We need a new sports culture

By Ashwini Nachappa | February 19, 2017

Culturally, we are not a sporting nation. We have never taken to sport like Australia, the United States, Germany, England, erstwhile USSR and, more recently, China did. But, we have hockey, cricket, kabbadi and several homegrown sports. In the last decade or so, we have seen a substantial rise in cricket following, thanks to the different formats and a concerted effort to promote the sport in small towns. No sport other than cricket has really developed.

The development of sports and arts in pre-independent India relied on the patronage of the elite—the maharajahs and those with influential positions. It was they who ensured cricket took root and launched our Olympic aspirations. We must also acknowledge the role of the English in promoting these in the country. Hockey grew out of our Olympic participation and we carved a niche for ourselves in the sport—a niche that we have all but surrendered.

Post-independence saw the end of the maharajahs' patronage and the rise of the politician in the governance of sport. To be a ‘patron’ requires supporting a cause without personal gain—a guardianship. Sadly, this patronage and the love for sport gave way to self-interest and a chalta-hai attitude. Little thought was given to systematic development of sports by a government intent on establishing a licence-quota raj or on expanding the economy.

Illustration: Bhaskaran

Occupying the gaddi of sports bodies became the end-all of building a sporting nation. There was no grassroots development to inculcate a culture of sport, or to build infrastructure and create a pool of well-trained coaches. What mattered most to the officials was how to manipulate their hold on power. Foreign trips and junkets to international meets became, and continue to be, the highlight of their job.

These historical reasons are at the heart of the mess in sport we see today. There was an opportunity to set things right in 1982, with the Asian Games in Delhi. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) was set up to manage the facilities that were developed for the Games. But, the opportunity to create an organisation that could guide India’s potential was thrown away. Today, SAI is a moribund body that had grown haphazardly, as can be seen in the state of its centres. We still struggle to send likely medallists to the Olympics, something unlikely to change even in the next two Games.

Unfortunately, 60 years of corruption and ineptness cannot be undone overnight. Obscene money has entered the equation, as in the case of the BCCI. The IPL fiasco from Lalit Modi to N. Srinivasan, and the Supreme Court’s recent intervention in BCCI governance have brought into focus this debilitating 60-year-old culture.

But the possibility for change is always there. The latest Supreme Court response to a PIL urging that the Lodha Commission’s recommendations be implemented in other sporting disciplines raises new hope. The draft of the sports policy bill, though gathering dust, can bring transparency and professionalism to management of sports bodies. Ideas are aplenty on how a new sporting structure can be brought about, but the deeply ingrained attitude of entitlement and selfish interests are the real hurdles. To me, at the heart of change lies the right intent. An intent that is singularly focused on developing our vast potential. An intent built on guardianship. Bringing about this right intent is the real change.

What is needed is a dogged will to bring those with this intent into sports governance. Given the enviable mandate this government enjoys, it is possible to do so. Is the prime minister listening?

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