Back in school, as we progressed to complex equations and marks cards that seemingly determined our destiny, sport was always forsaken for the humdrum of academics. After reaching a certain class, the sports class (or PT as we call it) was given scant regard. It was relegated to a 40 minute window, once a week. Any pursuit that had no bearing on our marks card, one of life’s most overrated documents, was viewed as a hindrance. Sport was treated as something to be gotten over with as quickly as possible before we dived headlong into the pursuit of academic excellence. Barring a persistent few, even the star athletes were told to put away their shoes, spikes, hockey sticks and cricket bats and mug equations and theory that will eventually have very little bearing on how our lives turn out.
But I used to envy people who could play a sport.
What is the excuse for most people to face myriad health issues, be overweight and resort to dubious procedures to look young when they’re not too old? “I haven’t exercised after school. The last time I ran was in school, the last time I played a sport was in college. After that, life got to me and now I find myself in a place where the doctor tells me I need to lose weight if I have to live to see my 50th birthday.”
As the nation with the largest armchair activist population, we pass judgement on how our athletes aren’t able to win a medal when we ourselves are huffing and puffing to climb a flight of stairs.
This is a microcosm of an athlete’s journey in our country:
They study in schools, just like us. At some point, they are enrolled in a sport by someone who cares. They are told by everyone that sport doesn’t have much of a future and that they have to balance their pursuit of excellence with academics as a back up. Their parents will be forced to contend with other parents who tell them that pursuing sport in our country is expensive and fraught with risk. Why not just enroll them into tuitions so that they can study and pretend to aspire to get into the IITs like the rest of us?
On ignoring the advice of such well-meaning people, their parents will use their own finances and resources so that their children can get the best training there is. There they will realise the abysmal infrastructure and lack of support from the government that has plagued and plunged sport in the country into an abyss of indeterminate proportions.
But pursue they will.
Waking up before the crack of dawn to practice, attending school whenever possible, fighting sleep in classes that work more effectively than any sleeping pill, the aspiring athlete will soldier on. They will stay away from family and friends and experience first hand how sport is administered in the country, the number of hands that need to be greased and sporting bodies that are mere pawns in the hands of power hungry politicians.
They will wonder if they have made the right choice. Should we have studied, like the rest of them? Should we chosen cricket, a game where you can become a star and have a chance at more financial security? A game where you can be in the spotlight, just for one day? A game where the whole country knows their name and chants it, just once?
By then, there is no turning back. They look at how other countries treat their athletes and wish they were born there. They then silence that voice. I am a proud Indian and I will give all that I have to make my country proud they say to themselves. Even if no one knows my name and recognises me on the street and I see a cricketer who has played just one IPL be hounded for autographs, I will not lose sight of the finish line.
People blame cricket and India for being a one sport country, but that really serves no purpose. I am a cricket romantic and the game has provided me with untold joy. Somehow, it lucked out in terms of administration in the country and in spite of the Lodha committee’s scathing review of the BCCI, it must be admitted that our cricketers are a well taken care of lot. The powers that be have ensured that serious cricketers are afforded decent training facilities, stay in good hotels and get decent food. One of India’s worst governed states, Jharkhand, gave us MS Dhoni, one of the the best captains the country has had. The game, which was once the bastion of the big states now sees players coming from all corners of the country.
Till sometime back, N Srinivasan was the most powerful man in world cricket. That was until his son-in-law’s involvement in a betting scandal was unearthed. He clung onto his throne like a modern day Duryodhana and the walls of his glass palace were bulldozed by other power hungry administrators. He was the unlucky one. There are countless Duryodhanas’ in Indian sport whose misrules will never go beyond the walls of their fiefdoms.Just one more thing; N Srinivsana has a brother, N Ramachandran, who happens to be the president of the Indian Olympic Association.
But even cricket isn’t a bed of roses. Test matches are played to empty stadiums. We aren’t outright champions like the Australians were when they were on top of the cricket world.
India isn’t cricket crazy. We’re just crazy. When the team wins, there are traffic jams. When the team starts losing, there are traffic jams because people have stopped watching the match and stepped out of the house.
Try pursuing a sport recreationally in our country and you will realise how tough it is to pursue a sport professionally.
If you want to swim in a pool that isn’t populated by a hundred others and get hit by someone’s arm every second stroke, you better find a fancy club and pay through your nose (once you get the water out of it).
If you want to play badminton, try finding a decent indoor court near your home.
The same applies to most sports in India.
Gully cricket has its own charm but it also reflects a certain lack.
No one stones a hockey player’s or an athlete’s house if they lose. Heck, they wouldn’t even be recognised if they walked on the streets.
Back in the day, India ruled the roost in hockey. At some point, KPS Gill, who headed operation Blue Star in 1984 and flushed out terrorists from the Golden Temple, was given charge of Indian hockey. He continued where he left off in his police career and proceeded to kill hockey too. It is only apt that Dhanraj Pillay’s autobiography was titled ‘Forgive me amma’. But I wonder why he is the one asking for forgiveness. It should be the other way round. The administrators, ministers and bureaucrats who have single-handedly brought sport to its knees should be asking for forgiveness. But they won’t. They’ll fly first class with their families while the athletes fly economy class.
Meanwhile, the athletes will toil, out of the spotlight, without any cheers and only the support of their near and dear ones to egg them on. They will travel far and wide to participate in competitions and their exploits will be relegated to a 5cm by 5 cm column in the newspapers.
In spite of everything, they will qualify.
Then when the Olympics comes around once in four years, the whole country will sit up and watch in anticipation. It’s when the country will hear about sports they never knew existed and sports persons they never knew existed. Having chosen a life of relative security, boring jobs and conniving bosses, they will pass judgement on people whose back stories they have no idea of.
Come the Olympics and the athletes will wonder why the flight has more officials than athletes. Officials they have never seen or heard of will try and cozy up to them to get their 15 seconds of fame. They will go on sight-seeing expeditions with their families and entourages and leave the athletes to fend for themselves.
If the athlete, who after having given up any semblance of a normal life, manages to win a medal, the whole country will stake claim to their success. Ministers who made them wait outside their offices for months and years on end without even acknowledging their existence, will have their own competition to see who can confer the victorious Olympians with more land and money. All that is if they win. The people who clamor to have their photos taken with them and garland them don’t realise that they succeeded because in spite of them, not because of them.
The athlete who does doesn’t win will be vilified by authors who did their bit for the country by taking the standards of writing to new lows and fooling people into thinking that what they wrote could be passed off as writing. They will return home with nothing to show for their efforts. All of their toil will go unrecorded, not shared for posterity. Some will get so disgruntled that they will convince others not to tread their path and settle for an option where their efforts and hearts aren’t dealt with crushing blows. They will be asked why they returned without medals in the same way that someone is asked why they didn’t return with sweets when they go abroad.
If every athlete who has represented the country has looked back and wondered whether it was all worth it, this is the only thing I have to say to them:
There came a time in your life when you had to choose. You could have taken the safe path and lead a life less ordinary like the rest of us. But you didn’t. You chose to strive against odds that none of us will be able to fully comprehend. You fought self-doubt, apathy and toiled without being assured of success, recognition, fame or monetary gain.
If the world were a fair place, someone would have put a medal around your neck then and there when you made that choice.
There are many medals to glorify you when you beat an opponent, but alas, there is no medal for beating the odds.