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Saina Nehwal is a champion, but in spite of India, not because of it

There has been a lot of chest-thumping in the wake of Saina Nehwal reaching the magical number one spot in the badminton rankings. Aditya Mani Jha writes about the dangers of reading too much into success in individual sports.

ADITYA MANI JHA  4th Apr 2015

Saina Nehwal.

hen Saina Nehwal was recently crowned the world's number one female badminton player, there was, understandably, a lot of chest-thumping in news publications and across social media. One organisational Facebook page congratulated Nehwal on her achievement: with one caveat. The photograph they used in their banner was that of... Sania Mirza. Perhaps this was an innocent blooper. What I find significant, however, is that both Mirza and Nehwal are poster-girls for Indian sports, regularly held up as examples of the hypothesis that Indian sports is beginning to take giant strides on the international stage; that despite not having the best of facilities at times, Indian men and women have it in them to dominate proceedings at the highest level.

Before we delve deeper into this hypothesis, let me qualify my stance at the outset: I believe Nehwal's feat is worthy of the highest praise and that she is likely to win several major tournaments in the near future. However, to use her or Mirza's example to hail the "progress" of Indian sports as a whole is simplistic at best, and lazy apologia at worst. These are individuals who are and have always been outliers, blessed with talent the likes of which comes along once or twice every generation.

Let me illustrate this with an example: Tiger Woods had been earmarked as a prodigy when he was as young as two. His father Earl was a more than competent amateur golfer (he had a single-digit handicap) who also played college basketball in his youth. Woods took to the game so swiftly that at 2, he already had a television appearance under his belt, on The Mike Douglas Show. By 11, he was defeating his father easily. At 15, he met Jack Nicklaus, who was thoroughly impressed by the precocious teen. At 18, he had won the National Amateur Championship, a record which hasn't been broken yet. Another year down the line, he was snapped up by Stanford University on a golf scholarship.

Here's the thing: for the average African-American his age, the 19-year-old Woods was very privileged indeed. This is a sad truth, but the truth nonetheless. Can super-athletes emerge despite not having access to the kind of facilities, encouragement and knowhow that Woods received? Absolutely, as evidenced by the case of Kareem Abdul Jabbar for one. But it's naïve to assume that these privileges and support structures had no part to play in Woods' future as the number one golfer in the world.

India's performance at the Olympics has been a source of concern since forever. From our glory days at the hockey field, gold after gold seeming inevitable, we have been reduced to a nation in the throes of uncontrollable ecstasy at every single medal: gold, bronze or silver. And why shouldn't we? It is that rare, after all. We still talk about Leander Paes' heroic loss to Sergi Bruguera. In fact, some of the more cynical among us may suggest that Bruguera's victory over Paes at the Atlanta Olympics is the only reason India fans remember a Catalonian clay courter who, after all, never made it to the number one spot.

Trap shooter and current Cabinet minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore's silver medal was similarly lionised to the heavens. Didn't we know then, that shooting as a sport was extremely difficult for the common man to pick up, that Rathore's army background had a key role to play in his development? When another medal winner Abhinav Bindra said as much years later, people (the same people who were cheering him on a day earlier) thought he was being unnecessarily sour.

When the attention shifts to team sports, the importance of genuine sporting infrastructure is amplified; which is why the rest of the hockey world eventually left India behind. This is also the reason for our world football rankings, which is rather closer to 150 than one is comfortable with.

When the attention shifts to team sports, the importance of genuine sporting infrastructure is amplified; which is why the rest of the hockey world eventually left India behind. This is also the reason for our world football rankings, which is closer to 150 than one is comfortable with. What about cricket, I hear you saying. We're alright at cricket, aren't we? Yes we are, but a thorough examination of our fast bowling resources over the past 15 years or so will reveal that a fair share of them went to Australian sports clinics or pace academies. Of late, we have brought the mountain to Mohammed by hiring Aussies to helm the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai; both Dennis Lillee and Glenn McGrath have held the position.

Meanwhile, let's take a look at what we did to our differently abled athletes. A couple of weeks ago, over 600 differently abled athletes gathered in Ghaziabad for the 15th National Para-Athletic Championship. Here's what The Times of India's report says on the living quarters of the athletes, the campus of a private college in Ghaziabad's Madhuban-Bapudham area:

"The place is at least 3.5 km off NH-58, midway between two small villages — Duhai and Matiyala. There are no public or private transportation facilities available for the athletes, many of whom have already represented the country at international events. (...) Inside the building, crude wooden planks served as makeshift ramps, forcing some athletes to abandon their wheelchairs and drag themselves up the stairs. There was just one toilet on each of the five floors. The washbasins in some of them did not have taps. The dorms were squalid and no cleaning staff visible. (...) The entire Rajasthan team, consisting of 40 members, both male and female, has been packed into a single mid-size hall. All 130 members of the Haryana contingent have been allocated a hall in a basement dank with water seepage."

By all means, let us celebrate with Nehwal in her moment of glory. Let us extend our heartiest congratulations, also, to Shiva Keshavan, Mary Kom and Sushil Kumar. But let us not pretend that their success is because we care so much for our sportspeople. It is in spite of the fact that we really don't.

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