INDIA’S TRAVAILS AT the Rio Olympics are well- known. A country of 1.3 billion could only manage two medals at the world stage while smaller, poorer countries performed much better. It is facile to look for a single explanation for India’s performance, but if there is one sore point, it is the way sports are organised—or rather controlled—in the country. It is not hard to understand why. Indian sports administrators, probably the most ill-informed and badly behaved of bureaucrats, treat players as people working for them and not the other way round.
By now there is plenty of controversy over how the marathoner OP Jaisha was treated. The athlete claimed she did not get water to drink after her run. Indian administrators claim she is lying. But for every Jaisha whose story gets highlighted, there are tens of other players whose spirit is broken and they fade away silently. One never hears such tales from other countries.
In a country of India’s proportions, it is incongruous that there is a central sports ministry while sport by its nature is local. Now there may be a case for some level of coordination in selecting sportspersons for international events such as Olympics and Asian Games. But surely this task does not require a ministry staffed and commanded by bureaucrats? How about empowering India’s coaches and letting them decide which player ought to sport India’s colours? A much better option would be to have a downscaled department of sports attached to some ministry. That will be sufficient for administrative tasks. In any case, its orientation should be to serve players and coaches, not the other way round.
This is only one aspect of the sporting nightmare in India. Most of the sporting federations are headed by politicians who have no idea of how sophisticated and scientifically complex sport has become in the last few decades. From swimming to shooting, winning a medal now requires much more than just a talented player. That support cannot be provided to our players by the moribund sports system in place. The first thing to do is to get rid of obnoxious administrators. Then sportspersons can play freely. In the meantime, the country can ponder how to harness other talent—scientific and sporting—to help our players shine on the world stage.