The Olympic Boo-Hoo

A couple of days ago, an anguished sports writer said what we all know – India is a one-sport nation. He moaned that we treat all our Olympian heroes who toil away unknown for nearly four years with such callousness, it undermines our ability as a nation to win more Olympic Golds. Which is true. With a population of 1.2 billion people, we won all of six at London 2012 – and that is our biggest tally so far. At this rate, we should be able to hit double figures within the next decade or two!

The races at the Olympics start with the race to host it. World leaders throw their collective hat into the ring and bring all the force at their disposal to woo the Olympic Committee. The economics are simple. The city that wins gets featured across the world for two solid weeks and a surge in economic, tourist and infrastructure building activity is assured. Not to mention that HD TV cameras will zoom into every nook and cranny and commentators wax eloquent about the facilities, the history and of course, the actual events.

How often do we watch these events outside of the Olympics? One of the reasons these diverse sports are put together every four years is that some of them – equestrian or fencing or canoeing, will never command the same prime-time audience on their own, except in very limited pockets. The oxygen of the games is TV. Synchronized swimming is a thing of beauty. But would you tune in every day to watch the same routines? The way you settle down to a game of football?

Even if the TV cameras were to follow our wrestlers, our archers and our chess players we would quickly tire of one piece swimsuit-clad sweaty hulks hovering around each other trying to lock into a firm grip. The slow motion coverage of the arrows hitting the bulls-eye at London 2012 was amazing. But again, would we want to watch this every day of the year? And even if we were to see a chess game in fast forward, the nuances would be lost. You can’t televise the act of thinking and strategy.

The athletes who choose what they do have no illusions about their abilities or their prospects. They know that they will never enjoy the warm embrace of national pride for years like the cricketers do. They toil in anonymity because they choose to. Mary Kom’s story, just like that of Sushil Kumar, Saina Nehwal and Yogeshwar Dutt is inspiring. They did what was necessary and stayed the course. Today, they can cash in on endorsements. Unlike the athletes of even a couple of decades ago, who faded back into anonymity

The journey to an Olympic medal is never cheap, in terms of actual money spent or the sacrifices made by the family. There is no guarantee that the efforts will pay off after years of toil. So for many Indian families, it is never an easy decision to support a child’s dream. Abhinav Bindra’s father had the means to build a shooting range for him. But Mary Kom had to lie to her father to engage in the sport she truly loved. Facilities can be built. But passion and commitment cannot be created by the state.