Life and times of an Indian sportsperson

It’s 9.30 p.m. IST on August 18, and P. V. Sindhu made herself part of India’s sporting history by becoming the first Indian woman to reach the Olympics badminton final. Sakshi Malik’s bronze was yet another first (in women’s wrestling), and at the time of writing, Aditi Ashok is playing for a place in the golf finals. Dipa Karmakar narrowly missed a medal, placing fourth in the vault.

Archer Atanu Das made it to the round of 16. Our men reached the hockey quarterfinals, conceding defeat to Belgium. It was heartbreaking to see their disappointed faces: the hope of a million people is a heavy weight to carry. The athletic contingent struggled, as did the doubles badminton teams.

As we watch from the comfort of our homes, for the only time in four years, these athletes figure in dinner-table conversations. How they played, how proud we are of them, how we should actually be winning more medals, considering the amount of talent we have in our country… And the inevitable blaming of the Government for not fostering a conducive environment for sportspersons in the country.

When our athletes make it big on the international stage, media attention and celebrity soundbytes aren’t far behind. And with the top athletes all being women, the focus is now on “girl power”. “India’s daughter Sakshi Malik has earned new strength and respect for the tricolour on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Cricketer Virender Sehwag, who has been vociferously tweeting his support throughout the Olympics, tweeted that this “is a reminder of what can happen if u don’t kill a girl child. When the going gets tough, it’s our girls who get going and save our pride.” Even Shobhaa De has done a U-turn, calling Sindhu the “silver princess”. Of course, she got trolled for that as well.

The positive attention is great, but what happens once the curtains come down on Rio? The focus goes back to cricket, and any sport that is slightly associated with celebrities (currently that’s kabaddi and football). We go back to watching entertainment packaged as sports, while the athletes go back to their ill-equipped training centres. Most Indian athletes, once they qualify for the Olympics, go abroad to continue their training. But when we can produce world-class athletes, why not build world-class facilities, not only to help them train, but also to bring up new generations of athletes?

Watching Dipa Karmakar compete with athletes from other countries was exciting and disheartening at the same time. The competitors wore sparkly, well-designed outfits that accentuated their movements; one physio wrapped an ace bandage around a gymnast’s ankle, while another wrapped up her wrist. India’s lone competitor let her Produnova do the talking. She had no wrist or ankle supports: all she had was her coach by her side and a backpack with the Indian flag on it.

But when the Olympic officials fly business class, would it have been too much to get a sportswear company to design a special outfit for her? Perhaps I am hoping for too much, considering athletes like Dutee Chand still have to plead for running shoes a few days before going to Rio. It’s probably why we won’t be topping the medal tally charts any time soon.

That our largest-ever contingent of 118 athletes have little to show in terms of medals is irrelevant. The fact that they qualified and made it to Rio to represent the country, despite facing the number of hurdles they have — from the system, society and family — is an amazing-enough feat.

Let them take all the selfies they want: they deserve it.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 10:06:02 PM |

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