Olympic athletes will never come from education-driven middle class

The athletes will come from places where the downside to failure is relatively small but the upside for success is huge.

Written by Harsha Bhogle | Updated: August 24, 2016 9:31:03 am
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There has been much wailing and much cynicism surrounding India’s performance at the Olympics and we have all contributed to it. We inhabit different points on the ignorance curve and so I have stayed away from television debates where, for the better part, professionals specialising in outrage, rather than insights, have residence. But each of us also brings our learning from other spheres and as long as the intent is pure, it is often worth lending a ear to. And so, if you feel like it and have a moment, here are my thoughts.

I believe sportsmen are a bit like entrepreneurs where ambition bears no relation to resources (a nugget I gleaned from my wife’s superior reading sources!) and for whom comfort is a kind of poison. You give them too much too early and you lose them but give them time and a purpose and they take wing. Nurturing such sportsmen requires a lot of love and occasionally firmness; an arm on the shoulder sometimes, a kick up the backside sometimes. It is in identifying such people, assessing their skill and buying into their commitment that the real challenge, and therefore the thrust towards sporting success, lies.

Bureaucracies, or politicians, cannot do this and they shouldn’t. They need to create a climate where an athlete can thrive and, having done so, should get out of the way as quickly as possible.

They incentivise the search for the athlete and the creation of infrastructure and leave it to others. This is a skill that exists in our bureaucracy for they come up with complex legislation, economics and colossal investment. Looking after sport should be easy in comparison but the returns are enormous as the Games in Rio showed.

There is a school of thought that infrastructure attracts athletes anyway and while that might be partially true, it is not something you can plan for. But if training facilities are close to where the athlete is, the returns can be huge and that is why, I believe the future will lie in creating facilities where athletes are most likely to be.

Olympic athletes will never come from the education-driven middle class. That is not an indictment but merely a statement of fact and of priorities. The athletes will come from places where the downside to failure is relatively small but the upside for success is huge. In middle class families, where education is the key to a decent future, there will never be enough time for sport. For recreational sport maybe, and that is not to be trifled with to improve the quality and approach to life, but not for competitive, world class sport. This knowledge seeking community has served India magnificently but will not contribute to the creation of athletes.

Those will come from smaller towns where sporting excellence is a pathway to achievement; where failure will not, and I say this in all humility, greatly affect the financial situation of the family. But success will bring with it unrecognisable acclaim and a not insignificant fortune. This group of people will be hungrier, will have more time to devote to sport and, I presume, will be less distracted. If training facilities are close to where they are, they won’t waste time getting there and that is crucial too. And so it is vital we identify such places and create infrastructure there.

Rio has also shown that women are more likely to produce medals for India. Maybe the gap between where our women athletes are, and where the rest of the world is, isn’t as large as it with men. Maybe, they are just more driven! And if we can identify sports, and the most likely geographical zones for such athletes, setting up of infrastructure there will be most productive. This is an exercise that companies do routinely but the challenge comes after that, in the implementation and that is where I believe the Sports Ministry should divest sport and play no more than a regulatory role.

Privatisation, the way forward

Privatisation, with incentives for building infrastructure and generating result, is to my mind the way ahead because governments should not be building stadiums, handling contractors, drawing out tenders for the best running shoes etc. No, hopefully they have more important things to do. They have good schemes already, suggesting that thought is not the issue; it is finding the right people that they are not very good at given the deplorable way most federations are run.

Wrestling, boxing, archery, hockey and shooting already have a decent base to build on. Badminton has centres of excellence in Bengaluru and Hyderabad where Gopichand is showing that the gurukul pattern of education can still survive. To some extent we have seen the result of that in shooting as well and once the base of the pyramid is built and excellence is identified, the gurukul system will make a comeback.

I do not believe be coming a reasonable sporting power is difficult at all provided we fish in the right ponds and provide facilities there. With incentivised privatisation, I do not believe funds will be an issue either. In any case, modern India shouldn’t have to worry about that. But sport needs love, care and nurturing too and that is in short supply in the current system. That is the root of cynicism.

But if the message from these Olympics also goes unheeded, if the opportunity to create national heroes is frittered away again (as it has been all along), then we should accept the fact that we will not be good enough and hope our athletes succeed in beating the system first and in the energy left, put up a fight against an opponent.

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