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The Rediff Special/Rajeev Srinivasan

Olympic machismo: The tale the medals tell


August 04, 2008

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I am always embarrassed by India's wretched showing in the Olympics [Images], which is a metaphor for the two things that haunt India -- lack of a strategic intent, and lack of leadership. It is not that Indians are physically weak or incapable of competing at Olympic levels: in many sports at the junior level, Indians do very well indeed. The failure is in developing that early promise. This is like that devastating remark about Brazil [Images] that it is condemned to always be the country of the future.

One failure is in identifying an overarching goal: That of being the best in the world. This is an implicit assumption made by Americans: That America is the best of the best. Similarly, China has historically viewed itself as the Middle Kingdom and the center of civilisation, deeming all others to be barbarians. But Indians have been content to be second-best, the sporting losers. We apparently do not believe we can win.

In India people actually say, and with conviction, 'What is important is participating, not winning.' My jaw almost hit the floor the first time someone assured me of this. They ignored my protests that the only thing that counts is winning, good sportsmanship be damned.

The Indian contingent genuinely does go to the Olympics to form part of the scenery. I remember On the Waterfront and failed and betrayed boxer Marlon Brando saying, 'I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum.' Indians are happy to be nobodies.

The second failure is in leadership. No political or business leader takes any interest in Olympic sports. For instance, track queen P T Usha's school, intended to produce Olympians, is struggling for funds. Promising sportspeople have to scrounge for jobs and small stipends so that they can feed themselves and buy the equipment they need.

A Kerala [Images] girl who was a member of the national rowing team committed suicide because she simply couldn't afford to train. Contrast this with the Chinese rowing team. A New York Times story on them showed how the Chinese zeroed in on rowing, which has a lot of medals, to increase their possible medal tally. They paid handsomely to get the world's best coaches and training facilities, and national team members are genuine heroes.

China is a particularly good example of a certain Olympic machismo and corresponding state patronage. The Chinese are obsessed with demonstrating to the world that they are better than anybody else. In sport after sport, starting with swimming, Chinese athletes have been systematically discovered in childhood through country-wide sporting events, carefully nurtured in sports academies, plied with whatever steroids and hormones they can get away with -- and they do get caught sometimes -- and turned into world-class athletes with the mental and physical toughness needed to win.

There is no reason why Indians cannot do something like this; undoubtedly, among a billion Indians there are potential champions who are today condemned to be like the 'full many a flower (that) is born to blush unseen.' Somehow, promising Indians fade away from lack of... something, perhaps a killer instinct, perhaps self-confidence, perhaps sponsors.

I am reminded of what was in tennis dubbed the 'ABC powers': Amritraj, Borg and Connors, all of whom appeared on the scene as youngsters at the same time. Yet Amritraj faded, while the others became champions.

There is a failure in India to encourage fresh blood, and to tell the famous to retire when their time is up. Rusty old war-horses become dogs-in-the-manger, not good enough in a sporting world where youth is at a premium, yet unwilling to yield the limelight. This is exemplified by a track and field athlete who has never been higher than some tenth in the world. Bizarrely, the media and sports establishment lionises and trots her out as a 'medal hope' in all major meets; she regularly manages to be seventh in a field of eight, humiliating herself, yet refusing to bow out gracefully. Do go 'gentle into that good night,' please! That also applies to many others past their prime.

There is yet another failure in India, the stranglehold cricket has on the imagination. Billions are spent on cricket, but all other sports starve. Case in point: India's once-mighty field-hockey team, which once upon a time bestrode the Olympics like a colossus, failed to even qualify this time.

India, one-seventh of humanity, will probably win a bronze in shooting -- that's all -- in Beijing [Images] 2008, but cricket fans are blithely unaware and uncaring. Tragic, isn't it?

If you step back and look at the big picture, there is a valid question as to whether there is any correlation between a country's medal tally and its quality of life. Should the ranking of countries be based on total medals or medals per million population? If you choose the latter, according to The Economist, the Athens 2004 list is dominated by the Bahamas, Cuba, Estonia, Slovenia, Jamaica etc -- a motley crew indeed, and not exactly the most desirable places to live in -- not the US, Russia [Images], or China. Australia [Images] is the only country that shows up in the top 10 under both criteria. Yes, Australia does have a fairly good quality of life.

But the counter-example is regimented Communist States that produce good athletes: Who can forget, for instance, the muscular, slightly mustachioed East German or Soviet female athletes of yore? The reasons are clear: they had a pathological obsession with winning, and treated the Olympics as a major prestige issue. It had little to do with quality of life and a lot to do with paranoia and one-upmanship. So yes, it is possible to go to extremes for medals while ignoring ground realities.

Nevertheless, a large Olympic haul does show that a nation can imagine, plan and execute. This has implications for strategy, and indeed, survival. After all, the original Greek Olympics were set up as a bloodless substitute for war. Olympians are our samurai, our alter-egos, fighting on our behalf.

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