What India Needs to Learn From Its Latest Olympic Outing

India should evaluate the returns from investing in certain sports over others, and reappraise the processes that create individual gladiators but not strong teams.

The Indian hockey team lost with 4 seconds left in the game. Credit: Reuters

The Indian hockey team lost with four seconds left in the game. Credit: Reuters

Now that the dust has settled on the celebrations over India’s minuscule medal haul at the Rio Olympics, it is perhaps prudent to examine our doctrine for international sporting platforms from a strategic perspective. Without taking away the gallant spirit of our sporting heroines and heroes – (who on most occasions deliver in spite of the government, rather than because of it) – a question that needs to be asked is – just why should an emerging nation like ours invest in sports?

Simply put, there are three strategic reasons for a nation to invest in sports.

First, of course, is soft power. Many sports and several Olympic events originated as surrogates for muscle flexing. Events like javelin, shot putt, discus, high jump, long jump and wrestling were derivatives of soldierly skills. Even the famed marathon originated as the updated form of ‘signalling’ where trained runners ferried messages on battlefields. Former cold war adversaries, the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union used the Olympics as a proxy war – each boycotted the Olympics when the games were held in the rival country. More recently, Britain’s outstanding performance reminded the world and its own citizens that the empire can still pack a punch despite reeling from the Brexit fallout. By these standards, our perpetually penurious single digit medal tallies are nothing to write home about.

The second reason is the health of the nation. Every rupee spent on sports pays exponential dividends when it comes to citizens’ fitness. Children who play sports are healthier, have stronger immune systems and also benefit psychologically as sports help them become bolder, confident and more assertive. In addition, citizens who are sports oriented have higher awareness levels about issues like pollution, adulteration and hygiene, and tend to become role models for the next generation by encouraging them to make healthy life choices and abstain from abusive substances.

The third and perhaps most important reason why a nation should strategically invest in sports is its strong influence on collaborative team work. The battle of Waterloo being won in the playing fields of Eton is not just a metaphor. It is the foundational reason for why the armed forces place such heavy emphasis on sports. Team games teach players the value of working together. It underscores the fact that an inconspicuous game maker who creates an opportunity is as important as the spectacular striker who makes the winning goal. This fostering of camaraderie is obvious to anyone who has ever played on a team or observed a highly bonded one in action.

2016 Rio Olympics - Artistic Gymnastics - Final - Women's Vault Final - Rio Olympic Arena - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 14/08/2016. Dipa Karmakar of India competes. Credit: Reuters/Marko Djurica

2016 Rio Olympics: Dipa Karmakar competes in artistic gymnastic. Credit: Reuters/Marko Djurica

Individual vs team

But if we list the events for which India has won medals in recent years, we realise that the wins are almost all for individual sports. Boxing, wrestling, shooting, athletics, gymnastics, archery, badminton and tennis are all sports where the athlete is essentially competing against the clock, a high score or a singular opponent. While such sports may have individual benefits, they don’t achieve the objective of team bonding or improving the masses’ health.

Traditionally we are a nation with a proclivity for rewarding individual performance rather than team effort. Even the quintessential posture of a student taking an exam, with one hand covering the answer sheet, is reminiscent of hiding one’s creation from others while it is being created. How can such cultural DNA fare in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world where collaboration is the keystone to success? How can we produce future team leaders when their upbringing has emphasised individual performance and parochialism?

Rather than sending massive contingents to the Olympics – where we display the contrast between struggling athletes (who bleed to win medals) and opulent officials (who treat the games as a junket) – to embarrass India on the world stage, perhaps we should take a moratorium on India’s pursuit of more Olympic medals.

A new approach

India should evaluate the strategic return of investing in sports and appraise the processes that create individual gladiators and not strong teams. Instead of massive investments in an individual sport such as shooting, perhaps what India needs to do is distribute millions of footballs to its school children with the simple mandate to play until the ball tears and then take another and another and yet another. We need to do such grassroots nurturing for several years if we want to make structural and meaningful differences.

Winning Olympic medals is not a four year game. Several of our future medal winners are still in their mother’s womb. We need to go back to that stage and start improving the health of the medal winner’s mother. That’s the vision we need to bag an Olympic tally respectable enough for one-sixth of the world’s population.

There is an old story about a man who unsuccessfully searched for money he lost – he didn’t search in the place he lost it but where the light was good enough for him to search. Our pursuit of Olympic medals has a similar undertone. We seek to win as an end in itself and not as a by-product of creating a healthy and bonded nation. And if we continue our quest in that spirit, we may win the occasional medal, but as far as national objectives are concerned it will be but fool’s gold.

Raghu Raman is the former CEO of NATGRID and Group President of Reliance Industries. He tweets @captraman.