The first was when Indians learnt about a swimmer from Kerala named Sajan Prakash, who was raised by a single mother, and created history by qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics with an ‘A’ cut. In Tamil Nadu, the jubilation was on account of 12 sportspersons from the state qualifying to participate in the prestigious games. Among the five athletes headed for Tokyo is Revathi Veeramani, who is part of the 4x400 m Indian mixed relay team. Having been orphaned at the age of seven, she was brought up by her grandmother, a daily wager. Revathi and the other athletes hail from rural backgrounds, which make their struggles more resonant. A similarly poignant moment was when world top-ranked archer Deepika Kumari pleaded with former cricketer and Parliamentarian Gautam Gambhir to not convert the Yamuna Sports Complex in Delhi into a cricket ground.
Now that the Olympics is about to begin, that familiar question has once again come to the fore: Why isn’t India winning more medals? The lack of irony in the question indicates ignorance about the life of a non-cricketing sportsperson in the country. The frenzy around these players when they win a medal in an international event is akin to coaching centres erecting hoardings with pictures of students who have aced the competitive exams held by top institutes. Those who get selected to represent the country or State are paraded for a photo-op with the PM or CMs of the respective States, from whom they receive appreciation. There are also promises of riches if they win medals. While such adulations are encouraging, perhaps even necessary for a sportsperson who is essentially a performer, an important question remains unanswered: When is the government’s role most crucial – helping them reach the podium or merely carrying them off it? Those confounded by the lack of medals in India’s tally must compare the facilities available for sportspersons here and abroad. Take hockey for instance. Administrators had noted a few years ago how the city of Sydney alone has more artificial sporting turfs than the whole of India.
Scant attention is paid to the players’ growth and the availability of nutrition and supportive facilities until they reach the highest level. Skills, however superior, can go only so far as the physique can endure. But these players continue to carry the country’s collective expectations of winning medals as Dhyanchand did decades ago. Even in the case of Sajan Prakash, what remains untold are the struggles and sacrifices made by his mother VJ Shantymol, a sportsperson herself, to ensure that he got the best facilities that she could afford. It also helped that she worked with Neyveli Lignite Corporation, which gave him access to some facilities. But what about the thousands of potential medal winners for who even the rudimentary facilities lie miles or districts away? Who tracks their nutrition levels that would ensure their body reaches there where their dreams want to go? Almost every single sportsperson who won a medal has a story about being helped by an individual or a coach who spent from his or her pocket. But charity cannot supplant a functioning system if the country is yearning for sporting glory. Like former union sports minister Mani Shankar Aiyar said, perhaps we should focus on building stadia and other facilities across the country instead of organising gala events like the Commonwealth Games.
Shorn off the romanticism ascribed to it, sports is where children from poor and lower-middle-class families place their bet for a better future, because it may secure them a job. They don’t need any assistance to handle the adulation during their prime. Instead, the administrators’ responsibility is to ensure that there is an ecosystem that offers support in the formative years and security post their prime.
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