Pageantry and false promise

The number of Arjuna, Khel Ratna awardees is at odds with state of Indian sports

Four years back, India’s medal count at the Rio Olympics was an abysmal two. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has ensured that the Tokyo Games, along with other significant sporting events, have been postponed. However, this hasn’t come in way of the sports ministry approving the longest-ever list for their annual sports awards. On the jumbo list of 74 are five Khel Ratnas and 27 Arjuna awardees. These are overwhelming numbers that are more suited for nations with a bulging trophy cabinet and over-stuffed medal chest. It also gives an impression that in this year of sporting lockdown, India has finally emerged as a global sporting power.

The fact that sports ministry’s guidelines state that there should be just one Khel Ratna and 15 Arjuna Awardees every year unless there are exceptional circumstances, is a mood spoiler in a week when elaborate plans are being put in place for the online function celebrating India’s sporting excellence. The over-crowded list of awardees is an assurance that all is well with Indian sports. When not presenting a rosy picture of the present, the sports ministry also periodically promises a sparkling bright future.

Sports ministers have a habit of making predictions about India’s Olympic medal tally. Generous in their estimation, the ministers usually talk about a new dawn that’s at least four years away, the duration of the Olympic cycle.

Last month, Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju made the grand announcement of India finishing among the Top-10 at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. The disaster of finishing 67th at the last Games didn’t see the minister tone down his pitch when it came to his expectations from India’s Olympians. Australia at No10 had 29 medals. With India winning just two medals in Rio, the minister was expecting a 1,500 per cent increase in India’s sporting success in eight years. And, collaterally, a collective drop in the performance of the table toppers.

Almost all of Rijiju’s predecessors have been prone to bouts of extreme optimism. When Ajay Maken of the Congress was the minister, he forecasted 25 medals in 2020. Rijiju’s BJP colleague Sarbananda Sonowal said “10-plus” a year before the Rio Games.

Away from this unrealistic hype, there are some universally accepted hard facts. Breaking the Olympic hierarchy hasn’t been easy. There is a tried-and-tested formula to win bagfuls of Olympic medals. Countries that dominate the medal-table ensure that they groom winners in disciplines with a higher number of medals.

The US, top of the all-time list (2,523), has dominated in track and field (802) and swimming (553) — two sports where the most medals are up for grabs at the Olympic Games. Australia owes its Olympic legacy to the success in swimming — 188 of their 497 medals are from the pool. The second-best ever Russia continues to dominate the medal-heavy disciplines of gymnastics and wrestling.

China, a relatively new entrant on the Olympic overall podium, has managed to break into the elite club with smart planning. The introduction of table tennis and badminton proved to be a boon for China, which is traditionally strong in these racquet sports. Cuba, with just over 11 million citizens, has gained by specialising in boxing — one-third of its 226 medals are from the ring.

Except for hockey, in a different era, India hasn’t really “owned” a sport. Medals in weightlifting, tennis, shooting, wrestling, badminton and boxing have made the country excited once in a while but consistency hasn’t been a strong point — Sydney (1 medal), Athens (1), Beijing (3), London (6) indicated an upward trend before the crash at Rio (2).

For India to surge towards the top of the medals tally, its sporting ecosystem needs a massive overhaul. The onus of helping athletes bag more Olympic medals shouldn’t be placed only at the door of the ministry at Shastri Bhawan. National sports federations need a nip and a tuck to shape up.

Federation officials should be open to private partnerships and also push to generate their own revenue and not bank on government grants. The umbrella body for all sports federations, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), can take a leaf out of the book of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee. The USOPC receives no funding from the federal government. To run high-performance programmes for the entire squad, it generates enough money from sponsors and donors.

At some point, accountability should kick in too. In case India is nowhere near the Top 10 in 2028, will we see a spate of resignations? While the country waits for that real new dawn, they can get busy with grand award ceremonies and the promise of a grander future.

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