The best way to begin a dispassionate assessment of free India’s sporting odyssey across 75 years is by turning our backs on today. Or at least from the July promos of the 2022 Commonwealth Games, featuring flag-waving, rapid cuts of random athletes doing sporty things, and a lingering montage of Sports Minister Anurag Thakur striding purposefully hither and thither before delivering his piece to camera. They contain many contradictory narratives – the Empire-created Commonwealth identity, the statism of our sport – and only end up blurring objectivity.
Left on the back-burner
Navigating through Indian sport across the last 75 years does not only involve invoking a cavalcade of champions. Our sport is located in our political, economic and social histories. The India sporting nation also grew alongside the slow transformation of sport from the amateurism of the post-War era into professionalism in the last two decades of the 20th century.
India played a significant part in creating a post-colonial, pan-Asian athletic solidarity, hosting the first-ever Asian Games. Starting from 11 nations, 489 athletes and 57 medal events in six sports in 1951, the Asian Games have grown into the second-largest multi-sport event in the world.
But as a young country with myriad obstacles and priorities, Indian sport was mostly left on the back-burner. Its funding was limited, mostly dependent and driven by royal patronage, like from Patiala or business houses like the Tatas and later the Mahindras, and peopled by pre-Independence administrators from the urban gentry. After a couple of decades of success in team sport — standout Olympic hockey domination and sustained competitiveness in continental football — Indian sport zigged and zagged as if blindfolded, out of step with a changing world, from the mid-1970s onwards. Here, we refer only to Olympic sport. In non-Olympic disciplines, Indians made their mark in cue sports, tennis and badminton.
And through a fortuitous series of circumstances, triggered by India’s 1983 World Cup victory, Indian cricket became the team sport that broke away from the pack, charting an evolutionary course that was far different from that of its slow-moving cousins. The popularity of the 50-over game followed by the arrival of satellite TV and the opening up of Indian markets in the 1990s became cricket’s perfect storm. If 1983 was Year Zero, by 2000 cricket had spread through the hinterland, dominating both mind space and markets.
The state in our games
What kept other Indian sport alive, regardless of international results, was state support. Firstly, as the state tied sporting performance with public sector employment, sport became a source of livelihood, not leisure. The government also funded, through our taxes, the federations in charge of running close to 33 ‘priority’ sports. The majority of these, with powerful, politically connected leadership, rode the gravy train for decades, many to this day refusing to adopt international sports governance practices.
The staging of the 1982 Asian Games and the 2010 Commonwealth Games helped create new infrastructure and build a pan-India network of training centres, more than 100 across five categories through the Sports Authority of India. The centres still draw in and remain suppliers of the majority of our talent pool. But to this day, Indian athletes, in the large bulk of sporting disciplines have fewer opportunities for sustained, seasonal competition than their compatriots overseas. While the Khelo India scheme was meant to plug the shortfall, an objective assessment of the programme is still awaited. Wherever an organised grassroots programme and an annual calendar exists across district, State and nation, that sport does not require its athletes spending most months of the year in training camps away from home. In India, such States form a small percentage.
Cricket’s economic opportunism should have offered lessons for other disciplines to grow and seek sustainability and independence. Instead, cricket’s success was only responded to with resentment. The results began to show. In 1990, India finished 11th on the medals tally at the Beijing Asian Games, its first time outside the top 10, with a lone gold in kabaddi. While India won Olympic gold in men’s hockey in 1980, it was only 16 years later that it won its next medal, a bronze by Leander Paes in 1996. The falling away of Indian hockey, football and, in the last two decades, tennis, and the failure of athletics to find a star after P.T. Usha or cash in on Anju Bobby George’s world championship medal, are failures of governance. The return and the rise of badminton was driven not by its ruling body, but through individual efforts from the game’s greats.
