This is the second article in a five-part series on sports in India. | Part 1
A particular emphasis has been placed in the current government’s policy documents on the idea that India always had a strong culture towards sports. While probing this further, we came across a fascinating book, Nation at Play, written by Ronojoy Sen, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore. In his book, he traces the history of sports in India from the very beginning – the ancient and medieval periods – to contemporary times.
The role of caste in accentuating socio-economic inequalities can hardly be understated. In the context of sports, Sen notes that India’s culture and caste traditions have played a role historically, since social stratification meant different castes tended not to play together.
There have been mentions of sports in some rudimentary form of fitness activity or entertainment throughout the ages. The epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata mention chariot racing, hunting, wrestling, swimming and archery as forms of training and entertainment. Caste barriers had a huge role to play in access to sports. For Kshatriyas or the warrior royal class, sports served as a necessity and a pastime. Some sports such as archery and those involving horse riding, chariot racing and polo were restricted to their class, Sen writes.
India’s progress in international sporting competitions: Olympics and Asian Games
Fast forward to the first modern Olympic games in Athens in 1896. Pioneered by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, they perhaps heralded the first multilateral sporting competition. No one from India participated in the inaugural edition.
Norman Pritchard, a Calcutta-born Britisher, was the only Indian to participate in the 1900 Olympics in Paris. He was the first Asia-born athlete to win an Olympic medals. There is, however, a debate on whether Pritchard competed as an Indian or as a Britisher. During the colonial period, India participated in six Olympic games, winning medals in only field hockey, apart from Pritchard’s silver medals in 200-metre sprint and hurdles.
India dominated in field hockey up until 1960. With seven golds and one silver, the Indian hockey team was virtually invincible. Pakistan first broke India’s domination in 1960, which India regained in 1964. Since 1964, it has been a downward slide. India stuttered to a bronze each in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, and won the gold in Moscow in 1980, which was to be the last time India won a field hockey medal in the Olympics. However, most Western countries, who dominate field hockey now, boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
India’s first non-men’s field hockey medal came in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics with Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav winning a bronze in men’s freestyle bantamweight category. There was a very long gap from 1952 till 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when Leander Paes won a bronze in the men’s single tennis. Since Atlanta, India has won at least one non-men’s field hockey medal in every Olympics.
India’s first and only non-men’s field hockey gold medal was won by Abhinav Bindra in men’s shooting – 10-metre air rifle at the 2008 Beijing games. Till date, India has won four shooting medals, with Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore showing the way with a silver in men’s shooting – double trap in 2004, Athens.
Karnam Malleshwari became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. She won a bronze in women’s weightlifting – 69kg category, which also happened to be India’s lone medal in Sydney. Weightlifting certainly was not considered a ‘conventional’ women’s sport then, neither were boxing and wrestling! Overcoming such stereotypes, Mary Kom won a bronze in women’s flyweight boxing at the London Games in 2012 and Sakshi Malik emulated Kom’s bronze winning feat at the 2016 Rio games in women’s 58 kg freestyle wrestling. Sindhu’s silver in women’s badminton in Rio can perhaps be considered more in line with the idea of ‘conventional women’s sports’.
India’s performance from the 1900 to 2016 in the Olympics can be divided in two phases. The pre-1980’s was just men’s field hockey. Then a lull for 16 years. Post 1996 saw Indians breaking into an assortment of non-men’s field hockey events – tennis, badminton, shooting, wrestling and boxing. Women power in sports is in the ascendancy – the two medals that India won at the Rio Games in 2016 came from P.V. Sindhu and Sakshi Malik.
What caused this sudden spurt, compared to pre-1996? With the economy opening up, and growing rapidly since the early 1990s, it brought in substantial sponsorship money for the first time into sports. The exposure to global sports also increased with the advent of cable TV. But it must be said that most of the sponsorship money was directed towards cricket, so much so that other sports in India seem to take a back seat. It is only the tenacity of a handful of youngsters, who fought the system and the bias towards cricket, which have resulted in these medals.
