Heartbreak. That is the only word I have to describe Saina’s loss in the finals of the World Badminton Championships. But, there is no shame in that defeat. A silver medal is unprecedented in Indian sport. More importantly, every time she comes on to the court, achieves another milestone, she makes Indians sit up and re-evaluate their perspective.
I come from Jalandhar, a town that is as famous for making sports equipment as it is for Harbhajan Singh. I had my cricket bat, badminton racquet, football faster than most girls my age discovered dolls.
It was only when I went to see the other badminton legend, Prakash Padukone play at a stadium next door, that I really got interested enough to go from being a spectator to an athlete. But in those days, middle class families did not have much hope from sport. It was no substitute for a good education.
So, you played, only after you finished your homework. However, as college admissions got tougher, sports quota became a reality. You trained hard enough only to get a place in college. Once that was done and dusted, you forgot you ever held a racquet. Sports was a career choice only for those who did not have a choice.
Then came Saina, the first Indian sportswoman to make a mark internationally. She belonged to a family in small town Hisar, but later shifted to Hyderabad, now the mecca for upcoming badminton players in the country. Her father sacrificed his time, her mother the finances and slowly it began to pay off. She started to catch the imagination of the country. India finally had a female sporting hero it badly needed.
The transformation has been slow, in fact, it is still work in progress, but families have started accepting that their girls can and must also play a sport. Now when I go to a sports academy or a club, young boys and girls are running together chasing the ball. But, unless completely dedicated, most of these children are still fighting a system and will fall by the wayside. Schools in our country are academically oriented to the exclusion of most other things.
The pressure of our education system is a big deterrent. The 99 percent cut offs for college admissions means many parents are not going to bother with games and hobbies. They want to stay conventional, get their child into engineering college and for that only one thing will work. Marks. My nephew with 96 percent did not get admission into the college of his choice. This pressure will only increase every year.
Which leaves only the most talented and the most committed to follow their sporting dreams away from the system that they are entrenched in. Saina trains for eight hours daily, very few will keep such long hours at the expense of academics. Not just that, Saina has herself risen from the ranks of abysmal infrastructure and poor rewards. Where there is no incentive, there will be no change. To think otherwise, is poor judgement.
European countries produce champions back to back because they start young. Children are born into a culture that encourages the outdoor. Families do not need an excuse to go surfing, jogging or trekking. Even young kids, helmets securely on their heads, follow their parents on a bicycle around the city with more focus than our children trying to learn how to drive a car before the recommended age. Four and five years old climb mountain trails, their crying falling on deaf years. I gathered this is how they become champions, by being toughened up at a young age. Sports is an intrinsic part of their upbringing. They know its importance. We on the other hand are still trying to find a place for it.
The thought that education first, no matter what has been so deeply ingrained in our psyche that changing this thinking is not easy. Most children wanted to become a doctor while growing up. The more adventurous ones dreamt of being pilots. It is only recently that they want to emulate Tendulkar or Dhoni. We are still struggling. When you read the success stories of the likes of Sundar Pichai, the new Google CEO, or the other Indians heading global firms, it is only understandable why parents would rather see their children working in Silicon Valley than running laps in a stadium. A recent survey found that In India, most parents give importance to professional success over a happy life. Sports scored way lower down in the index.
It is no wonder then that even basic physical levels of school going children are far from fit, physical education as a subject is more a farce. But, when it comes to the Spelling Bee, no one can beat us. As a Hindi saying goes, ‘Kheloge Kudoge to honge Kharab, Padhoge likhoge to banoge nawab. (If you play, your life will be a waste, but if you study you will be a king).
It is this mind set that Saina takes on every time she comes on court. Her every win makes us sit up and think, if she can do it why can’t our children? To imagine in this field, glory will be overnight though is highly misleading. In Indian sports as it is you start at a disadvantage. But, the increasing popularity of badminton in India, with a vast talent pool of world class players is an indication that things are changing. We need to embrace it across sports because this is Saina’s legacy. Every time she wins, the glory is hers but the victory is ours.