September 30, 2000

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An out-standing Olympics for India

Avinash Subramaniam

Okay, we're trying to be clever here. We, being me. After all, India will return with a medals' tally better than anything we've managed in the last 20 years. And in keeping with the spirit of celebration, a bit of new-fangled, post Pokhran II chest beating - Pokhran for the ignoramuses is where the 'say am-proud-to-be-Indian' nuclear tests took place.

Time to pat ourselves on our back. Time to once again say things like we're an independent - minded country. And that we deserve not to be counted among the under-developed. That we have so many achievements in all walks of life to crow about. Look at our brainpower. Look at our sporting achievements. Ulp!

Speaking of which, yes, let us. Let us indeed look at our latest sporting achievements. And forget for a moment that we are the world's largest democracy. Forget for a moment that we want to be the next Asian tiger or lion or whatever other ferocious avataar we'd like to give ourselves. In fact, forget everything we feel so proud about and start looking for some...umm, as we Indians would say, 'chullu bhar paani mein doob maro.' (And for the benefit of my American audiences, that's a very Indian way of saying time to go find ourselves a spoonful of gutter water to drown in. Yuck!

Like I read somewhere else in Salon, it never sounds quite as good with sub-titles. So let's just leave it at the chullu bhar paani we Indians ought to go looking for to drown ourselves in. Hey, that didn't sound so bad.)

But pray, why all this angst? Why all this wasted breath? (That it most certainly will turn out to be. Because accountability is a word not found in our dictionaries.) Why the bluster? Didn't I just say it's been an outstanding Olympics for India? I mean, what could be so bad about this time? We did better our performance over the last Olympics. This time we've won like what...let's see, how many medals? Umm...err, one. One?

Well, it's still better than last time. Right? At least that's what the officials in charge of sport in my country will say. They'll pat themselves on the back for the achievements of the same athletes they so regularly belittle as and when it suits them. They'll punish the non-performers for sins their, the officials', neglect of the sport is the cause of. They'll...forget it; we know what good they'll do. Nothing. We know what'll happen to them. Nothing. And we know exactly how the story will unfold. Just like it has from time immemorial. And we are a country of a billion people - I love saying that. Almost as much as I hate saying that. How did we let ourselves get to this number? Have we absolutely no ability to think? Doesn't anyone realize what a problem we have on our hands? God knows we don't know how to use our people as a resource. How else can one explain the disgraceful record India has in sport in general and the Olympics in particular? And that's putting it mildly.

Karnam Malleshwari Consider this. We can't count the number of people we add to the land but we can count the number of individual medals we've won at the Olympics on the fingers of one hand. Okay, take a deep breath. Don't fall off your chair. Stay on my high horse. And let that sink in. I'll tell you what; I'll repeat that for your benefit. In bold. (Select, copy, paste. Bold. There!) We can't count the number of people we add to the land but we can count the number of individual medals we've won at the Olympics on the fingers of one hand. Does that make sense? Right.'s true.

This is only the third time in the history of the Olympics that India has managed to win an individual medal. All the more reason for me to take time out and repeat how special Karnam Malleshwari is. The bronze she won in the women's weightlifting competition is the second medal India has won in any kind of sport at the Olympics since 1980. And we all know how devalued the Olympic gold in the mass boycotted '80 Moscow Olympiad is. (FYI, Very.)

Three individual medals from a country that contributes little more than billion people to this already overburdened Earth. What a colossal waste of god's handiwork. (Not that I believe in god or anything. It just sounded good. I mean, really, really bad. I know what I mean.) But rest assured, as we so love to say in our parts, sab kuch chalta hai. (Roughly translated, that means anything goes. With absolutely none of the positive connotations 'anything goes' carries.) Chalta hai means something more like...we have forgotten how to feel ashamed. That it doesn't matter to us that the state of the nation's sport is, in our case, a brutally humbling reflection of the state of the nation's health. Okay, I think that back. Because that's probably too, too, cerebral a sentiment to cut any ice with any of the people in authority in this country. And make no mistake, I don't hate India. (Just in case one of us out here starts to say if everything is so fucking bad, why don't' you just leave.) It's just that I can't take this anymore. Why can't we be more like the Australians? Why is it so difficult for us to follow good examples? Why can't we...oh, never mind! Like I said...who cares!