Post-independent India’s dominance in regional games such as Asiad is also worth discussing and has been pronounced. The first ever Asian Games were held in New Delhi in 1951. A total of 489 athletes from 11 countries competed in 57 events in this week-long event. Japan with 20 gold medals and overall 60 medals was the top team, followed by India with 15 gold medals and an overall tally of 51 medals. China and South Korea, who are now global sports powers, did not participate in these inaugural games.
India next hosted the Asian Games in 1982, again in New Delhi. This time around 3,411 athletes from 33 countries competed in 196 events. India came fifth after China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea.
As an example, let us see India’s international football-playing trajectory post-independence. India won the football gold medal in the first Asian Games, beating Iran 1-0. But in the next edition of Asian Games in Manila, in 1954, India was unable to go past the group stage. They finished second to Indonesia in the group league. In 1956 at the Melbourne Olympics, India went on to achieve the team’s greatest result in a competitive tournament, by finishing fourth in the final standing, losing the bronze-medal match to Bulgaria 3–0.
In the ‘82 Asiad, played in New Delhi, India was knocked out by Saudi Arabia in the quarterfinals in a closely contested match, 1-0. The football teams from the Gulf dominated this edition of the Asiad. They were soon to break into the world football scene quite spectacularly. The Asian football teams now, from the far east to the gulf, have made huge strides to compete with the best in the world. They consistently qualify to play the finals of the World Cup football, which India has never done. India’s world ranking, since the time FIFA rankings came into being in 1992, has always been more than 100, barring 1996,when they were ranked 94. They are now 104th in the world!
After the Asaid of ‘82 in Delhi, the All-India Football Federation (AIFF) requisitioned the services of coach Milovan Ciric, a Serb, and a widely respected FIFA empanelled coach those days. In his heyday, Milovan was a renowned footballer of his country, and he was the first captain of Red Star Belgrade. Sexagenarian Ciric was soon to get a sobriquet – Dadu, meaning grandfather. The players loved him, and he doted on the players like a grandfather would. But a few months into his stint, an exasperated Dadu, unable to instil a sense of urgency and speed into the game his wards were playing, commented, “Indians play walking football!”
Just over a century before Ciric’s lament, a certain Horatio Smith observed in the Calcutta Review, a few years before the 1857 rebellion: “The most superficial observer of Bengali manners must know that their games and sports are, for the most part, sedentary… (h)is maxim being that ‘walking is better than running, standing than walking, sitting rather than standing, and lying down best of all’, his amusements have to be for the most part sedentary.” Sen mentions this in his book. In all fairness to the Bengalis, Haratio’s exposure to India was perhaps not only limited to just the Bengal we know now, Bengal Presidency then also included Assam, Bihar (including Jharkhand), Odisha and of course Bangladesh.
The 21st century brought improvements to India’s achievements. But while its participation increased and diversified into many other sporting events compared to just a handful decades ago, that diversification has not brought the success and accomplishment that it should have, even in other regional games. Between 1990 and 2014, India’s share of medals at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games only improved 3% and 1.5% respectively.
At the 2018 Asiad, India sent the largest contingent ever – 572 Indian athletes were cleared
to take part in 36 sporting events (312 men and 260 women). It is interesting to note that by sending the largest contingent ever to the Asian Games in 2018, India’s medal tally was the highest ever, 69 medals in all – 15 gold, 24 silver and 30 bronze. Yet, India was placed eighth in the final standing out of 38 participating countries. China, Japan and South Korea were the top three Asian countries, as they have been for a while, not only in Asia but also in the Olympics. Countries like Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Iran and Chinese Taipei, whose contingents were perhaps much smaller than India’s, were placed higher than India!
Why has Indian sports struggled on the global stage?
Developing sportspersons today has become extremely scientific. The world over, potential sports persons are selected, irrespective of the type of sports, in their early teens, if not younger – an age group of which India has aplenty. Nurturing young talent in India, however, is not easy. There are many challenges, socio-economic, language, religious, cultural, dietary habits, social taboo, gender bias etc., not to talk about the existing system of sports governance.
