It is undeniable that India is a truly classist nation and arguably the Olympics act as a case study for this thesis. There are two clear motivations for pursuing sport seriously in this country — the first being to break socio-economic barriers and the second to build a profitable career. While the second category is pursued by better resourced urban families, the first invariably is still the domain of lesser developed India. If this pattern could be even partially reversed, we will certainly progress as a nation and not just in sport.
An interesting starting point is the case of Milkha Singh and Jeev Milkha Singh, the former breaking boundaries courtesy the Rome Olympics and the latter choosing a first-world sport involving an expensive training regimen. Children of well-to-parents will rarely look beyond Cricket, Tennis, Badminton, Golf, Squash and occasionally Shooting or Equestrian (in continuance of noble tradition) as genuine career options or even as conduits for scholarships in the US education system. Even those with a natural attachment for other disciplines will be gradually goaded by urban coaching eco-systems towards the golden choices, as they are profitable and fashionable. Our cricket talent pool also clearly comes from this educated and affluent urban set of folks and one will struggle to find examples of regulars emerging from rural population strata, rather strange considering its universal appeal.
But then, I am making two arguments here, a case for whys and also for why nots, and let me start with the latter. Better-to-do urbanites with a superior quality of nurtured health are not interested usually in football, hockey, boxing, athletics or gymnastics as they are insufficiently remunerative and glamorous. Those from villages or small towns cannot even dream to pursue a life in the high-end sports because of a lack of funds and facilities and that is not likely to change in a hurry. So they will pursue the traditional paths of low-infrastructure sports armed by Government grants to earn themselves recognition and their families a breakthrough in socio-economic stature. The interesting point here is that the latter still does not have a choice while the former does and somewhere in this confusion lies a possible opportunity. For this to work, we need a higher-order attitude change in our society, supported by both funding and messaging from Government and private sectors.
The first change is the creation of an aspirational Olympian mindset in cities, which exists both in totalitarian China and democratic USA. Representing and winning for the nation in the most meaningful arena for competitive sport must supersede the careeristic destinations of cricket or the elitist affiliation of Golf and Tennis. Thus being a gymnast, an athlete, a boxer, a hockey player or a weightlifter must become a mainstream national pursuit that is sought after by kids with abundant choices. This is a dramatic cultural shift in many ways as we are a nation drawn to populist conformity and making the Olympic medal the equivalent of a cricket triumph will take some doing. But this is exactly why we must have a separate Ministry of Olympics, a subset of Sports, collaborating with private sector funders and educational institutions to build this belief system in society. Two things will happen as a result — a wider and more resourced pool of aspirants and the inflow of much-desired corporate funding.
The second change is creating talent hotspots in villages and underdeveloped areas for the so-called affluent sports as the next Tendulkar or Leander Paes may well be lurking in a kabaddi arena. An appropriate use of technology for video sharing as an initial filter followed by the transportation of such talent to excellence hubs may well become the model of the future- for golf, tennis and all things quaint. And yes, the funding received by the Ministry must once again create similar hubs across the nation for the Olympic disciplines, naturally applicable for SAF, Asiad, Commonwealth and all other games. What will be most critical is the integration of every India in these camps, quite like Defence Academies, where learnings can be imbibed from each other and a common athletic pool truly created.
In sum, our organic class divide is plainly apparent in the profiling of our sportspeople, brought to life inadvertently during the Tokyo Olympiad. India is a successful nation and possesses a phenomenal genetic pool and the scientific eradication of traditional barriers will surely make us a champion in every kind of sport. It’s all about culture and commitment and the two must appear in due tandem.
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