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14 August, 2008

Waiting for the Olympics era

Abhinav Bindra poses for a photo after the men’s 10m air rifle final at Shooting Range Hall at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing on August 11. Bindra won the gold medal. (AP photo)

SOME 1.15 billion Indians are glowing with pride as Abhinav Bindra’s gold medallion shines. According to the Olympics philosophy, the games are contests of skills and strength of individuals, not nations. Accordingly, the International Olympics Committee does not keep a tally of the medals won by each country at the games so far. Yet the media transforms all Olympic events into contests between nations.

Europe is the birthplace of the Olympics. It was the Europeans who took the initiative to revive the ancient Greek tradition. When the first modern Olympic Games were held at Athens in 1896, European imperialism was at its zenith. Of the 12 Olympics held between then and 1952, ten were in Europe. The remaining two were held in the United States, an emerging imperial power. Later Australia had the opportunity to host the Olympics.
Japan was the first Asian country to host the Olympics. It was only after South Korea that China got the privilege of hosting the games. All three countries received the honour by virtue of their economic growth.

I was in Tokyo when the IOC, at a meeting in Europe, decided in the summer of 1959 to hold the 1964 games in that city. While walking down the famed Ginza, I heard cheers rising all around. Small groups in trucks moved along planting flags on roadside posts. The flags were of Japan, the IOC and the Japanese Olympics Association. Looking up I saw a board on top of a tall building presenting news headlines in English and Japanese in moving letters. The English headline read: TOKYO CHOSEN VENUE OF 1964 OLYMPICS.
It was a proud moment for the Japanese. After the Berlin Olympics of 1936 it was Tokyo’s turn. World War II came in the way. After the war, Olympics began again in 1948. Japan, still suffering from the havoc wrought by the war, was in no position to extend an invitation to the IOC. Even if it had invited, it would not have been accepted as the country’s standing was low as the one which started the war and had lost. The big strides made in the post-war period emboldened the country to approach the IOC with a request to stage the 1964 Olympics there. The metropolitan governor of Tokyo went with a big team to convince IOC members that his city and the country were ready to play hosts.

The next day’s newspapers revealed the extent of the home work done by the Japanese government. Each government department gave details of what it proposed to do in the five years before the Olympic Games. New stadia, new roads, monorail from the airport to city centre, more hotels – so ran the schemes. A big firm was entrusted with the responsibility of building the monorail. Since the available accommodation was not enough to meet the anticipated needs, the government offered financial assistance to anyone willing to build new hotels. Japan demonstrated its ability to estimate tomorrow’s needs and meet them. China has done the same thing now. Most of what our government does now is to meet not tomorrow’s needs, nor even today’s, but yesterday’s.

The Tokyo Olympics recognized Japan’s re-emergence. Likewise, the Beijing Olympics recognize China’s re-emergence. There was a lot of murmur when the government decided to build new stadia for the Asian Games in Indira Gandhi’s time. Later, there was a half-hearted bid for the Olympics. It did not succeed. What is disturbing is not that we are not getting a chance to host the Olympics but that we are not able to produce word-standard sports persons.

When the modern Olympics began, Britain, France and other European countries were fat and rich, thanks to the opportunity to exploit the human and material resources of their colonies in many lands. Athletes from these countries made a sweep of the medals. European domination remained unchallenged till the middle of the 20th century. In 1928, hockey was introduced in the Olympics. British soldiers in Canada were the first to play this game, but India won the first hockey gold. We could not retain the dominant [position for long after the country gained freedom. This time we did not even qualify to enter Olympics hockey. There is a major lesson in our hockey experience. It is not possible to earn and retain a high position without mastering new techniques.

As victors of the World War, Britain and France could keep up the pretense of being Big Powers but as they lost the colonies one by one the world realized that they were not big any more. The Olympics later became the arena where the new big powers, the USA and the USSR clashed. Under Communist rule, the countries of East Europe climbed up the medal list. This time all eyes are on China. We now see that country rising up to expectations.

What is the relationship between growth of the economy and development of sports? An individual can make gains through excellent but isolated performance. But a country can shine in the field of sports through organized efforts on a large scale to spot talents and provide training facilities. This is yet to begin in our country. P.T.Usha’s lost bronze created tremendous interest in the country as a whole and in Kerala in particular. Bindra’s gold is certainly capable of providing even more excitement. But it represents only the rise of a star, not the birth of an era.

Abhinav Bindra took interest in a sport that is expensive. His father possessed enough financial resources to provide at home the training facilities needed to achieve excellence. With a business of his own, Abhinav could easily spare seven hours for training each day. How many people in India have such favourable circumstances?

At a time when several small countries held secure positions in the medal list, India and China, the two most populous countries, were out because there were no facilities to spot talent and provide training. Economic prosperity can help overcome this limitation. Although India is close behind China in economic development, it cannot come anywhere near China in the field of sports. The reason is that modern sports facilities will continue to remain beyond the reach of the vast majority of people. Centuries ago, India’s elite had evolved the strategy of excluding all those who had the capacity to beat them. While its influence lasts, only the small, rich urban community can have Olympic hopes. The interest of that community is in sports like cricket. Plenty of money flows into those areas. The elite are not interested in events like athletics which call for greater physical effort. Kerala has become a front-rank State in sports because it has been able to overcome this class division. Kerala society has been able to bring the middle classes into the field of sports. This is particularly evident in the case of girls. Elsewhere, feminine presence in this field is still low. We have to thank the Christian institutions for the absence of the kind of conservatism seen in other parts.

In many countries, universities play a big role in identifying and developing sports talent. I had occasion to visit the University of Florida which had trained many of America’s swimmers. It has swimming pools of Olympic standards. Thirty-two swimmers who trained there and three coaches ate at the Beijing Olympics under the flags of 20 countries. How can the idea of developing the university into a major training centre enter the heads of rulers who are busy figuring out how they can smoke out the vice-chancellor appointed by the previous regime and smuggle their favourites into various posts?
Based on column “Nerkkazhcha” appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated August 14, 2008

1 comment:

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