A nation bereft of a sporting culture should pause to ask itself why its athletes have always been also-rans.
We did it! We did it! We Did It!
For the newly anointed champion, the road to Olympic stardom has had its share of speed-breakers. Bindra, still a teenager when he debuted in the international arena, had toiled away through sweat and tears, professional failures and personal injuries. When he stepped up to the podium and held up the medal for the world, few among the millions of television viewers knew that less than a year ago, Bindra was too sick with a back ailment even to pick up an air-rifle.
There was, to be sure, the occasional medal to keep his hopes afloat. After two disappointing Olympic efforts in Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004), Bindra had conquered the 2006 World Championships in Zagreb. But while the Zagreb gold medal had warmed the hearts of the game's followers, the public at large was unmoved. After all, how many sports enthusiasts, much less, lay readers and viewers - follow air-rifle shooting?
The Olympics however are another story. An Olympic gold is an Olympic gold, and it matters not in which sport - team or individual - it was won. That the rules and intricacies of the sport are beyond the comprehension of the man-on-the-street, and that the sport itself finds no place on national television - state-owned or cable - are also irrelevant. Which is why Abhinav Bindra gets mobbed today by quote-hungry media-persons; why his chirpy mother Babli, herself a former athlete, suddenly becomes the bhabhi of India's Sports Minister who clings to her while his sidekick babus jostle for space before flashing cameras; why the ebullient and flamboyant Bindra Senior holds court before fawning press and television interviewers; and why the reluctant poker-faced bespectacled Abhinav finds himself crowned as the country's most eligible bachelor.
But when that happens, when the stardust has settled over the golden boy and reality creeps up on us all, some disturbing morning-after questions are sure to surface.
The first realization centers on the fact that our reactions of exultation stemmed at least in part from an unmistakable element of surprise. Frankly, Bindra was relatively unknown in the list of Indian medal probables. That list was headed by earlier Olympic medalists like Lt. Col. Rajyavardhan Rathore (who won the silver at Athens for double-trap shooting, and was penciled at No. 55 by Time magazine as one of the "100 Olympic Athletes To Watch") together with Leander Paes (a tennis bronze winner at Atlanta), both of whom disappointed, with Rathore failing in the qualifying round itself. Other hopefuls included Mahesh Bhupathi (Paes' doubles partner), Sania Mirza (the latest glam-doll of Indian tennis) and Saina Nehwal (a rising badminton star).
Next comes the question of the sport's outreach. Shooting, let's face it, is just not part of the national sporting ethos. I remember being mildly fascinated by it after I had rifled my way through strategically placed balloons to a first prize at the local mela in my pre-teen years. I also remember being promptly dissuaded by my father from taking it seriously. Name any Indian shooter, he asked me. I recalled the name of Maharaja Karni Singh, which occasionally appeared in tiny one-column corner stories on the sports page: Karni Singh was to Indian shooting till the decade of the 1970s what Wilson Jones was to Indian billiards - a lone man at the top of a game few Indians played or watched or even knew of. Ah, said my father, there you have it. See the "Maharaja" before his name? The implication was clear: The sport was an elitist one, beyond our family's budget.
That point was highlighted by Bindra Senior. He repeatedly told the media how much he and his family had poured into Abhinav's career: a Rs 1 crore training area, which includes a gym, spa, physiotherapy centre and his personal Olympic-sized shooting range in the compound outside his home in Chandigarh; trips to South Africa for fitness sessions and to Germany for practice, apart from financing the costs of an international support staff. Only a fraction of these million-dollar expenses were underwritten by the Mittal's Champions Trust, the London-based NRI steel magnate L. N. Mittal's initiative to encourage talent. The rest came from the Bindra family, with nothing from the government. What Bindra Senior never mentioned however, but came through clearly in all the reports was that the Bindras are exceptionally wealthy by normal Indian standards, and live in state-of-the-art luxury in a palatial home.
Which begs the question: Would the government be justified in investing huge sums of public money for a sport that has no national grass-root base to speak of, and is - from a proletarian perspective - simply a more benign avatar of the traditional leisure pastime called wildlife hunting? Conversely then, could the same government, truly and with any moral justification - claim an international gold won by an individual without any state support?
Let's, for a moment, leave aside the elitist sports. Surely, wrestling and boxing would qualify as comparatively affordable pursuits where the per-player infrastructure cost would be miniscule against that for shooting. And what do we have here? Close to zilch from the state. With what face can the Indian government lay claim even to the bronze medals won at the Beijing Games by Sushil Kumar (wrestling) and Vijender Kumar (boxing)? Their accomplishments have served to expose the criminal apathy and neglect with which the government treats these sports.
In Bhiwani, a small town in the northwestern Haryana state which boasts of being the country's "boxing capital" and where Kumar and his colleagues prepared for the Games, the training facility has no drinking water and trainees have to wade through ankle-deep slush when it rains. Even in the best weather, the Bhiwani Boxing Club can afford to hire only two coaches to guide more than 200 boxing enthusiasts.
True, we are a nation without a deep-seated and enduring sports culture. Generations of Indians have been raised to believe that bread-and-butter economic aspirations limited to the acquisition of roti-kapda-makaan far outweigh sporting ambitions, which are at best occasional hobbies. The new era of modernization and globalization - and therefore of greater middle-class prosperity - is no different. How many parents in India, even well-to-do ones, insist on their kids taking up a physically-demanding sporting activity as weekend recreation? And how many among those that do, encourage them to pursue a sport or a game other than that relic, albeit an endearing one, of colonial domination: cricket?
The government, for its part, has only worsened matters by allocating little or no monies toward building and maintaining a strong sports infrastructure that encompasses a wide spectrum of sports and games, especially athletics. Any sportsman dealing with the Sports Authority of India knows how frustratingly bureaucratic and unhelpful the state-run department can be. And the fact that a senior agriculture minister in the federal cabinet is talking less about farmer suicides than about cricket team selection, and that he isn't pulled up for this gross insensitivity, tells you where its real priorities lie.
As the Beijing Games ended, there was pride in that it was the best India ever fared in terms of the medals tally (3 in all: one gold, two bronze). But there was also the sobering realization that we, as a sporting nation, may be slipping between the two ideological stools of socialism and capitalism. Significantly, the two most successful countries at Beijing were China (following the socialist model of coercive recruitment and training of selected athletes) and the US of A (with its capitalist paradigm of pecuniary rewards for the best and brightest).
India was never a socialist country and even the allusion in the preamble to our Constitution now rings hollow after our abject genuflection before the high-priests of the world market during the economic "reforms" of 1991. In any case, taking the totalitarian route would prove to be an embarrassment: we've never displayed the guts to ask the Big Powers to go fly a kite when confronted with accusations of human rights violations. So the other option is to wait for Mittal and his ilk to sponsor emerging talent. The danger, of course, is that commercial sponsorships always cravenly follow market dictates: a sponsor, as a rule, is unwilling to fund a sport that's not "popular," i.e. one that does not guarantee improved product sales.
But till that happens, we can only pray for a few more billionaire sons to take better aim.