Is India truly a Sporting Nation?
Updated: Nov 8, 2021
By Amiya Kumar, UG23
People across the country sit glued to their televisions, regardless of the fact that they aren’t avid sports fans, praying for the athletes’ success, who otherwise go unnoticed. Unfortunately, this fervor is short-lived due to a recurring trend - the substandard and abysmal performance of Indian sportspeople at International sporting events. Consequently, news channels, sports fanatics and ex-sportspersons spiral into debates and deliberations about the sporting culture in India. The reason behind India’s inability to yield results at a global level is a puzzle sports fanatics and analysts have been trying to solve since time immemorial. Nevertheless, it is worth considering that the flaw may lie at a national level.
It is commonly assumed that the cause for dismal performances in most sports arises due to the fact that they don’t get the same amount of importance and identification as cricket. Discussions surrounding cricket in India harp about how the sport is synonymous with religion. The nature of fanaticism showcased by Indian cricket viewers is a testament to the fact that a sporting culture similar to that of Europe and America ceases to exist. The Indian Premier League (IPL) generates as much viewership and enthusiasm as the National Football League (NFL) in America. While American football may be predominant in The United States of America, the nation engenders the same ardor and zeal for other sporting events - a phenomenon that is not prevalent in India. A sporting culture exists in India; unfortunately, it is only confined to cricket. Only with good governance, promotion of league events and a change in the attitude of the citizenry can India develop a competitive and conducive sporting environment.
The immediate response to this debate is to point fingers at the government. Blaming the government is valid, although it does not lead to any constructive solutions. A lesser-known fact is that the Constitution of India highlights the significance of sports. Ensuring that due process is followed to uplift sports and athletes falls under the ambit of the state list. The state has codified laws to ensure the development of sports. Hence, the government does have a task force that actively works towards creating a stimulating sporting environment. On paper, they have appointed world-class coaches to almost all sports. They also established ‘Khelo India’ that seeks to encourage participation in sports and promote the value of fitness. NITI Ayog, a public policy think tank of the government that falls under the ambit of the GOI, also launched the “Let's Play” action plan that aims to ensure a total of 50 medals at the Olympics. The policy is in place, but there seems to be no implementation. Is the presence of foreign coaches an indicator of progress and a guarantee for adequate performances? Appointing international coaches is undoubtedly not the link between the success of cricket and the lack thereof of other sports.
The policies are in play, but to warrant better sports governance - the party in power must look beyond building infrastructure and allocating funds as that is the bare minimum. A sporting culture will not exist until sportspeople in India are given job security. Unfortunately, being a sportsperson is not regarded as a legitimate job in India. This stems from the lack of media coverage given to a sports person's achievement and the fact that athletes cannot generate a steady income. Not only are they deprived of adequate capital during the initial stages of their career, but even after making a name for themselves, they don’t receive sufficient bankrolls. An immediate consequence of this is families and societies not supporting being an athlete as a career trajectory. As a result, most people give up their dreams, and the rest of the athletes spend their lives fighting the system and trying to make ends meet by taking up other jobs that further hamper their training. Fostering a healthy sports environment in India will require the government to take into account and tackle all the socio-economic challenges that come with it. In recent times, the government has only acknowledged sports by putting large images of the Prime Minister's face on banners that aim to celebrate athletes.
It is worth mentioning that private sponsors have made tremendous efforts to increase the viewership of unrecognized sports in India. A lot of private businessmen have been accused of sponsoring leagues for tax purposes or money laundering. While these allegations may be true or false, we can certainly say that their impetus has helped give rise to a plethora of new sporting events such as the Indian Super League (ISL) and Pro Kabaddi league. The glare of publicity that the IPL gets is unmatched, but in the last few years, the reach of the ISL has increased exponentially, with a total of 261 million people viewing the tournament. Broadcasting these leagues across various channels in regional languages has helped sportspeople in India get opportunities to get the acknowledgment and appreciation they deserve. In addition to this, they are exposed to new players that help polish their skills and provide new challenges that in turn, increase their abilities. This private capital and investment can potentially be directed in new ways. A lot of scouting agencies come to India hunting for new talent. Unfortunately, these clubs only conduct trials at elite schools, making them inaccessible to a large pool of talent that does not have access to these resources. Furthermore, once recruited by these scouting organizations, players have to pay hefty fees. The same private capital that is given to leagues can be provided to independent sportspeople who lack financial resources.
Lastly, the development of sports in India depends on viewership. Therefore, we must reflect on the sports we consume. Statistically, more Indians tune into the NFC and UEFA Champions League than any local home-grown tournaments. Supporting these tournaments is of crucial importance as it will permit broadcasters to air them widely on television. It is unfortunate that in spite of being one of the most populated countries in the world, we produce only a handful of exceptional athletes. The lack isn’t in the talent but in the system. Only changing our mindset and viewing sports as an integral part of the curriculum at school and university levels, as well as governmental efforts, can help change this.