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Snapshot
  • Unless we start addressing the root causes of failure, India will not win many medals and by criticising our Olympic athletes during competition, we will reduce our minuscule chances of winning medals even further.

Shuttling between England and Germany for business during the recent Euro 2016, this author saw the matches in the fan zones. The English and German fans reacted quite differently after the matches and this could explain to an extent the difference in the teams’ performances.

Going into a match the English fans were very enthusiastic about their team but would despair mid-way into the match when the team didn’t perform to their expectation and ended up being very cynical about their players after the match. England underperformed in the group stages of the tournament with mounting criticism from the fans. The team couldn’t cope with the pressure and lost to minnows Iceland in the next round (R16).

Being the current world champions, Germany was fancied by many fans to win the tournament. The team also started slowly in the group stages with a draw against Poland and a narrow win over underdogs Northern Ireland. The German fans and media were not as critical as the English fans and their team didn’t face the intense pressure that the English team faced. Germany went on to play in the semi-finals of the tournament and lost to hosts France.

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The negative fan behaviour shown by the English football fans is not typical of the British sports fans. Great Britain has spent quite a lot to ensure success in the Olympics and has high hopes from its cycling team who won eight gold medals last time. So far they have won only one bronze medal in four events. Yet there has not been a public criticism on the performance in the media or among the fans. They continue to support the cycling team wholeheartedly for the coming events.

Given the contrasting fortunes of the teams and the contrasting behaviours of the fans, it seems the unrealistic expectations and cynical reactions of fans have a significant role to play in the failure of the players. The English footballers choke under the pressure unlike the British Olympic athletes or the German footballers.

Indian athletes never faced this issue in the past, except for Hockey and Cricket. For every other sport, we have faced the opposite problem of unconcern from fans and other stakeholders.

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In recent years with the success of our athletes in the past two Olympics fans have started following all our athletes. This is in stark contrast to previous Olympics, particularly before Beijing 2008. This is a very positive development that will go a long way to encourage sports in the country.

Unfortunately for India, we have not managed to win any medal so far and this has led to a lot of frustration among the fans. While disappointment is natural, many of the comments in the media and among fans are very reproachful to the athletes. This sort of knee-jerk emotional reaction is typical of quite a few Indian fans and does not help in any way to improve the future prospects. In fact, it adds immense pressure to the athletes and reduces our chances further.

All our Indian athletes have struggled hard to qualify for the Olympics. It is a matter of immense pride to the nation that this time in Rio we have 118 athletes who have qualified compared to 83 in London 2012. 48 of those 118 have come from economically backward conditions striving in a system that doesn’t do enough to nurture talent. Facilities are not easily accessible even for those athletes who come from affluent families in the cities.

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Take swimming, where USA has won 18 medals (7 gold) out of its total tally of 26 (9 gold) so far. India had two swimmers who participated and neither could progress beyond the heats of their events. On the surface, it seems like the Indian swimmers lack talent and/or will. However, considering that in USA elite swimmers are strongly nurtured in swim clubs all over the country (at least 3000 swim clubs are officially registered) while even in Delhi, people struggle to access a swimming pool - forget elite coaching, the difference in performance is no longer a mystery.

Bangalore with a population of 9.5 million has about 10 swimming pools (including 6 private pools) for public access, while Maryland (from where Micheal Phelps comes) with a population of 5 million has about 45 swimming clubs for elite swimmers. It is ridiculous to expect Indian swimmers to compete for medals in such a situation.

Swimming is a sport that doesn’t need expensive equipments. The lack of resources is even more acute when it comes to sports like shooting or archery, where our fans have been most anxious of a medal.

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Take Archery, where three Indian archers (Atanu Das, Bombayla Devi Laishram and Deepika Kumari) have qualified for the R16 in the Individual competition (two matches away from medals).

Bows at the elite level are quite expensive (Atanu’s first bow cost Rs 30,000) and each arrow costs Rs 2,500. There are not many facilities in India to practice the game even if one can afford to play the sport. The Archery Association of India struggles to get sponsors to organize the annual national championship. Tata Archery Academy is doing a good job by providing good facilities and coaching but there are not many other institutions doing the same.

In contrast, in South Korea the Government allocates more than Rs 7 crores per year for the game through the Archery Association and this is only 30 percent of the total funding for the sport. There are regular archery league competitions conducted in the country where 33 company teams participate. These companies provide wages, pensions and careers to the archers they hire to compete on behalf of their company. This level of investment ensures that Korea currently has 147 elite archers compared to a handful in India (and almost every other country). Is it any surprise then that South Korea dominates archery and has already won the 2 gold medals so far on offer?

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We should be praising our athletes who are competing with such handicaps instead of reprimanding them for not bringing enough medals. Elite sports needs years of efforts from multiple directions (athletes’ dedication, coaching excellence, quality of equipments, access to facilities and a conducive environment that promotes talent). Unless we start addressing the root causes of failure, India will not win many medals and by criticising our Olympic athletes during competition, we will reduce our minuscule chances of winning medals even further.

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