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A wake-up call from Beijing

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Towering performance: The closing and hand-over ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games … executed flawlessly.
Towering performance: The closing and hand-over ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games … executed flawlessly.

Rahul S. Verghese

There is a lesson or two New Delhi should learn from Beijing on what to do to make India a successful sporting nation.

“We are not a sporty nation. We have no sports facilities. The government needs to fix a lot of the infrastructure.” I could go on and on about what we say and hear, when we talk about sports in India. But there are two important lessons India must learn from Beijing and the Olympian athletes, whom we have watched and admired.

First: building a sporting culture in the country. Each of us has to play a role in this, you included. When was the last time you played a game, or swam or cycled or ran? Last year? In college? In school? We are a cricket crazy nation but 99 per cent of us are spectators — that too, television viewers — but we are the first to shout at Sehwag, Tendulkar and Dhoni on the screen, telling them what they should do.

“Taste and consume”

In my view, there is a sports pyramid which we must “taste and consume” to develop different skills and dimensions of character. Skiing, river-rafting, rock-climbing and other adventure sports, at the apex, are critical for getting adrenaline pumping and giving us a zest for life. Cardio sports such as running, swimming and cycling are at the base of the pyramid — like the much-needed carbs in our diet — and are important for keeping us fit and in tune for any sport, competitive and more. Individual sports like golf and billiards are critical for honing our concentration skills.

Team sports such as football, cricket, volleyball, kho kho, and kabaddi teach us team skills while honing individual competence as we play our roles and seek to exploit the strengths of our team mates. Sports such as table tennis and squash sharpen our anticipation and reflexes. Riding, hiking, rock-climbing and others get us to appreciate and learn a lot about trust and nature. The ideal regimen would combine a mix of these activities.

Let us start with the basics — the minority in India can swim and have access to a pool, river, lake or the sea. Let us use these facilities. Let us cycle for some of our errands on the side streets, whenever possible, and see what we can do in our roles in the government, business, media or in our residential communities to create or fix a neighbourhood cycle-able track.

Miracle tonic

All of us have run — let us get up half-an-hour earlier and sleep half-an-hour earlier. Running is perhaps the simplest, most egalitarian and universal sport which works like a miracle tonic. It does everything from making people healthier, managing cardiac and sugar-related issues for the most part to getting the body internally younger and giving the people greater self-confidence as they cross various milestones, reduce stress, and eventually get more optimistic rather being one of the billion cynical it-cannot-be-done-heres.

Cheering spectators are critical to a sporting culture. It is no surprise that the United States, till Beijing Olympics, was the leading Olympic gold medal winner and India won its first individual Olympic gold this year. The New York City marathon in November 2007 had 37,000 runners, the Mumbai marathon, half-marathon and other assorted runs in 2008 had around 31,000. But the NYC marathon had 2.5 million cheering spectators and the Mumbai marathon, at best, 25,000 — that too not highly vocal in the most part.

Inclusive route

Let us do our bit to build a sporty nation. Let us get 200 million Indians to start running. That will support millions of people in a variety of sports and will throw up talent as we start with the most inclusive route, rather than a hush-hush, behind-closed-doors selection processes.

What should the government do? Make sports/physical education a compulsory subject up to class 10; encourage schools to provide exposure to the sports pyramid in a structured manner to the students; delineate a sports and fitness policy and execute it relentlessly; make sports federations responsible for being inclusive and maximise participation at the broadest levels. Get rid of fiefdoms and proliferate taluk, district and State-level competitions; consider tax breaks for parents of all athletes, district-level and upwards; make corporate sponsorship of sports events (outside of cricket) tax deductible and outside the ambit of service tax; build world class sporting infrastructure and encourage public-private partnerships in the field; get fresh thinking into policymaking

Second: executing the Commonwealth Games flawlessly in 2010 . I read a report a few days ago about some India Commonwealth Games officials in Beijing expressing nervousness, given the flawless execution of Beijing Olympics. Let us not spend six months on a blame game — we have to get rid of the words chalta hai, ‘adjust,’ and ‘this is India,’ from our vocabulary and focus on world class, quality, and timeliness. The time for committees and debates and politicking is over. Take on board lessons from Beijing and earlier host cities with the focus on what must be done rather than on why something cannot be replicated or adapted in New Delhi.

Act now

What should the government do? Act now, not next week. Rally and energise the nation and build pride around the event; clearly execute the national and State-level roles assigned; fix responsibility and accountability for team leaders; set high quality standards , like never before; remove doubters and nay-sayers from the team; provide clear budgets, bite-sized executional milestones and timelines; adopt a decent carrot-and-stick approach to performance; have weekly review meetings on executional progress and clearing red flag issues; mobilise and start training volunteers now; get corporates involved in specific activities. Roads, sewage, transportation, volunteers, hospitality, pollution management, and more — this is about every aspect of city life, with the whole country coming together, to deliver. Let us focus on delivering the goods, surprise ourselves and delight the world. India, let us hit the ground running.

Let us run for gold.


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