When Olympic winners are appropriated by leaders

By Rajdeep Sardesai

Strongmen populist leaders have a penchant for aligning sporting achievement to their personality cult. Fidel Castro of Cuba is a great example: the ‘revolutionary’ Cuban leader used his country’s success in the boxing ring and on the baseball field to instil a sense of national pride, especially when taking on his familiar American ‘enemy’. Other erstwhile Soviet bloc leaders too were quick to use sports success as a symbol of their larger ideological battles. So, it should come as no surprise that Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s relentless image management media machine has clambered onto the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics medallist bandwagon. Modi’s self-image as a muscular nationalist leader is boosted when seen in the company of sports heroes. But are the photo-ops and well-choreographed events just fine optics or is India on the cusp of finally being seen as an Olympic nation of substance?
To be fair, the prime minister and the sports ministry can legitimately claim that they have done more than previous governments in building an Olympic medal momentum. The Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) launched by the sports ministry in 2014 has played an important role, especially post the 2016 Rio Olympics, in identifying and supporting elite Olympic and Paralympic athletes. In particular, after initially Olympic silver medallist Rajyavardhan Rathore and then the youthful Kiren Rijiju took charge of the sports ministry, there was a visible change in the planning and preparedness for mission Tokyo. With the support of private trusts and foundations like Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) , JSW sports, GoSports, there was a genuine attempt to create an eco-system where athletes could actually aspire to go for gold.
Contrast this with the previous UPA government where the sports ministry was seen as marginal and routinely rotated between several ministers. In the ten years from 2004 to 2014, the country had as many as six sports ministers, with an average tenure of less than two years. There were even sports ministers like Mani Shankar Aiyar who were openly disdainful of the attempts being made to bid for the Asian and Commonwealth Games while a Sunil Dutt too seemed clearly unhappy with what was seen as a ‘junior’ portfolio. It is therefore to the credit of the Modi government that they have tried to give a more vibrant ‘Khelo India’ profile to a ministry that desperately needed fresh ideas and zest.
The final tally at the Tokyo Olympics may seem a little underwhelming: seven medals, just one more than London 2012, were clearly well below the double-digit tally that was widely anticipated but there were enough signs that the Indian contingent was now truly competitive. The Paralympic performance is simply spectacular: 19 medals are more than the combined total of what India has won in all previous Paralympic Games. Which is why the celebrations are not entirely misplaced. For a generation which grew up on the limited ambition of a hockey medal, Tokyo 2020 must be seen as a breakthrough event. A ‘new’ younger India now has inspirational figures like Neeraj Chopra to allow their ambitions to soar like a flying javelin into a glittering golden sky.
And yet, the euphoria needs to be tempered by certain ground realities. The medallists maybe feted but there is still a yawning gap between elite athlete performance and the overall standard of Olympic sport in the country. How many schools in the country have playgrounds and physical education teachers who can train and guide the young? (Cuba under Castro ensured that 95 per cent of the country was covered by state driven sports programmes). Better funding of potential medal winning athletes alone cannot create a competitive sports culture: that requires a public-private partnership that seeks to build a sporting ethos that goes beyond just the glamour of associating with global spectacles like the Olympics.
The Naveen Patnaik-led Odisha government’s involvement with hockey is a good example of what is possible if a progressive political leadership embraces an Olympic sport with total commitment without an eye on instant rewards. Odisha backed hockey when the rest of the country and potential sponsors had almost given up on the sport, making the state’s investment in the sport even more heart-warming. With Astro-turf grounds now planned in every district headquarters of Odisha, ensuring a worthy grassroots model that should be emulated.
The struggles of our disabled sportspersons also need a reality check. Our para-athlete medallists are being honoured but when it comes to inclusion and accessibility, people with disabilities still struggle to have their voices heard. How many of our sports facilities across the country provide equal opportunity for the disabled by ensuring easy access? And how many institutions recognise the physically handicapped as deserving citizens and not just as ‘bechara’ ‘objects’ of charity? Workforce participation for the disabled in India is still below the global average and despite rights legislation, disability activists have to fight long and lonely battles to get justice. Even in a popular sport like cricket, it has been the herculean efforts of individuals like Bengaluru’s GK Mahantesh of Samarthanam Foundation that has almost forced the BCCI to now recognise the disabled cricketers as deserving of their patronage.
At the heart of the future challenge is the lop-sided governance structure for sports. For decades, sports has been terribly governed in the country: most sports federations are run like personal fiefdoms by politicians and their cronies. It is only now when private trusts have sought to fill the gap through enlightened corporate social responsibility that there is a belief that the monopoly of the neta-babu culture in our sports is finally being broken. But unless the governance standards are significantly raised, sports federations are likely to be looked at with suspicion. Look at the manner in which wrestling federation chief, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a six-time MP now with the BJP, has warned wrestlers who are associated with private, not for profit trusts that they will not be considered for selection going ahead. Like many other federation bosses, Singh too wants to bully players into submission. Maybe, next time the prime minister has an on-camera interaction with Olympians, he could also have a stern word with his fellow BJP MP. It may prove more rewarding than a made for TV eyeball grabbing event.
Post-script: With the once in four years Olympic extravaganza over, the focus shifts back to cricket with the IPL and World T 20 on the horizon. The question which we must all answer, including as media-persons, will we still track the inspirational stories of our Olympic heroes, or will we be back soon enough to being a one sport nation?
(The writer is senior journalist and author. Mail: [email protected])

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