India: Global Giant, Olympic Wimp. (For Now.)

When the 2012 Olympic Games came to a close on Sunday, India, the world's second-most populous country, stood a distant 55th on the overall medals table, surpassed by Jamaica, Belarus and New Zealand among others.

To many Indians, this was yet another sign of all the troubles that beset Indian sports other than cricket (the country's most popular game and, with Bollywood, its most enduring national obsession). These handicaps include: the absence of world-class facilities and support for the country's few top athletes; the inefficiencies of the country's bloated and supine sporting bureaucracy; farther down the ladder, the lack of sporting facilities in schools; and the absence of a culture of sporting excellence in general.

Some Indians compared India's total of two silver and four bronze medals unfavorably to that of China, which finished second with 87 medals in all. But that would be to miss the point. India's six medals at the London Olympics were its biggest-ever return from the event, doubling the three from Beijing in 2008. To a country starved of sporting success, these victories, even if insignificant in a global context, were something to be savored, not least because they were a reward for the arduous struggles waged by many of the victorious athletes in a largely unsympathetic environment. Earlier this month on World View, Adam Minter wrote of the unfortunate spectacle of Chinese weightlifter Wu Jingbiao apologizing for "disgracing the motherland" after he only won a silver in his category when he was heavily favored to win gold. The price of an Olympic silver or bronze was far better appreciated in India, which has won only nine golds in Olympic history -- eight of them decades ago in men's field hockey, a sport which it dominated in the first half of the 20th century.

Further, the six medals of 2012 were a sign of how a long-term approach to success at the Olympics, devised and implemented by bodies other than India's specialist sports federations, is beginning to pay off. Most of the Indian athletes who won medals are the beneficiaries of assistance from Olympic Gold Quest, an organization formed by the former Indian sportsmen Prakash Paduone and Geet Sethi to make world-class facilities and individualized training available to the most talented Indian athletes. OGQ is now just one of several corporate-funded organizations that seek to prove that India need not always be a laggard on the world sporting arena. In a piece published in June called "How Corporates Are Fuelling India's Gold Quest At The Olympics," Sanjiv Shankaran, Goutam Das and Anilesh Mahajan wrote:

Mittal Champions Trust [funded by the steel giant ArcelorMittal], along with Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) and GoSports Foundation, represents how far corporate patronage of athletes has come in India. None of the three exists to make profits. MCT and OGQ are run by former Olympians supported by a team of experts. All three depend on funding from companies and individuals, and operate within the parameters set by government-approved sports federations. Among the three of them, they would have at least 25 wards in the Indian contingent at the London Olympics starting this July.

"It is just a feeling that India should win gold medals," says Mumbai-based Ashish Kacholia, a proprietary investor in equity markets, who has given OGQ Rs 11 lakh [approximately $20,000] a year for each of the last four years. Regardless of how the equity market performs, Kacholia says he will continue the funding at the same rate for another four years. OGQ, over the last four years, has spent Rs 8 to Rs 10 crore [$180,000--$216,000] on its programmes.

GoSports, started in 2008 by Harvard-educated law practitioner Nandan Kamath, spends about Rs 75 lakh a year [approximately $140,000] and concentrates on young athletes. None of the foundations plans to supplant what the government does; that is inconceivable. "No private organisation has the reach the government has," says Malhotra. It is smart spending at the margins that can make the difference, which is what the foundations do. Says Kacholia: "In India, a little money goes a long way."

Geet Sethi, one of the OGQ founders, wrote this week in the Deccan Chronicle about the work being done by his organization, and focused in particular on the story of Mary Kom, the pint-sized boxer who became a household name in India this month after she won a bronze in a weight category higher than the one she was used to fighting in:

The idea of OGQ was born on a flight from Sydney to Mumbai in the year 2000. I was at a dinner hosted for the Indian contingent during the Sydney Olympics and the general feeling of dejection as a sporting nation was further reinforced as I interacted with athletes. It was clear to me that what Indian athletes needed was a 24x7 presence of support staff that include, physiotherapists, dieticians, mental trainers, coaches, injury management experts and logistic managers around them to look after all their training needs and to instill in them a sense of pride and confidence.

