Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sport and and the Indian Sportsperson

The entire world was in the grips of Football Fever for the past month, with the cricket-crazy junta of India re-igniting its quadrennial affair with the game. While everyone was caught up in the enthralling performances of the usual suspects there was a team which ought to make us wonder what is wrong with India as a sporting nation.

The small African nation of Angola gained independence in 1975 and was still embroiled in a civil war when Ronaldo sported the most ridiculous hairdo ever at the 2002 finals. Through all these years the people of Angola somehow managed to learn to play the game well enough to qualify for the finals in 2006, and they didn't do too badly in the finals either. They held their former occupants Portugal to just one goal in their first ever game on the big stage, managed to hold group favourites Mexico goalless for 90 minutes and scored their first ever goal at the World Cup Finals in a 1-1 draw with relative veterans Iran.

This feat forced me to pose a very serious question about our people:
Are we genetically bad sportspersons?

I'm very sure the resources at the disposal of the AIFF are far greater than those available to its Angolan counterpart. And yet, we fail to even make it past the first round of qualifying in the Asian zone.

We embrace the mediocrity of Sania Mirza when she gets pummeled by glamour girl Maria Sharapova in just the 4th Round of a major event saying she's just 18. Someone forgot to tell these people that the shelf-life of women tennis players is very short, and the likes of Seles, Hingis, the Williamses and Sharapova had already scaled dizzy heights by that age.

Sure a Round of 16 performance at a Grand Slam in your first year on the tour is commendable, but Sania was supposed to build on it. Instead, she hadn't won consecutive matches at a tournament until a Tier 3 event just before Wimbledon. I've seen more consecutive commercials of her on TV.

Members of the Indian Hockey Team have always complained of the lack of facilities and money provided to them. They finally got a huge sponsorship from Sahara in 2002 and have since then reached lows never before imagined, the culmination of which saw India being relegated from the elite Champions Trophy last year by finishing last in their backyard. The scene of crime was Chennai and the last rites were performed by our kind neighbours Pakistan.

However, there are cases of Indians achieving excellence and they surely merit more than a few lines here.

Anyone who follows Golf would have heard the name Arjun Atwal. What most of us don't know is that the man LED the US PGA Tour in putting last season. We're talking about Atwal beating big names like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh (The Indian media embraced him when he won his first Masters Title, the guy is Fijian and has never set foot on Indian soil) with the flat blade. He even managed to finish 2nd at an event Phil Mickelson won last season.

Sharpshooter Samresh Jung was the Golden Boy of the Commonwealth games. The man won everything left, right and centre and was voted the best athlete of any country at the Games. Unfortunately the lasting image of the Games would be our actors dancing to Bhangra Beats at the closing ceremony.

Perhaps India's best kept sporting secret is teeny-tiny MC Mary Kom. One could be forgiven to think she's a 14-yr old but she is the only world champion in any sport who stands in attention to the Jana Gana Mana. Now with what sport would you associate a barely 5-foot, 40-something kg lady from Manipur??? Obviously boxing is the first one that comes to mind.

The ability of these Indians to succeed inspite of the odds is more an exception than the rule. I think there is a lack of sporting culture that sees Indians underachieve at the world stage (And cricket doesn't count as a sport in India, if I might use a cliche, it's a religion).

Why is it that we show an incredible resilience to numerous aspects of everyday life, and yet it fails us when it comes to sport? We refuse to let the dirty politics and corrupt babus get the better of us when we need a ration card or a passport. We refuse to bow to yearly floods and famines and yet blame the sporting bodies for not providing the right facilities. We refuse to relinquish an inch of Kashmir but bow to Pakistan in just about every sport. We keep churning Engineers and MBAs by the thousands every year but can't find a fast bowler who can put the fear of death in the minds of the opposition.

India has the worst ratio of people per medal at every Olympic games. It's high time the people thought of changing it instead of waiting for sport to be a fashionable profession.

Let Angola be the yardstick...