This is a story , or a debate, as old as time, so to speak: the development of sports in India has been, arguably, akin to the movements of a frog in a well- one step forward, two steps back.
In the case of cricket the job of picking a legend in the annals of Indian sport is quite easy. But it is quite a challenge when you take up this task with regard to other sports we begin to wonder how many legends has Indian sport produced?
A tough nut to crack is Identifying and extending recognition to an Indian sportsperson among the best players in the world arena in sports like football, athletics, basketball, volleyball, table tennis, gymnastics, swimming, fencing, cycling, or even tennis is a monumental task,frankly.
In any of the sports mentioned above, arguably, there have only been a few very good players, at best. It is a bit encourating that in football we have raised our world ranking to within the top 100 in the world for the first time. But can we, one day a world beater or qualify for the World Cup?
In football, for instance , we wonder if we can ever produce the likes of Pele, Maradona, or a Bekenbower , Rossi, Ronaldo, Zidane, Ron
Thinking of basketball would there ,ever, be a Michael Jordan or a Lebron James like talent here? These two sports have failed to come up with icons in spite of India having participated in a few Olympic Games. Such participation has not inspired our youths to take to football earnestly.
The reason: they have no icons to draw inspiration from, or emulate like Pele or the aforesaid legends in Indian football or basketball. In these sports, however, there may be a victory here and there at the Asian level. But is this enough for us to bring home laurels in Olympic Games?
The question is why are we unable to build on these successes and raise our level of performances and thereby register victories at a higher level?
Sincere efforts are being made , but big development has been eluding us. The NBA officialdom have recently launched efforts to broaden the participation in India in basketball and spot young talent in basketball.
Aficionados are only hoping that Indian hoops tears would rise to world standards one day. India is presently w preparing to play host to the FIFA World Cup competition in Under 17 age group .. The hope is that this would inspire our youths to take to football in larger numbers , and with a purpose: of reaching world standards.
Until this is achieved, we will keep wondering will India ever be part of the senior World Cup. In this sport we have managed to produce just two very good talents in Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chetri, the former really formidable.
There is, similarly, some hope in basketball what with two young basketball players from Punjab being picked for lower division NBA league in the United States.
Our story is similar in volleyball. We have only a few very good talents other than (late) Gimmy George, who left us at a young age , in the prime of his career.
In such a bleak scenario in Indian sport , then, it was quite a surprise amidst the joy that in the Sydney Olympics, one of our women talents from the then united Andhra Pradesh, Karanam Malleswari grabbed a Bronze medal in weightlifting ,another sport in which we were nowhere in the world arena . This was another sport in which India did show potential with a few good talents like Karunakaran, before Malleswari.
Compared to sea swimming and channel swimming, the popular format of swimming in a pool, a very popular and competitive Olympic sport, has also been low key in terms of throwing up any world class talent for India. Channel and sea swimming have thrown up some talents at international level , including Bula Chowdhary, Kazan Singh and Kutraleeswaran.
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The last named , hailing from Tamil Nadu,among the few states where development has been high, riding on good to support from the government especially when late J Jayalalithaa was the Chidef Minister, made it to the Guiness Book of world records in sea and channel swimming.
What is significant about this was the fact that Kutraleeswaran was still in school when he achieved the feat. Later on he concentrated on studies and career. The sport lost out on a potential world talent then.
Some more good talents had raised hopes of development to world standards in the swimming pool. Wilson Cherian, Sebastian Xavier and Nisha Millet showed very good promise. But that was all.
Talent surfaced especially from Bengal and Maharashtra, besides Karnataka and Tamil Nadu down south. But lack of the right base and facilities precluded true progress in this sport to international standards. There was some success at international level.
The saga of development in sports like fencing and cycling arguably, is even worse.
There have absolutely been no world class fencer or cyclist from India in any of the top world competitions like Olympics or Tour de France. No wonder some of our promising talents uniformly express the same ambition in interviews to newspapers and magazines : ” I want to win a medal in Olympic Games.”
In the midst of our depressing sporting saga , there has been some bright developments, admittedly. Like the emergence of a leisure sport squash into a very competitive, professional sport. This began in the 80s.
The architect of what can be called squash revolution was a corporate personality ,and a sports lover to the core, Mr Ramachandran, the younger brother of another sports administrator N Srinivasan.
Such was his competence as a sports administrator that even as squash was developing or evolving into a major sport in India, Mr Ramachandran was elected President of World Squash Federation. In fact, before he turned to developing squash,
Mr. Ramachandran took it upon himself the task of introducing and developing triathlon(cycling, swimming and running) . He tutored the emergence of a few potential champions in this sport although after he handed over the responsibility of developing this sport to others, things have not been bright.
Mr Ramachandran’s formula or mantra to develop squash was creating the right atmosphere to enthuse youths- rich or poor basically, to take to squash in earnest with the object of be coming champions for India’s glory.
This right atmosphere was what potential champions in several sports mentioned already were crying hoarse for: facilities and help to participate in international competitions to raise their skill or talent. He proved right through is single minded commitment to develop squash ,and to some extent a sport like triathlon , the adage-where there’s will, there is a way!