The Mary Kom preparation over the last two years exemplifies the potential and possibilities, which exist for a Public-Private partnership in Indian sport. In 2011 Viren Rasquinha, OGQ’s CEO did intensive research and sourced coach Charles Atkinson from the UK for Mary and held a camp for her at Balewadi, Pune where all expenses were borne by OGQ. Both coach and student took to each other. Once Mary qualified for the Olympics she requested for two more camps with Atkinson ... The sports ministry approved this quickly with sports minister Ajay Maken taking a very proactive role and OGQ looked after the entire organization of the two camps.

A 24x7 physiotherapist had been organized for Mary earlier on and along with an OGQ team of dieticians and medical experts, a strict diet plan was put in place to get Mary’s weight up from 48 kg to 51 kg without compromising on speed and strength. The rest as they say is history. She captured the imagination of the nation by reaching the semi final and ensuring her bronze. The fact that she had the necessary skills honed by years of dedication with which she had already won five world titles in the 48 kg category is the most crucial factor in her attaining the bronze. But OGQ assisted in ensuring that her preparation for the Olympics was efficient, effective and most importantly provided her with a team which cared deeply for her and who all wanted her to win perhaps as much as she herself.

The question of why some countries win so many more Olympic medals than others is also one of great interest in India, which has always found itself mocked for its sporting insignificance relative to its population and its self-image as a rising world power. As Anirudh Sharma and Eric Haglund wrote in a fascinating paper called "Why Do Some Countries Win More Olympic Medals?" in 2008: "India’s one-sixth share in the world’s population translated into a 1/929 share in 2004 Olympic medals. While Australia won 2.46 medals per one-million population and Cuba won 2.39 medals per one-million population, India brought up the bottom of this international chart, winning a mere 0.0009 medals per one-million population. Why does the average Indian count for so little?"

Sharma and Haglund explain, "In this article, we explore the concept of effectively participating population, arguing that not everyone in a country has equal access to competitive sports -– or for that matter, to other arenas, including the political and economic ones. Low medal tallies can arise both because a country has very few people and because very few of its people effectively participate."

Conversely, certain kinds of Olympic success are also not to be set as benchmarks without a broader view of the complications and tensions involved, as Shekhar Gupta observed in the Indian Express:

Olympic medals are not necessarily an index of national success or strength. The Olympic system is filled with medals in games that most human beings do not play — or watch — in real lives, but which you have to train from childhood to win. This is where regimented societies have always had an advantage. During the Cold War, we were amazed by the rise of East Germany, which at Moscow 1980 touched an all-time high of 126 medals. Today, two decades after the reunification, Germany is likely to finish with one-third of that record tally. Does it mean that united Germany today is a lesser power than GDR of the past? Or, the near halving of the traditional net medals tally of the states that constituted the former Soviet Union. It doesn’t mean they have declined as nations or economies. It only means they are now democratic societies, and do not have the means that the regimented ones have. Remember the Chinese talent scouts picked up their new swimming sensation Ye Shiwen when she was just six, and pretty much kept her in “sporting” custody to be trained and brought up as a champion.

[After the Olympics], beyond the medals tally, there is something to build on. Indian sport has to set realistic targets: No. 4 in Asia overall, ahead of Kazakhstan, 25 medals including 10 golds in track and field at the next Asiad, and 50 world top 10 wrestlers, boxers, shooters and archers. It’s only then that we should even dream, or expect to be even among the top 25 in the Olympics tally.

For much of my childhood -- years when India drew a blank at the Olympics in 1988 (Seoul) and 1992 (Barcelona) -- success at the games was thought to be entirely beyond India, and Indians took a peculiar self-flagellating pleasure in their quadrennial reminders of this. Nor was it being clear that anything significant was being done in the years between successive editions of the Games to change this. The real achievement of India's 2012 Olympics challenge seems to be the reversal of this negative mindset once and for all, and the reassuring discovery that, every day between 2012 and 2016, success at the next Games in Brazil will be plotted relentlessly in athletics camps, gymnasiums, courts, stadiums -- and in boardrooms.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)


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