India's Sporting Shame: Of Remarkable Athletes And Run-of-The-Mill Administrators
While Indian athletes continue to punch above their weights, most Indian sports administrators have done little to improve the state of affairs. After Rio 2016, it is time for some serious introspection back home
Dattu Baban Bhokanal recently finished 13th in the men's single scull event at the Rio Olympics. A name previously unheard of in Indian sports, Bhokanal caught the limelight by achieving India's best ever finish in an individual rowing event at the Games.
The 23-year old Havaldar in the Indian army did a commendable job in Rio. What will sound surprising to many sports fans is the fact that Bhokanal had only been introduced to rowing in 2012. To come this far, barely four years after taking up the sport professionally, is indeed quite an achievement.
But Bhokanal has had to battle far bigger odds. He comes from a family of stone-crushing labourers from Talegaon in Maharashtra, which has been reeling from a long-standing water crisis.
Bhokanal went to Rio a few days after his mother suffered a serious head injury in a road accident. The rower's mother is still in a critical condition. Bhokanal competed at the Games with the knowledge of his mother's health condition.
Battling odds is the norm in India
Like Bhokanal, many Indian athletes' careers have a similar theme. Most of them have had to battle incredible odds to make it professionally in their respective sports.
While Bhokanal's humble background and his personal problems didn't help his cause, Indian sportspersons also face many institutional problems.
From state apathy to inadequate infrastructure, from lack of quality coaches to an educational system that actively discourages youngsters from taking up sports professionally, athletes in this country, by no means, have it easy.
Absence of a sports culture
After the disappointments of the opening week at the Olympics, the mood in the India camp somewhat brightened after Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu managed to save face and secure a couple of medals for the country.
The sobering reality, however, is that India's medal count makes for embarrassing reading for a nation of more than 1.2 billion people.
Of all the 142 countries which have won at least a medal in the history of the Summer Olympic Games, India ranks 142nd for population per medal. For GDP per medal, India rank 122 of 127 countries in all-time history. (Source:Â medalspercapita.com)
For one of the world's biggest economies, India's Olympic record is an indictment of the low social standing of sports in the country. That most Indian kids do not get access to sporting facilities from a young age, is testimony to the country's non-existent sports culture.
Gymnast Dipa Karmakar, the brightest spot
One of India's brightest sparks in Rio has undoubtedly been Dipa Karmakar. The gymnast from Agartala started her career training in crash mats and a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) apparatus developed from discarded scooter parts. To go from there and finish fourth in a final event at the Olympics is a staggering feat for any athlete.
One, however, can't help but wonder how much more Dipa could have potentially achieved had she actually been able to train with proper equipment from a young age. Just before the Rio Olympic Games, the gymnast's request for her physio Sajad Ahmad to accompany her to Brazil was turned down by the Sports Authority of India (SAI).
On her qualification to the finals, Ahmad was finally rushed to Rio. If an athlete of Dipa Karmakar's stature is subjected to situations like this, one can only imagine what younger, less accomplished athletes have to go through.
Sports administration -- a fiefdom of politicians
Starting from the Sports Ministry, sports administrative bodies in India have done little to dispel a culture of apathy towards sports in India.
Sarbananda Sonowal, who was given the reins of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS) after BJP's surge to power at the Center in 2014, spent the last few months of his tenure campaigning for the Assam assembly election. Vijay Goel, the present sports minister, has done little to build confidence with his antics in Rio.
But the rot goes much deeper in Indian sports. Most national and state level sports bodies have become a fiefdom of influential politicians. All attempts at bringing in structural changes have so far proved futile.
In 2011, the-then sports minister Ajay Maken tabled a Sports Bill, which would have placed restrictions on age, tenure and other aspects of office-bearers in various federations.
Maken was forced to redraft the Bill after opposition from a number of politicians, including his own colleagues in the UPA government then, Praful Patel, Kapil Sibal, Sharad Pawar, et al.
NCP leader Praful Patel has himself been the elected president of the All India Football Federation since December 2012. During his tenure, football in India has undergone a series of crises.
The Indian national team has reached its lower ever national ranking, while the national league has shrunk from 14 clubs in 2012-13 to a possible six next season.
Club football is facing a complete breakdown with shrinking number of clubs at the top of the league pyramid, and with most ISL and I-League entities facing severe losses. In the midst of this, the Patel-led AIFF presently spends a little over 25 percent of its own funds on itself.
Infighting and murky administration
On the other hand, many other sports federations have been reeling from infighting, power struggles and murky administration.
The Basketball Federation of India (BFI), for instance, split into two factions in early 2015. One faction is headed by K Govindraj, and is recognised by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). Another rival faction, headed by BJP MP Poonam Mahajan, however, has backing from the Indian Olympic Association (IOA).
The division has put basketball in India in a precarious position. Earlier this year, the feud resulted in basketball being scraped from the South Asian Games.
The Gymnastics Federation of India (GFI) has faced a similar split for the last four years, leading to Indian gymnasts suffering from the absence of exposure, facilities and funds.
Boxing has been plagued by an administrative crisis as well, since 2012, with two national governing bodies being terminated in the last four years. The elections for the new Boxing Federation of India (BFI) are slated to be held later this year.
With administrative issues hampering so many sports in the country, Indian athletes continue to be the biggest victims of the system.
After India's two-medal showing at the Rio Olympics, there certainly needs to be some serious introspection back home.