Chasing the medal mirage

By Ashwini Nachappa | March 05, 2017

After our debacle at the Rio Olympics, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a task force for ‘effective participation’ in the 2020, 2024 and 2028 games. A few weeks back, a task force, comprising sportspersons, was announced to significantly improve India’s Olympics medal tally. The coming together of some of our best athletes must be lauded.

A medal at the Olympics or, for that matter, any international competition is the culmination of several factors: Identifying potential talent, which includes the desire of the athlete to pursue the path voluntarily, nurturing the athlete—both at the physical and mental level—in keeping with the best in class, progressive exposure to higher levels of competition, ensuring a happy and stable environment and laying the foundation for a secure future after the athlete retires from the sport.

It is a simple process and yet even 69 years after independence, it remains elusive. We have had successes, but invariably because of fortuitous happenings. The well-documented story of Milkha Singh is one such instance. All the elements magically came together for the Flying Sikh. One of the factors that was sorely lacking in India then was exposure to international competitions.

On the advice of coach Dr Otto Peltzer, a world champion and world record holder in 800m and 1,500m, Milkha competed in dozens of races for two seasons in the European circuit. It was this invaluable immersion in the crucible of international competition that made Milkha the favourite at the Rome Olympics in 1960. Similarly, another chance happening in 1991 put Harry Wilson, coach of the middle distance runner Steve Ovett, in touch with Bahadur Prasad, a talented long-distance runner. Till then Bahadur was running 5,000m in over 14 minutes. On Harry’s direction, Bahadur competed in a few races in England and broke the 14-minute barrier to post 13:29:71, a national record that still stands!

Illustration: Bhaskaran

There are other such stories of chance successes and of high performers at the national level who stopped short because of poor follow through. These are but strong indicators of a flawed system in decline. However, things are changing for the better with great individual initiatives. Take the performance of P.V. Sindhu. It was no chance happening. All the factors, mentioned above, were worked on diligently and executed with professionalism by P. Gopichand. A similar story can be seen in shooting and archery. Other sporting disciplines can learn from these experiences.

After the Rio performance, Injeti Srinivas, director general of Sports Authority of India, said that we could not rely on just a few athletes if we wanted to win medals. That we needed to have proper bench strength. Srinivas is absolutely right. But how do you build bench strength? For 100 athletes with some potential, perhaps one could add to the bench. Hence, creating bench strength that could bring in medals requires unearthing talent from a wide base. Something that is not being addressed at all. An Olympic medal is a happy by-product of a purposefully designed programme that begins in school. Starting, therefore, with an objective of winning medals is holding the wrong end of the stick. By thinking about winning medals first, we will never build a system that naturally and continually throws up great athletes. A lot is still left to chance.

A mirage is real till we see the illusion. And, chasing Olympic medals is like chasing a mirage. It would remain a struggle to get medals and not help in developing an effective system. If we realise that, then there is an opportunity to begin the journey at the right place with the right steps. Watch this space as I attempt to unravel the opportunity.

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