Fans are entitled to be disappointed with India’s performance at the Olympics. Among other things, through the taxes that some of them pay, they fund athletes and asking for the returns their money has generated isn’t a crime. Whether their taxes should go into the development of Indian athletes is a different matter and, as I have often argued, a ponderous bureaucracy can never produce sportsmen. Neither can those federations that look upon the Olympics as a photo-opportunity vacation.
But ranting on social media is hardly the alternative and achieves little more than embarrassing those that live in unconnected worlds. A post-mortem has to be conducted by those who know and, just as important by those who have a desire to know the truth. They exist, many of them in fact, but it is not fashionable to either seek their views or implement them.
The Olympics is an examination, and like the academic ones that most of us are more familiar with, it is the intensity of the preparation before the exam that determines how well you actually do there. There was a line in the commentary while I was watching Shiva Thapa try to fight his way through against Ramirez of Cuba that told the story of the bout. If you are representing Cuba at boxing, you are already a good boxer because you have qualified through tough competition, he said and that could well have been the difference between the two boxers.
When the qualifying school is tough, you are automatically ready. If you are a bowler for Pakistan, or a middle order batsman for India, you have already fought your way through tough competition.
But if you are an opening batsman for Pakistan or a fast bowler for India, you are still work in progress at the highest level. I fear that is the issue with a lot of our athletes. And that is also the difference between merely taking part and winning.
That is why Indian sport needs a pyramid with a very large base. Hockey went through a trough, when the federation tried its hardest to embrace mediocrity and often succeeded, but because there was still a large player base the talent at the top was still pretty good and the moment intent arrived the turnaround could begin. Chess and shooting are good examples of what a large base can achieve. I realise the shooters were a massive disappointment but that won’t last too long because the standard is still pretty high.
But Thapa didn’t have that advantage. Neither do our archers and so they must over-perform on the big stage because par isn’t good enough as with Lalita Babar who doesn’t have anyone to push her upwards. Luckily our badminton players get to compete internationally but take away Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu and you will discover why it isn’t a good long-term stock to buy. But at least there is rivalry there as I am sure there is between Kashyap, Srikanth, Prannoy and the others. It isn’t a large enough base yet but the finishing schools are doing a fantastic job.
The other reason for having a large base is that athletes and performers will fail. American athletes and Australian swimmers and Chinese gymnasts have failed too at these Olympics but others have succeeded because there were a large number of players at a certain level.
And so Indian sport must seek to build a base, create a large pyramid and do it quietly. Ministries cannot do that because they will never have the fever needed to do it. They must outsource it and the faster they incentivise that process and get away the better it will be.
The progress of Shiva Thapa and Lalita Babar versus what could have been with a tougher finishing school tells us the story of non-cricket Indian sport. We have well-meaning people but they are scattered like raisins are in a cake. It makes for a good story but that doesn’t produce medals. And so my fear is that we will continue to have sporadic success, like the amazing Dipa Karmakar and the gritty Sakshi Malik, but till the ministry gets out of sport and outsources it to people who are empowered to produce scale, we must make do with this.