Mr Ramchandran created a world class indoor facility and courts like glass courts, recruitted coaches, including a foreign coach for the first time in India in any sport and then went on to recruit youngsters in various age groups- boys and girls.
Soon enough, India s young squash talents started winning medals and titles in the sport internationally. He proved that there is no rich-poor imbalance in participation and winning titles in sports.
In such a scenario, can it be safely said that the cry for facilities and monetary assistance from the government and sports loving corporate leaders has been preventing our youths ,who have the basic talent , from winning it big in the international arena.
There are two other key aspects in our saga of development in sports : that of encouragement from parents , as opposed to the question of good (seen as an exception in a few states like Tamil Nadu , thanks to support from the government) or inadequate facilities.
The most relevant example to drive home the point that many of hour youths who nurture an ambition to excel in sports and also have the basic talent need wholehearted support from their parents, is that of our cherubic chess wizard, Viswanathan. This five-time world champion’s rapid rise in the mind sport after being introduced to the game of 64 squares is too well-known.
It drives home the point how much full backing from parents is essential for a youngster wishing to be a sportsman is vital. This is especially so in the case of girls with a natural talent for any sport. Besides Anand, Good backing from parents has also been seen in the case of Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal , Jwala Gutta, P V Sindhu, Joshna, Dipika Pallikal, not to forget our highest ranked table tennis talent Sharat Kamal.
He was groomed by none other than his father and paternal uncle- the famous Rao brothers who have been churning out, relentlessly, potential table tennis champions at their academy in Chennai ever since moving in from Andhra.
There have been some more parents. Who have nurtured the sporting talent in their daughters ,and not followed the stereo -types who think only about marriage and motherhood for their daughters.
Then there is another important criterion for sports to become a culture in India, an aspect imperative if we are to produce medal winners in Olympic Games.
The lack of this culture is primarily responsible for our ,up and down, performances in Olympics, most of the time our performances nosediving: this is absence of uniform encouragement and inclusion of sports in schools in the country.
We have national school games and rural sports too with support from government.But the question is how professionally are they conducted , how much of real talent has emerged from this activity.
One school ,may be among some others in the country, which has been doing a commendable job making participation and methodical conduct of sports,besides creating the necessary infrastructure is the Velammal school in Chennai.
It’s earnest and professionally carried out sports curriculum, as it were, has been enthusing parents to support their children studying in Velammal’s chain of schools, to become sportspersons. Budding chess players from this school have been emerging world beaters in chess, in different age-groups.
Whenever any of our sportspersons wins laurels at world level, the Velammal Foundation nurturing sports, honours them and gets them to inter act and inspire the emerging sporting talents in the school.
However, this kind of an endeavour must happen nation-wide. One only hopes that the task- force set up by the central government at the behest of the Prime Minister,after another of our fiascos at the 2016 Rio Olympics, with a few of our former world eaters , will yield results. But such moves from a government are basically predictable reactions to an adverse happening, isn’t it so?.
What has to be done immediately is finding a way and ensuring that participation in sports is as important as learning biology, physics, chemistry, English or any other language in the school curricula.
When a Vishy Anand , Pankaj Advani or Sania Mirza can emerge as icons on the world stage in three highly competitive sports, it is a clear sign that interest in sports is inherent in our youths. Only a strong push to make sports a culture and the right backing to their sports loving offspring without sticking to the idea of making them engineers, doctors or lawyers or pursuit of highly paying professions in vogue now….
Another development in Badminton drives home the point that rising to world standards is not beyond our capability: on April 16 two of our rising stars created a history by setting up a clash for the singles title at the Singapore Open. Before Srikkanth and Sai Praneeth ,only players from China, Indonesia and Denmark, the. Badminton powers, had achieved such a feat.
Of course, as the former German tennis icon Boris Becker had observed , answering a question from a youth during an interview and interaction to NDTV late last year, the basic or first preference should be for academics. For, the path to success as a champion sportsperson is strewn with uncertainty.
There is no guarantee : you may be struck down by injury, or may suffer loss of form and some other talent may replace you. So there is this danger of a comeback being ruled out..! That could end a career in the arena…
May be educated and well-informed parents in India are aware of such hurdles, and thereby hangs the tale of sports development in India. But what is clear is the fact that there is talent, hidden though, in our youths to excel in sports in the international arena.
And the proof for this argument is, at the time of writing India won four gold, five silver and three bronze medals in the Asian youth chess championship at Tashkent.
Only we have been failing to get our act together and put the right system in place bereft of the so called ‘politics’ , favouritism and other forms of corruption like the ones depicted in a few sports based films recently like the iconic Bollywood actor Aamir Khan’s ‘Dangal’ and the emerging woman Director Sudha Kongara’s trilingual in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu – Sala Khadoos, Iruthi Sutru and Guru.
And the right system must also include separate budget for sports by the Centre , and helped along by the states with adequate allocations by the state governments.