And since no one cares, no heads will roll. The same oily-faced politicians and bureaucrats will continue to hold the reins and make the decisions on what is good for sport. (While unsuccessfully trying to figure out their arse from their elbow.) The same people who send officials and athletes, in that order, to every Olympics, know it makes little difference to our lives that our athletes almost always finish closer to the bottom than top, if not at the bottom, in every event. (Why take names. It's not like we want to make the poor guys feel any worse.) The powers-that-be know we don't care if our officials outnumber the athletes. Or that the country's premier sports channel, Doordarshan Sports, which literally translated means 'far presentation of sports.' Hey...couldn't resist a couple of jibes here. Yes, I know I digress, but then the kind of name Doordarshan (DD) is and the kind of antics they indulge in, does make for a walking bullsye.

But, back to the subject on hand. Our outstanding Olympic debacle. (Not that we really care.) So what does 'far presentation' sports do? (Doordarshan Sports, silly!) Like greedy sons-of-bitches they buy up all the telecasting rights for the Indian sub-continent and then encrypt the signal for the benefit of no-one! And this is the government's official sports channel. A channel that's supposed to promote sport in the country. A channel that's supposed to bring the Olympics to this, believe it or not, sports crazy country. (Yes, we are. But then, you probably know us more as an elephant riding, nuclear testing, irrelevant giant.) Hello, Mr. Big Brother in DD Sports! This is the Olympics dammit. You don't encrypt your signal a day before the opening ceremony. You don't take the channel off 'free-to-air.' You...oh, I forgot. You are Big brother. You can do anything you want to do. (Did someone say we were the world's largest democracy?) And what DD proceeded to do after that is so fucking commercially exploitative it's too disgusting to get into. Which is precisely why I must.

So after encrypting the only channel in this country that was airing the greatest sporting spectacle on earth that comes only once in four years, they proceeded to flash incredibly irritating messages on their other 'free channels' blaming the cable operators for taking DD Sports off the air. Hellooo! What else do you expect them to do! You encrypt your signal without telling anyone. You don't care to give them decoders. You don't care about little things like human decency and professionalism. You only care about how much money you're going to be able to make out of having snared the mega-Olympics deal. Gosh it sucks to be subjected to this kind of treatment from one's own people. Incidentally, to rub our faces even deeper into the dirt, our not-so-friendly neighbour Pakistan was telecasting the Olympics live and free. Which of course DD had to make into an anti-national issue by warning cable operators not to provide us deprived viewers with the Pakistan TV telecast because that was, supposedly, against the nation's broadcasting laws! (Which are anyway archaic and quite simply idiotic.) What more can I say. How about I stick to relatively less angst-inducing things like...Like why is it that a country of so many minds, presuming we all have them things, lacks a healthy sports culture?

I'll tell you why. Look what DD did before the Olympics. And what else can you expect when the national broadcaster behaves in a manner this detrimental to the interests of sport and sports' lovers. Obviously, we don't have a clue what the Olympics stand for. What it means to have a sports culture. And what to do with people in power that are like this. Because if we did, we'd do something about it. We wouldn't let DD Sports get away with this kind of nonsense. We wouldn't let ourselves be disgraced at every Olympics. We wouldn't look for joy in one measly, measly, measly bronze medal. Measly. (The last 'measly' was to make it sound even more misery inducing.)

We'd do something about the fact that a country like Surinam has done better than us at the Olympics. (Yes, I'll repeat that too. Just so my Indian friends can acquaint themselves with this country.) A country the size of a pimple on a mole on the map of the world, Surinam, has done better than us in Olympic history. And the fact that we don't care to do a thing about this sever-my-head-right-now-I'm-ashamed-to-be-an-Indian fact of life, should tell us a few things about ourselves as a people.

Of course we are very successful and all that. Of course, we make ourselves pots of money. (Which is still never enough.) And of course we can bask in swollen headed banter about how we Indians overrun Silicon Valley. Or how we Indians are better known for our intelligence and good looks. (Okay, one out of two. You figure out which one.) Or how we Indians work so much harder than the lazy Hispanics or whomever else we deem inferior to us. But where do 'we Indians' hide when it comes to days like this. We don't. We just don't...say it with Okay, maybe we do care. But only for a little while.

Hey, look at me. I'll write this thing. Feel good about myself. Pretend I've shaken a few people out of their slumber. And hope something will come out of these two thousand odd words. (Maybe a few of us will hope along with me.) But all will be said and nothing done. And India will go back to the next Olympiad. And there will be too many officials on the team. And we will hope against hope that our boys in hockey will perform some miracle. And we will pray that the rest simply perform. And we will come back empty handed. (Or maybe, if we're lucky, a medal or two.) And we will say... sab kuch chalta hai ... after all, who cares.

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