Currently Senior Editor with Wisden India, Shamya has reported on sports for Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tehelka, ESPN, The Indian Express and TV Today. He is also the author of Bhiwani Junction: The Untold Story of Boxing in India. His own sporting activities however are restricted to Angry Birds.
Crib And Giggle
So the Indians are at the Olympic Games, like they are every four years. As I write this, three medals are in the bag; more could be coming in by the end of the two-week extravaganza, making it India’s best ever campaign. But I am not here to celebrate India’s marginal improvement in sports, but to question the attitude of some of our elite sportspersons. An attitude that I think cost us a few medals here and there.
First, a refresher.
On the one hand is India’s favourite sport – cricket. Not under the control of the Indian government or its departments, but run by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Maybe not ideally, but well enough. Finances, at the top level, and over time at the lower levels, are not a bother.
On the other side are the “other” sportspersons. Leave out golfers, tennis players, chess players, shooters and a few others, and this category of sportspersons usually falls into a stereotype. Under-privileged, burning the midnight oil to try and become heroes, struggling against the system, no shoes, no kit, no nutrition, no nothing. Children of a lesser god. Working against a system that works against them.
Yes, India is obsessed with cricket. The Indian media, when it comes to sports coverage, devotes 90 per cent of its time and energy to cricket. But if the people of a country prefer one sport to all others, who is to say that it’s wrong? And if the media provides wall-to-wall coverage of cricket, it must be because they are assured of an audience.
Indeed, I, rather bull-headed, commissioned and helped put together the following half-hour shows for the television channel I was employed with last:
(a) A build-up for the hockey World Cup in India in 2010, anchored by Viren Rasquinha, the suave, well-spoken former hockey player, featuring every single Indian hockey great from Mohammad Shahid to Pargat Singh to Joachim Carvalho to Sandeep Singh, using never-broadcast footage from the archives.
(b) A celebration of Arjun Vajpai after he became the youngest ever to climb Mt Everest. Again using fantastic footage.
(c) The first half-hour interview of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes after they got together to prepare for the 2012 Olympics in 2010.
(d) Detailed in-depth interviews with Abhinav Bindra, Saina Nehwal et al.
All this was obviously sandwiched between heavy doses of cricket. But importantly, the cumulative rating our channel got for the programmes was zero (apart from the Saina interview, which just about kept its head above water). In fact, in the nine months that the Bindra interview has spent on YouTube the total number of views it has got is just over 500. This number was only in the 150s-region until a month before the Olympic Games. Contrast this with the over-70,000 views an interview with Shoaib Akhtar got, the 3,000-plus views a short chat with Siddhartha Mallya received, or even the 1,500-plus views a minor one-minute interview with Zaheer Khan got – all uploaded around the same time.
Unsurprisingly then, our athletes crib. We have heard them say that cricket takes away all the money and all the attention in our country, and that “other” sportspersons are treated almost like second-class citizens. As recently as on August 4, during the London Olympics, Vijender Singh told reporters, “In this country, everyone is hung up on cricket. Forget about boxing, India is doing so well in other sports too. But where is the support for all of us?”
But then the figures tell a different story. They seem to suggest that at least India’s top sportspersons are well-supported, even if that backing isn’t close to what the top cricketers are used to. A Centre for Public Policy Research paper quotes Sports Ministry estimates that about Rs 55.22 crore has been spent on the 46 top medal prospects for the London Olympics.
This comes to approximately Rs 1.2 crore per athlete. “Not bad”, the paper writes, “compared to Rs 105 crore spend by Great Britain taking into account the gold medals the country expects from 28 of its majors. Meanwhile, the Australian Olympic Committee president, John Coates, informed that the Rs 168 crore spend by Australia is not enough for their sportpersons to compete in the Olympics”.
Rs 1.2 crore per athlete! For a country that won’t see a double-digit medal tally, is that a bad amount?
Let me be clear here – this is not a plug for the Sports Ministry or the Sports Authority of India or the Indian Olympic Association, all of which work in deeply unprofessional ways. (Of late, though, there has been a sense that things are changing in the Ministry, if not anywhere else.) But my attempt here is to tell readers that the undernourished, uncared-for “Indian Olympic athlete” is not entirely ignored, even accounting for the slip between the cup and the lip. The reasons why India continues to fare poorly at the Olympics are different – poverty, lack of a sporting culture, societal factors, politics, infrastructural deficits and the like.
But at the end of it all, let’s get to what I really want to talk about here, and for that, we need the following list of “medal-hope athletes” who represented India in London: the archers Deepika Kumari and Chekrovolu Swuro; tennis players Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza; shooter Ronjan Sodhi; boxer Vikas Krishan; and badminton player Jwala Gutta. Records suggest that they are all competent athletes. Some of them even world champions. Why were they not good enough to be in the medal range in London then?
Well, if you’re being charitable, you’d probably say they had bad days or they did their best but fell short or that the pressure of the situation got to them. I am usually quite charitable too, but watching these athletes in London has been a very dispiriting experience.
I saw the women archers – Deepika and Swuro – giggling away right through their qualifiers, even after hitting 6s and 7s, criminal at a level where a point or two makes the difference between triumph and disaster. I saw Bhupathi and Bopanna, who fought the establishment to ensure that they could play together, give a terribly poor account of themselves, which was also true of Leander and Sania. Ronjan Sodhi, while he is a thoroughly professional player, went from 46 to 44 to 42 in his qualifying rounds – amateurish, especially for a world champion.
Vikas, my favourite boxer among the current lot and one that I am convinced will be a top name in the days to come, appeared cocky before leaving for London, behaved unprofessionally by throwing out his gumshield and deserved to lose the fight he lost. Unfortunate, but not unfair.
I also saw Gutta behaving on court as though she was Ponappa’s (doubles) and Diju’s (mixed doubles) boss. Attractive she is (and spent a fair bit of time doing photoshoots in the lead up to London 2012), but not on court. Petulant, crabby and bossy. Giving the impression that her partners were letting her down when she messed up as often as they did.
This, I don’t like. I like an athlete – good or bad, Eric the Eel or Usain Bolt – who looks driven to get that Olympic medal. It is, after all, the greatest show on earth. My editor at Wisden India, Dileep Premachandran, reacted after watching Roger Federer play one of his earlier games – men’s doubles at that – in London, “I watched Federer get as animated as I’ve ever seen him, tussling desperately to avoid elimination from the men’s doubles. This is a man with 17 Grand Slam titles, and the doubles gold from Beijing. For someone with nothing left to prove, his disappointment in defeat was palpable. After clinching the doubles gold in Beijing, Federer described it as ‘sort of a dream come true moment’.”
You don’t have to win, but you’ve got to damn well try. That’s what P Kashyap did, up against the No 1 men’s singles player, he played his heart out, fought till his lungs were close to bursting. That’s what 19-year-old Sumit Sangwan did in his 81kg first round bout, only to be cheated of a medal. Discus thrower Krishna Poonia too. No one expected her to win, with her career-best effort well short of those of her contenders. But she got close to her best, didn’t give up just because there was no way she would be good enough to win. Ditto for Joydeep Karmakar, the shooter who couldn’t, as well as Vijay Kumar the shooter who could.
It’s simple. If, on the biggest stage of them all, you can’t punch above your weight, you really are no good.
And then you also hear Poornima Mahato, Deepika’s coach, say after Deepika flopped big time in London: “The media hyped her as a medal prospect and that put pressure on her”.
Uh, Deepika was the world No 1; should the media have announced that she is a no-hoper? Make up your mind, lady – do you want attention or not? And no, giggling away at the end of it as if you’re at a picnic won’t help.