Journalism has a nose for nostalgia : 20 years ago, ahead of the Seoul Olympics, I was sent as a cub reporter to track down the family of K.D. Jadhav, independent India's first Olympic medallist. The story of a wrestler in the small town of Karad in Maharashtra had a familiar ring to it: neglect, deprivation and a sense of anger at being forgotten in a cricket-crazy country. Ahead of the Beijing Olympics, the Jadhavs once again experienced their ritualistic date with fame. Perhaps, it's the last time we'll tell their tale. In the aftermath of Beijing, the country has found new Olympian families to showcase: next time, it will be the Bindras of Chandigarh and the Kumars of Bhiwani who will be celebrated. While India's first medallist died battling for his policeman's pension, the new generation heroes are already on the crorepati list.
It has taken 56 long and frustrating years for bronze to turn into gold for India's Olympic athletes. In the meantime, China, which won its first Olympic gold as late as 1984, has become the number one Olympic country, the US remains a powerhouse of talent, and even tiny Jamaica has established an enviable reputation. If the Olympic medal tally was to rank countries in a ratio of population to medals won, we'd still probably be close to the bottom, our sole satisfaction emerging from the fact that our eternal rivals, the Pakistanis, have drawn a blank.
Jadhav won his medal in the same year (1952) that India had its first general election. His win at the time should have heralded the arrival of a young nation on the world stage. Instead, it became a footnote in the history books. This was a time of the grand Nehruvian dream: of Five Year Plans, scientific temper, non-alignment, big dams and heavy industries. In this vision of a new India, Olympic sports had little place. Hockey alone prospered because of the legacy that had been handed over by the colonialists: the clubs and army grounds remained the nurseries of the sport. The rest of Indian sport was literally consigned to endless debates about why we were an Olympic zero.
The Nehruvians saw sports as yet another large public sector undertaking, to be managed like a steel plant. The Soviet-style buildings that housed our sporting bodies typified a bureaucratic mindset: the malaise of sporting talent being controlled by mean-spirited officials has been with us from the very beginning. Ironically, the Soviets (and now the Chinese) were highly successful in developing Olympic sport through a ‘controlled’ system. The reason was simple: an autocratic model of managing sport can work in a totalitarian political system, not in a chaotic democracy like ours. The Chinese system can train six-year-old gymnasts to do 60 sit-ups: in India, child rights activists would have filed a petition complaining of child abuse
And yet, maybe for the first time in six decades of independence, there may be a twist in the Indian Olympic tale and Beijing 2008 could mark a defining moment. For the first time there is a genuine belief that India's next Olympic gold won’t take quite so long, and that by the year 2020, we might actually get enough medals for customs officials to take note. What has changed? On the surface, very little. Our officials still remain as lethargic and junket-obsessed as ever. We still hire sporting grounds for marriages. Our athletes still receive shamelessly meagre daily allowances. And we still can’t shake off the monopoly of cricket in our lives.
What we have shaken off though is the inferiority complex that was sustained by a litany of past failures. It’s not just Abhinav Bindra's Mr Cool act that symbolises a quiet confidence that was missing in previous Olympics. As a child of privilege, Bindra had the benefit of exceptional parental support from a very young age. In an expensive sport, his success was almost fashioned like a well-crafted business plan for which his family deserves enormous credit. But what is perhaps even more creditable is the remarkable performance of our boxers and wrestlers. It’s not just the medals they've won, it's the journey they've undertaken to get there that suggests we have finally crossed a psychological barrier to actually compete at the highest level.
From Bhiwani to Beijing is an arduous journey but one that the Kumars have shown the courage and passion to undertake. Mohammed Ali once famously said that to be a good boxer you needed strong fists, but an even stronger heart. To watch our boxers, whether they win or lose, look their opponents in the eye, must rank as one of the finer moments in Indian sport. Not to forget bronze medallist Sushil Kumar and tiny Saina Nehwal who showed enough talent in her first Olympic appearance to make us believe that she will win a medal in the future.
Undoubtedly, there are many more Sainas and Sushil Kumars waiting to be discovered. We are an aspirational society, one which is on the cusp of change. Sporting success is part of that process of change, of unleashing the dormant energies that were stifled by bureaucratic chains. We still don't have a sporting culture like the Americans or the Australians, but at least we've moved beyond the Hindu rate of growth. As the economy expands, sports will be a natural beneficiary since it offers increasing opportunities for upward mobility, a chance to move overnight from a tinshed to a bungalow. Moreover, in the age of 24 hour news television, new role models are being constantly thrown up, with every medal won spurring a wave of nationalistic pride.
What is needed then is to sustain the Beijing momentum with a single-minded commitment to harness talent across the country, not just in the big cities. Cricket 'democratised' itself , which is why we have achieved so much success at the game. Now, other sports too need to be 'liberated' from the mai-baap culture of the Nehruvian era. Here’s a thought: why don't each of the IPL team owners adopt one sport and make it part of their business plan? Bhiwani could do with a world class boxing gymnasium.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-chief, IBN network