Our reactions to the performance of India’s athletes at the Tokyo Olympics have been telling. Neeraj Chopra’s scintillating success in the men’s javelin throw was met with deserved adulation, but it was also accompanied by dollops of now-familiar jingoism. In contrast, others who came up short , for no apparent fault of their own, have been served with affronts.
The wrestler Vinesh Phogat, who won gold both in the Asian Games and in the Commonwealth Games, hadn’t so much as set foot in India when the Wrestling Federation suspended her on grounds of indiscipline. Phogat, who had crashed out in the quarterfinal in Tokyo , was afforded no hearing before the decision was made. She has since written about the difficulties she faced in recovering from COVID-19.
“Since I got COVID first time (August 2020), I can’t digest protein,” Phogat wrote in The Indian Express . “One year and I have had no protein in my body. It doesn’t stay inside. When I came back from Kazakhstan after Asian Championships, I fell ill again. I was tested positive COVID for the second time which I contracted in Almaty. I recovered and flew to Bulgaria. A few days later, my family back home tested positive.”
Phogat’s physical and mental struggles were compounded by the whims of the Wrestling Federation. While the men’s contingent was accorded the support not only of the Indian national coach, but also a foreign trainer and a dedicated physio, the women’s team was ostensibly denied equivalent benefits. It’s impossible to tell whether Phogat would have won a medal had she been provided equal support. But the decision to deny her parity smacks of despotism.
What is worse is that despite the circumstances surrounding her loss, Phogat is now seen as a sportsperson past her best, as someone dispensable in the nation’s consciousness. If she didn’t get the support she needed when she was seen as a favourite, imagine her fate now.
By themselves, these disproportionate responses to the performances of India’s athletes are not surprising. As a society that consumes games as a commercial product, we’ve come to see victory as the ultimate purpose of sport, and we attach to it an ersatz transcendence. Our emotions are now built into watching sport not as the pursuit of human excellence, but the pursuit of something more grotesque — of a triumph that will serve our tribal demands.
To be sure, the organisation of any team sport invariably requires making a division along partisan lines. For instance, a local club or society is founded either on regional lines or on the lines of a commercial franchise. The division made in the case of the Olympics is nationality, which today may be unavoidable. But when the division is taken to its extreme, when partisanship turns into tribalism, we tend to relinquish the most cherished principles that otherwise inhere in sport, the primary reasons why we see sport as a thing of value.
In a recent lecture, Mukul Kesavan argued that partisanship is especially destructive when sport is seen as a vehicle for nationalism. Overcoming this isn’t easy because sport, he said, citing the historian Eric Hobsbawm, is effectively constitutive of nationalism. “It is not the cherry on the cake, it is baked into the foundations of the nation state.” Moreover, even when sport is organised along different lines, say in the form of franchises, as is the case with the National Football League in the U.S., “militaristic chauvinism,” Kesavan said, has an uncanny way of creeping in.
Symbol of political nationalism
In the original conception, the Olympic Games were meant to serve as an antithesis for nationalistic zealotry. The founder of the Games, the 19th century French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, envisioned the Olympics as a means of engineering a sporting culture that would remain apolitical. For that reason, the 1896 Games at Athens even allowed for mixed teams. The gold in the men’s tennis doubles, for instance, was won by a Briton paired with a German. But Coubertin’s vaunted idealism, as many have argued, failed to account for the existing realities of the world, in particular inequalities based on race, class, sex, and nationality. As a result, the Games, far from fostering a culture of fraternity, came to serve as a symbol of political nationalism, exemplified best by the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Since then, repeated efforts have been made to depoliticise the Games. A United Nations General Assembly Resolution, titled ‘Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal’, has been adopted before every edition of the Games since 1994. But the structure of the event has at its heart a paradox: while athletes from across the globe come together to compete against each other, they play under the banners of their national flags. These athletes are seen not as individuals, but as representatives of a nation state. Thus, Indians, when the Games come around every four years, see the country being put on examination.
This time around, as always, the inquest into the Tokyo Games in India was focussed on the medal count and on whether it does justice to our abilities as a nation. This, though, begs the question: what is the true value of sport? To many today, especially to those in power, sport is merely a means towards scoring geo-political victories, towards the exhibition of national greatness on a global stage. Without doubt, it is perfectly fine to take pride in how athletes from India perform. But limiting our analysis — and our joy — to the narrow and the parochial does the Olympic Games a disservice.
Sports as a cultural good
Ultimately, if we want to benefit as a society from sport, we must take more seriously the values inherent in its practice. What might they be? The American scholar Jan Boxill has argued, for example, that sport helps establish a moral function for society, that it accords individuals a path towards freedom, towards “self-expression” and “self-respect.” But to understand this we must start seeing sport through a lens less tinted by nationalism, and as spectators rather than as supporters.
When we do that, we can appreciate not just Chopra’s gold medal, but also moments of genius from other athletes, from across the globe: Elaine Thompson-Herah’s double-double in the 100m and 200m sprints, Katie Ledecky’s battle in the pool with Ariarne Titmus, Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi choosing to share the gold medal in the high jump, and Karsten Warholm’s breathtaking performance in the 400m hurdles are just a few of the many uplifting performances from the Games.
These feats mattered not because the athletes were representing their nations, but because they were striving to achieve the highest form of excellence that they were capable of. Each performance in the Games was an exhibition of sport as freedom. And it is that freedom that we should attempt to engender. To do so requires us to treat sport as an essential cultural good, to see in it its intrinsic values, to see it as a thing of merit to each of us as individual beings.
Suhrith Parthasarathy is an advocate practising at the Madras High Court