport Indians are obsessed about. Comparatively, there’s no big money in any other sport. But more than money, most sports are not organized and don’t have a regular calendar of events where athletes can participate. If athletes don’t have an arena to compete, how will they be discovered? Training centres too are brimming with talented athletes who don’t get a chance to pit their skills against India’s best regularly. In swimming, for example, there are not more than two national events every year.

It’s always an official mess. Sports officials and associations are a big hurdle. The Indian Amateur Boxing Federation was suspended in 2012 for four years and boxing suffered badly at the Rio Olympics. The Wrestling Federation of India banned 15 wrestlers from participating in Jakarta. An ugly battle played out within the Yachting Association of India over the country’s top three pairs of female sailors. I haven’t been able to decipher the politics and intrigue that have unfolded recently in handball. Volleyball has seen a lot of infighting among officials this past year. You get the point. Add this to our overall lack of sporting culture and you know that we are nowhere near making a real mark in the world of sport. Countries smaller than us—Korea, for example—have a much stronger sporting footprint. In most cases, success in a particular sport is determined not by the help and encouragement our athletes receive from their country, but by how passionate their coach is. These past years, Pullela Gopichand has single-handedly improved the chances of Indian badminton heroes. Vinesh Phogat’s gold is a direct result of her being the adopted daughter of Mahavir Singh Phogat, wrestler and trainer of the six Phogat sisters from Haryana.

Some things we are just good at. Yet, we’re up there—the defending champions in Jakarta—in team sports such as hockey and kabaddi. So what if the Indian hockey coach is now the Pakistani hockey coach? Athletics is also a relatively easier play for India in the Asian Games, where we’ve won the 4x400m relay for women since 1998. But I don’t want to jinx it—Indian sport has enough problems without me adding to them.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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