At the party following the Laureus awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi last week,I popped a quick question at Edwin Moses,chairman of the academy and unarguably the greatest 400m hurdler in the history of track and field: what makes for a champion nation?
Moses was as succinct with his words as he used to be precise in the measure of his strides as record-breaking hurdler. A good ecosystem, he said.
The jargon might seem akin to say,what is being used in the current tug-of-war between Jairam Ramesh and Sharad Pawar over BT brinjal,but what Moses was emphasising was a viable and beneficial system which consistently produces champions in sports: even if by implication,he was saying that India lacks such a thing.
If I have to attempt a brief definition,a healthy ecosystem is one in which its several constituents live either in symbiosis or in competition,but always in such balance that the entire model is self-sustaining,the fittest survive and there is widespread excellence. If one or more of the constituents are absent,become rogue or dysfunctional,the ecosystem is imperilled. Moreover,how the constituents sit with each other is the key,much like a jigsaw puzzle where the right fit is as important as having all the pieces.
Let us consider hockey,once Indias pride,now the countrys eternal lament. Why should a sport with such a strong legacy,which has reasonable support from the government,is fairly high profile in everyday life and has a substantial base of players across the country,languish as it does? Sponsors and broadcasters are shy of supporting the game today because the national team has had limited success at the international level. Which brings us back to the crux of the matter: why is the team not doing well?
Even cursory scrutiny throws up the lacunae in the system. From infrastructure to coaching methods to transparency in selection to general welfare,there are such serious shortcomings that it is a surprise that hockey in India is still alive. But in its present condition it is no better than a drunken man lurching along; someone who has seen glorious days but does not quite know what to do to make the present worthwhile.
The need for astroturfs cannot be overstated; India has fewer than small countries like Holland and Germany. If you live with obsolete infrastructure,you produce outdated hockey. Modern coaching methods,in sync with advanced sports medicine,diet management,psychologists,proper equipment and a less intrusive administration become essentials. Nurturing young talent and creating a well-lubricated feeder pipeline of players to the national level are crucial too. Marketing the sport creatively,generating revenues that can be ploughed back into making the sport attractive and lucrative then become critical.
But perhaps nothing is more important than establishing a culture which bolsters the self-respect of players. It is shameful that till two months ago,players had to beg for rewards for tournaments won two or more years ago! I would hasten to add here that India did quite well in the recently concluded World Cup in finishing eighth when they didnt really belong in this elite league. But that was despite the establishment,not because of it raising the hypothesis of what might be if everything was right.
In many ways,hockey is symptomatic of sports in India,cricket being a glorious exception. The comparison with hockey became stark because the IPL almost overlapped with World Cup hockey. There are many issues on which the IPL can be faulted,but to give the devil its due,it is a robust enterprise: gripping for spectators,hugely rewarding for players and profit-making almost from its inception. Almost everything in the IPLs universe seems to be in place including its fair share of controversies! In a different format and ethos,the Ashes contest has a wonderful ecosystem in place,of which both Australia and England feed profitably without compromising crickets rich tradition.
There are several matters in which the Indian cricket administration has been blinkered or drunk with its own power,but overall,a sound system has been put in place in the past decade or so,and the benefits of that have been manifest over the past few years. The Test team is now ranked number one in the world,the ODI ranking is one notch lower,the BCCI is the richest and the most powerful,and there is a base of high quality players emerging from all over the country.
This has not happened overnight. Investment has been made in infrastructure,academies,talent scouting,modern coaching,etc. There is a momentum and an ambition to the whole process that aims to deliver good results,if not excellence,consistently. True,there are internecine and external pressures on the system; so much of Indian politics is played out within the BCCI,but the sport thrives,as do the players and the paraphernalia which make up the industry.
The absence of government control seems to be a strong reason why cricket succeeds where so many other sports in India struggle. In the US,for instance,there is no sports ministry,only the Presidents Council for Health and Fitness which looks at promoting sports,but almost entirely through private enterprise. But Chinese sport,by contrast,is entirely government driven. Almost $45 billion were spent on the 2008 Olympics from government coffers,but China also bagged an unprecedented heap of medals.
So which direction should India swing? I believe that public-private partnership,rather than either of the extremes is the answer for the present. Government control over sport needs to be loosened substantially to give momentum and thrust. Federations and associations need to work at self-sustenance and delivering excellence by inviting private participation,especially in creating infrastructure. The government should facilitate this while keeping a vigil to thwart private greed or any other nefarious activities.
Given the rate of our economic growth and the huge percentage of young people,India is on the cusp of a sports revolution. But for that,a sports culture needs to emerge. This wont happen unless a vibrant eco-system is in place.
The writer is a senior sports journalist.