Another leap year brings another bucket full of disappointments. Its not enough that we have 365 days of suffering that every four years we must have an extra day of distress. Just like democracy where people suddenly realize the rampant corruption, the inequalities of society & the downright poor performances of the sitting government 2 weeks before the election even though they didn’t give two shits about it for 300+ weeks, the Indian public suddenly awakens to realize we cannot produce consistent medal winners in the Olympics.
People who don’t know what a balance beam is instantly become Nadia Comaneci’s chittappa pasanga1 and talk as though they personally taped Kerri Strug’s ankle and spoke inspiring words to make her win on one leg. As is the case with any failure instead of looking at the root cause the tendency is to just blame and find a scapegoat. The lowest hanging fruit in our case being: Cricket. Cricket is destroying hockey. Cricket is destroying badminton. Cricket this cricket that.
These folks completely ignore that fact that ever since India, in one of the biggest upsets ever, won the world cup in 1983 we have been one of the most consistent teams in the tournament of the once-every-four-years kind. The sequence from 1983 is win, semifinal, group stage, semifinal, super six, final, group stage, win and semifinal. Our win/loss ratio is 2nd only to powerhouses Australia.
The Indian hockey federation resisted shifting to astroturf till the 90s and kept crying conspiracy while Pakistan went ahead with the changes and were exceptionally successful till the mid-90s. They won the hockey world cup in 1982 & 1994, were runners-up in 1990, won the gold in LA & bronze in Barcelona. Talents go in cycles and Pakistan went through a (relative) talent dearth in the late 90s and their internal conflicts have made it difficult to sustain the great sport in the Land of the Pure.
Whilst our national hockey federation was crying & sobbing conspiracy theories about astroturfs and that the rule changes were aiming to destroy Asian domination of hockey, the Indian cricket team went ahead with its business and went on to enjoy some of its greatest successes in the decade of 2000-10. When all other teams were falling like nine pins to the powerful Australian sides of Taylor, Waugh & Ponting, India not only withstood their blows but also gave the Aussies bloody noses repeatedly in the said decade.
The point here is that whilst the connoisseurs of any field will continue to engage in their field of interest irrespective of the results, the general public will watch with rapt attention only if there is a visible pay off: awards, trophies, prizes. Believe it or not, the Indian cricket team, though flawed, has consistently delivered highs in the last 25 years. It is the reason why BCCI went from a board begging for a vote against the vetoing powers of Australia & England to saying we don’t need no stikin’ badges and completely eliminating every board from the decision process in the ICC.
Not to mention there are enough single sports (football, cricket) mad nations that produce consistent winners in major Olympic disciplines. Brazil are as mad about football as India is about cricket but that hasn’t stopped Brazil from producing one of the best volleyball teams, possibly the best ever F1 race car driver and very good basketball players (Leandro Barbosa, Nene for example) who play for the best NBA teams. Another example is our former rulers who are mad about football & cricket but have one of the best programs for Olympic sports.
Politicians & Businessmen in Sports aren’t necessarily bad in fact they are very good!
There is a tendency in India to not trust politicians and businessmen and if politicians & businessmen come together it is apocalypse now. Its worse than if someone was affected with AIDS & cancer and had to have their limbs amputated. The reason Indian athletes’ struggles at the summit is heavily attributed to politicians running various Indian sports bodies and if they stop their involvement India would instantly win 50 medals per sport.
BCCI is run by politicians & private businessmen. M A Chidambaram, M Chinnaswamy, Mamen were tycoons who have done great things for cricket purely out of interest. BCCI’s ascent was powered by NKP Salve the savvy Marathi politician. Not many realize but politics runs heavily on spite and it was spite that made BCCI the juggernaut it is today. After India surprisingly made the final of the 1983 world cup, NKP Salve was denied complimentary passes for the match and he swore he would bring the cup to India. He not only brought it to India but made it a surprising joint bid with archenemies Pakistan and it was a rousing success even though Gooch literally swept India out of its own cup and Australia’s “bunch of club cricketers”, so dubbed by Zaheer Abbas, dumped Pakistan out of their own cup.
BCCI went from strength to strength and once Jagmohan Dalmiya, surprise surprise another businessman, took over, BCCI signed massive TV contracts and filled its coffers with so much money that it made Scrooge McDuck look like a street beggar. As a savvy businessman, he saw Sachin Tendulkar as a golden egg laying goose and, just as Nike used Michael Jordan, milked it so much that had Sachin really been a cow, he would have produced enough milk for dairy products to last millennia.
So believe me when I say politicians and businessmen are NOT bad for sport. History has proved that they are not only not bad but in fact have been great for sport. Now wiseguys will ask “Ha what about other sports they are also headed by politicians and why don’t they succeed?”. They feel they’ve absolutely cornered me by this pointed question. The difference between BCCI & other sporting bodies is that BCCI is private and most of the other sporting bodies are Soviet-style government bodies and whenever govt of India is involved it means the devastating machinery that stops Indian progress: Government Bureaucracy gets involved. And it is well known that the choking bureaucracy is the anti-Midas. Whatever it touches, including gold, turns to stone.
So blame the haughty bureaucrat and not the haughty politician. There’s a high chance that a haughty politician will do good. It is in their self-interest to do so because otherwise they’ll lose in the following elections but it is not so for the haughty bureaucrat. The bureaucrats whether they perform or not earn their dough. They do not care for the advancing the coaching because then they would have to work. Not to mention extreme corruption, red tape and nepotism that goes hand in hand with the bureaucrat as the stink goes hand in hand with a toilet.
Believe it or not genetics play a heavy role in sporting ability and the Indian race is not blessed with best of the athletic genes. The simplest and most profound example of this is the 100m race. There are exactly 4 men who have broken the 10 second barrier that are not of West African descent. There is a protein called ACTN3 that results in extremely fast twitching muscles that heavily aids the ability to run fast. Similarly, the long distance endurance runners are typically from East Africa.
The standard argument against this line of thought, apart from ad hominem attacks of racism, is that how come Chinese are able to win so many medals. This does not take into account some of the secondary factors. The Chinese win most of the medals in gymnastics and diving viz basically gymnastics in a pool. Historically, Chinese have had excellent opera houses which are excellent training stages for acrobats and martial arts. Many Kung Fu action stars like Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Jet Li, Gordon Liu, Venom Mob, etc who are all acrobatically athletic are products of these schools.
The Chinese communist government tapped into their traditional reservoir and used modern western methods to create a powerful tour de force where their superiority is matchless for the foreseeable future. Another critical factor in China’s ascendance is the break up of the Soviet Union and the decay of their economy. Many medals are split among the 15 odd states of USSR and the lack of wealth has failed to power their institutes of excellence.
So in summary, genetics play a mighty role and it is reality that India is not blessed with the best of sporting genes.
Its already 1400 words so we’ll continue this in part deux.
1chittappa pasanga: Uncle(father’s younger brother)’s children. Its a typical Tamizh expression where the relation is close & yet far enough to make them a faux expert.