Some suggest that it is inadequate infrastructure or the kind of nutrition Western countries have that are holding India back. We spoke to Joy Bhattacharjya, former team director of the Kolkata Knight Riders and former director of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, who explained that sub-par infrastructure in itself cannot account for the whole story. Of the 22 World Cups that have been won internationally, 10 of them have been won by South American countries such as Brazil and Uruguay, where the actual infrastructure is shambolic. Many footballers in Brazil, for example, come from the favelas (slums) of Rio.
Bhattacharjya points to a different problem – the lack of a local sporting culture. “In India, there is no investment of the local community in sports. They do not watch matches; they do not come to cheer on their kids.” He contrasts this with the US, where they tell you proudly at gas stations that this was a guy who used to be our high school football hero because high school football is watched in the country.
Nitish Chiniwar, the founder of Bridges of Sports, an NGO working on identifying and developing India’s fastest athletes predominantly in and around Karnataka, tells us that it may not be the case that there is a pan-Indian sporting culture but that “there are pockets where it exists for different sports.” He highlights the potential for regional expertise in sports, pointing out that Kabbadi is popular in pockets of northern Karnataka, with everyone coming to watch the matches. Similarly, “there is a culture of football in the Northeast of India and the focus should be on promoting football there.”
Bhattacharjya suggests that a strong sporting culture might have accounted for India’s success in hockey. “Even in India, where there have been sporting communities, there has been success. There is a place called Sansarpur in Punjab which is known as the birthplace of Indian hockey. For a long time, many Indian hockey players came from there. When you went there, people would speak of this proudly – there was a culture of sport at the ground level.”
Unfortunately, this culture is typically not seen at the school level. He adds, “the sports teacher is the least important figure because parents are not concerned about success in sports. They rather have them study. 50% of sporting ability is decided when you play for your class in school. At that point, if you are being cut out because there is selection bias, you are already in trouble.”
Luv Kapoor, a young footballer who started playing when he was nine years old, concurs. “There isn’t enough emphasis at the school level in India to encourage and inspire the youth to make it professionally in sports.” The lack of adequate opportunities available to young persons in India led to his career trajectory beginning with a stint at FC Metz (a league 1 team in the French league) football nursery at the age of 14. In addition to his football training in France, he recollects that all players took an additional compulsory subject called ‘Sports Education’ where “they taught us about how you can actually make a professional career out of sports.” Post-Metz, Kapoor was the first Indian ever to sign for a Spanish football club which played in a higher division.
Avenues for mass participation and inculcating a sport-friendly environment for India’s youth
Speaking to Kapoor we learnt that scouting clubs from Europe come to private boarding schools in India now, to conduct trials. Most of these clubs have their Indian agents who charge a hefty a fee. Once selected, these children have to pay a substantial amount each year to join the football nurseries of these clubs. Thus, opportunities are largely inaccessible to the vast majority of school-going children in India who do not have financial resources.
Yet, there is scope to encourage wider mass participation in sports. The first suggested route, echoed in Khelo India’s documents, is to ensure that schools provide a conducive environment to identify and nurture potential sporting stars at a young age. This environment, however, extends beyond mere provision of infrastructure. Teachers, parents, and communities need to come together to encourage sports persons and ensure sports is treated as the first priority for them. As Bhattacharjya tells us, “I think that (schools) is where it starts and has mass-reach. If it is a question of who can reach more kids, an academy or the school, it is the latter.”
The second suggested pathway, implemented in India with patchy success, is increasing the opportunities for sportspersons in India through professional sporting leagues. While the Indian Premier League continues to hog most of the limelight, what receives less attention is that similar models were conceived and implemented for other sports such as football, hockey, volleyball and so on. Leagues provide an invaluable opportunity for home-grown sportspersons to rub shoulders with the best international players, thereby increasing their exposure and tactical ability. In the next article, we will discuss the missed opportunities as well as some successes within the Indian professional league model and how governance can be strengthened to ensure there is a direct benefit to players.
Taken together, a changed outlook towards sports in school coupled with enhanced quality of leagues in India can potentially transform the sporting landscape and open up greater opportunities for sportspersons.
Ranajit Bhattacharyya, Anoushka Gupta, Sugandha Vats, Avital Datskovsky and Pritha Bhattacharya are all associated with Pratham’s ASER Centre. The views expressed in this article are personal.