The tide turns with the millennium
The Indian athlete, however, is not easily crushed. At the turn of the century, the ambitious found support and real-time investment. The path to sporting success, it was obvious, was not linked to divine intervention or magic genes, but methodical planning, timely expert assistance, and the persistence to secure government funding. The first decade of the 21st century was to also mark the creation of entities, unique only to Indian sport, proof of administrative indolence. Private bodies turned up as intermediaries between the aspirational athlete and officious gatekeepers and/or government red tape to ensure funding, training and competition plans came through quickly. From the early 2000s, Olympic Gold Quest (2001), Mittal Champions Trust (2003, now defunct), GoSports Foundation (2008, the first to support para sports), Lakshya Sports (2009), Anglian Medal Hunt (2012) and JSW Sport (2013) appeared on the scene and their impact has shown in results.
In 2008, rifle shooter Abhinav Bindra won India’s first individual Olympic gold in Beijing. India also won bronzes in boxing and wrestling. This was its first multi-medal Olympics after Helsinki 1952. The praise drawn by these private sporting bodies was to sting other stakeholders. Some federations such as wrestling today are trying to prevent their athletes from signing up with private bodies. The government, still the largest funding pool for sports, created its own funding and training programme for elite athletes – the Target Olympic Podium Scheme — in 2014. Bindra’s gold was epochal, but it took nearly 13 years for India’s second gold, from Neeraj Chopra.
The year 2008 also marked a tectonic shift in cricket when the world’s first Twenty20 franchise competition, the Indian Premier League (IPL), was launched. It has shaken and stirred global cricket and its economy since.
Seventy-five years have given Indian sport much to celebrate to mull over. New industrial leaders, such as JSW and Reliance, are investing chunks of corporate social responsibility funds into creating privately funded world-class training institutes, centres of excellence and running sports-specific programmes. In cricket, India has become a successful touring side across formats, armed with a battery of fast bowlers, but curiously it has not won a major ICC title for close to a decade. The IPL is on the verge of challenging and consuming the international calendar.
If 75 have brought us here, where should the next 25 years take us? To start with, Indian cricket should be distributing its gravy around far more evenly than just at the top of the table. Maybe India at 75 is the fork in the road of our sporting development elsewhere. It could be time to break away from the medal-procurement mania and push to give children greater access to sport and competition in a safe environment.
In any case, the blindfold of the 1970s and 1980s is off around our Olympic sport and the uber elite athlete is far better served in the new millennium than his predecessors. Bindra says when it comes to cash awards, no athletes in the world are better rewarded than Indians. What remains to be upped is governance, the use of advanced sports science and prioritisation of performance-enabling environments, “still a work in progress.”
What has also emerged is the fusing of sporting performance into every stream of hypernationalism. Those who give bucketfuls of cash always call in for greater returns. The Indian sports star must become a social media supporter of state policy. The star athlete also signs up as cheerleader. Even in these best of times for sports fans, there comes a serendipitous counter to the endless flag-waving jingoism that suffuses our sport today. Released last year, a documentary called Taangh (Punjabi for ‘longing’) featured, among many things, the story of the refugee players from Lahore on the hockey team that won free India’s first Olympic gold in London 1948. After a screening in Bengaluru, director Bani Singh, the daughter of double Olympic gold medalist Nandy Singh, was asked about the use of the 1948 footage of the Indian flag and the national anthem in Taangh and its interpretation in contemporary India. She reminded us that for the 1948 team, which had grown up as subjects under colonial rule, to see the flag going up above the Union Jack “wasn’t jingoism, it was sombre, it was a love.” Like the anthem, “I do feel we need to re-claim these symbols in the way we understand them... to say no, the flag belongs to all of us. I wanted to show it the way it meant to them in 1948.”
For all the promise of a better sporting tomorrow, our past reminds India at 75 of much that was precious and which should not be forgotten.
It could be time to break away from the medal- procurement mania and push to give children greater access to sport and competition in a safe environment.
Sharda Ugra has been a sports journalist for over three decades