Sporting Bindra, Unsporting India
Abhinav Bindra gave an interview after his winning effort at the Beijing Olympics, in which he basically underlined the fact that the Olympic medal was just one moment in his life, and that in his sport, the difference between winning and losing is so miniscule, that some luck is inevitable to success.
I think it is an important and non-trivial distinction between wanting to be better at something relentlessly, and wanting to be an Olympic champion. The former is an aspiration, the latter is a reward.
The overwhelming narrative about Abhinav Bindra has focused on his ambition and his success against the odds (tremors, a tampered gun). This narrative misses the point and in constructing a bollywoodesque hero myth, does Bindra serious injustice.
The whole point of Abhinav Bindra's success, as revealed in his interview, is that he wants to be the best shooter that he can be - that he's obsessively interested in training and working hard, enjoys the tough training regimens and has basically committed his life to his sport. The Olympic Medal or the World Championship Medal (both of which he has won now) are merely the biggest prizes on the way.
This is not unique to Bindra.
There is a difference between focusing on a given contest when it is at hand and bringing the entire might of one's powers to it, and aiming for it obsessively — coveting the prize. The point of being a sportsman is not being an Olympic champion. The point is to be the best sportsman you can be. Because we don't seem to understand that, we are unable to respect those athletes who have qualified for the Olympics but may not come away with podium finishes.
I have read more than one news article in the last couple of days which says something to the effect that "Indian athletes have a habit of not performing when it matters". That is not only rude, it is also hopelessly misguided.
There is a whole other aspect of this issue which has been written about ad nauseum, and Dileep Premachandran has this version of it. It refers to unprofessionally run Sports Associations which makes a complete pigs breakfast of managing and helping athletes compete at the international level.That is a bureaucratic problem, and as such is not too difficult to solve.
What is far more important, as Rajaraman points out, is our view of sport and sporting ambition. Cricketers who wake up in the morning in distant suburbs in Bombay and make their way to dawn training sessions on the maidans in town don't do it thinking about playing for India at every stage. They do it because they love playing the sport.
What does this mean? It means that there is inherent value associated with participating in sport — serious, organized sport — that contributes to the sport as well as to the sportsman. School cricket is competitive in Bombay and children who are serious about cricket move to better cricket schools, in order to pursue better cricket. A very famous cricketer once moved from IES English in Bandra to Shardashram Vidyamandir in Dadar in the mid-eighties, so that he would be able to play cricket. A illustrious friend of his travelled 50 kilometers a day to study at the same school so that he could play good cricket as well. Both went on the perform well for Bombay and India.
They did this not because they were driven by the ambition to play for India, but because they were interested more immediately in playing cricket, and in being as good at it as they could be.
Gold and Cash
We have to stop this medieval, feudal practice of showering winners with gold and cash, for it reveals a very poor attitude towards the sport.
All these agencies, which have been falling over each other to announce cash awards to Bindra (these awards range from the absurd to the downright silly), should stop and think about the other Indian athletes at the Olympics. Instead of giving the money to Bindra, they ought to contribute it to a corpus of some sort which athletes can dip into if they want to go somewhere to train or buy expensive equipment.
Bindra's Wikipedia page provides a summary of the awards he has won:
"Bindra was rewarded by various Indian state governments and private organizations for his achievements. These include the state governments of Punjab - Rs 10 million (approx. US $250,000), Harayana - Rs 2.5 million, Maharashtra - Rs 1 million, Karnataka - Rs 1 million, Tamil Nadu - Rs 0.5 million, Madhya Pradesh - Rs 0.5 million and Chattisgarh - Rs 0.5 million."
The Wikipedia page also highlights free life-long railway and airline passes from Indian Railways and Spicejet Airways, respectively.
The states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh have absolutely no connection with Bindra. Neither does Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan has, in fact, gone one step further, by drawing attention to his silly World Tour in the process.
Everyone wants a piece of Bindra right now. Nobody really cares about the other Indian athletes at the Olympics, neither is anyone really interested in the sport that Bindra competes in. I'm pretty sure that none of the luminaries in question will be able to write or speak one coherent paragraph about the sport of shooting.
In short, nobody really cares about sport. Everybody cares about the winner. In doing so, they contribute nothing to the sport - indeed they undermine it at every turn. They are no different from those misguided souls who burnt effigies of Indian cricketers after the world cup. To them, as to those vandals, sport is merely a site of prestige - it has nothing to do with joy or skill or excellence.
The bureaucracy, associations, etc. etc. are all secondary issues. There is a reason why cricket is a thriving sport in India - because it is played on the streets, by middle-class kids with proper bats and balls, and by poor kids with makeshift stumps and handmade balls. Because interest in cricket goes above and beyond India winning or losing. Because Ranji Trophy cricketers can make a living playing domestic cricket in India today. In such an atmosphere, it was a matter of time before India's bare fast-bowling cupboard filled up.
The BCCI manages cricket quite well, but cricket thrives in India because it thrives in communities. That's where other sports have to gain a footing. Otherwise, all we will have is parasites like Amitabh Bachchan clinging on to Abhinav Bindra's gold medal-wearing back.
Sporting Bindra, Unsporting India
- » Published on August 14, 2008
- » Type: Opinion
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