India needs to reform its culture to excel in sports

India is continuing its dismal Olympic performance this time too. Since the inception of the Olympics in 1900. In the last 121 years, we have got 28 medals till 2016.

Published: 01st August 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st July 2021 01:40 PM   |  A+A-

For representational purpose (Express Illustration by Durga Datt Pandey

India is continuing its dismal Olympic performance this time too. Since the inception of the Olympics in 1900. In the last 121 years, we have got 28 medals till 2016. We aren’t going to add significantly to this tally. If we take medals per population, we are at rock bottom in the ranking. We are the second-most populous country in the world. China, the most populous country globally, started participating in the Olympics in 1980 after a long hiatus. In the brief period of 1984 to 2016, China had added 224 gold, 167 silver and 155 bronze to its kitty, totalling 542 medals in just 32 years. 

Like most other parameters, in sports too we lag behind our neighbour by a ridiculously huge margin. Nothing exposes the hollowness of our superpower pretensions other than our mediocre performance in the sports arena. Unlike other parameters like per capita income, the standard of living measurements, HDI etc., where our dismal performance goes unnoticed except in academic circles, our pathetic performance in sports gets rubbed on our face every Olympics or Asian Games. Theoretically, India should be dominating every sport.

We are 135 crore people, and it shouldn’t be challenging to find a champion in every conceivable sport. We are an ethnically diverse country with almost all races living in India. We have blessed weather with various climatic conditions, from snow-filled mountains to steaming tropics. Every possible sport could be played in India, almost throughout the year. Yet, year after year, we fail even to qualify in most international sports, let alone excel in them. Many reasons like government apathy and lack of infrastructure have been ascribed to this abysmal performance. There can be no doubt that India lacks world-class infrastructure for sports. But is the government apathy the only reason for this sad state of affairs? Then what makes poor countries that are smaller than an average Indian district produce more Olympic golds in a single Olympics than we have earned since the beginning of modern Olympics?

The reason may lie in our culture and tradition. The privileged of India had never placed any value on sports or adventure. The caste system glorified intellectual achievements over physical ones. We are not overflowing with Nobel laureates and genius inventors; even in that, we have a ridiculously low achievement rate. Physical labour and activities were always meant for the so-called lower castes. Thanks to the rigidity of the caste system, group sports activities involving people from varied backgrounds were and are still rare. The elite of India never placed a premium on adventure or sports.

We have a long coastline, yet we have no culture of surfing or deep-sea diving for leisure. Indian beaches have more number of fully clothed people eating fried savouries than swimming. We have snow-clad mountains, but very few take up skiing. Kayaking or sailing for leisure has never been mainstream despite the abundance of lakes and rivers. Since the elite has never bothered about anything that requires a fraction of adventure, the governments are in no hurry to create facilities for the same. This cultural conditioning reflects in the way the schools and parents treat sports. The first thing to get banned for many children when they reach the 10th or 12th standard is their participation in sports.

A state-level gold medal winner in athletics gets far less coverage in the media than a student scoring the first rank in some competitive examination. Parents would rather have their wards get admission to some mediocre engineering college than in a reputed sports academy. One may argue this is a middle-class phenomenon. Then the question arises about why our society is not producing any sports icons from the underprivileged? Why is India unable to produce a Jesse Owens, a Muhammad Ali, a Tiger Woods, a Usain Bolt?

In the West, the blacks had the avenue of sports and music to make it big in the world. When the sports superstars from the black community were coming up in the last century, they faced much more challenges than an average underprivileged would face in modern India. Despite such discriminations, the blacks strove to excel in sports, thus giving a bloody blow to the white supremacist. Who can forget the statement Jesse Owens made before Adolf Hitler in the Berlin Olympics? One advantage the blacks of the USA had over their counterparts in India is that the elites of their country always celebrated sports and adventure, and a never-ending zest for life. India has been practising systematic discrimination against Dalits from time immemorial, comparable to racism in the West.

But with the elite and the middle class giving negligible importance to sports achievements, the underprivileged can’t escape poverty and discrimination by excelling in sports. Even the government apathy to sports can be attributed to the indifference of the powerful classes. Unless Indians from all walks of life take the words of Swami Vivekananda that ‘you will be nearer to Heaven through football than through the study of the Gita’ to their heart, our achievements in sports would remain abysmally low. It isn’t the sports culture alone, but culture per se that needs reformation. 

Anand Neelakantan

Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy


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