Olympics and how political will matters
Unlike the usual approach of ignoring specific needs of specific sports, the sports administrators this time adopted a policy of need-based assistance to all.
Games the politicians play’ is an established way of describing certain things indulged in by our leaders. This is perhaps because politics is also largely regarded as playing games, something considered to be done unthinkingly. True, this kind of description with multiple shades of meaning embedded merits contestation as the origin behind the concept of ‘playing politics’ perhaps lies in an acutely unserious approach towards everything that is ‘played’, including sports.
At least for several decades in India, sports and physical education was considered traditionally of lesser importance compared to academic programmes or classroom teaching and learning. One comes across several schools and colleges attaching almost no importance to the need for filling the posts of physical education teachers, generally called PT teachers. Even today, in most families, a passion for sports—especially involving on-ground physical activity—is not looked at with requisite dignity.
It is in this backdrop that what the Indian Olympic contingent has achieved merits a closer look. Our contingent has truly made history in several respects. Neeraj Chopra’s gold is India’s first ever Olympic medal in athletics. Besides, with the tally of 127 athletes to have qualified for the Games this time, we have set a new record. Our participation in 18 sports disciplines is also the highest ever so far.
Some of the achievements are under the ‘first ever’ category. For the first time, India finished fourth in the women’s golf event with a stupendous performance by Aditi Ashok. With Bhavani Devi, India qualified in fencing in the Olympics. Similar first-time qualifiers were female sailor Nethra Kummanam and the duo of Sajan Prakash and Shrihari Natraj in swimming. Also remarkable was the performance of Avinash Sable, who finished 13th in men’s 3,000 m steeplechase. In the men’s 4x400 m relay, the Indian team finished 9th, setting a new national and Asian record.
Our Tokyo performance needs deeper analysis for three reasons. Firstly, for the sportspersons who took Herculean efforts and have shown remarkable grit and resoluteness, shedding complacency. Secondly, for the out-of-the-box thinking adopted and pathbreaking approaches taken by the sports administrators; thirdly, for the remarkable political will shown by the Central leadership.
Starting from sportspersons and their determined efforts, every participant—those who brought medals for India and those who made significant progress in their performance and missed a medal by a whisker—deserves congratulations. From golden boy Neeraj to Mirabai Chanu, all had to struggle a lot to maintain their fitness, observe a very strict diet regime and brave all kinds of risks due to the Covid-19 pandemic while remaining away from their near and dear ones. All our sportspersons—as pointed out by the PM in an informal address—conducted themselves like disciplined soldiers while in Tokyo, setting a new example of collective will to refrain from all that is beyond rules and regulations. The entire Olympic contingent needs to be recognised—as was done by the PM during his Red Fort speech—for their painstakingly carried-out preparation, single-minded pursuit, the resoluteness shown and confidence in the authorities.
True, the confidence level of our sportspersons in general was high because they were acutely conscious of the Herculean efforts put in by the government. Unlike the usual approach of ignoring specific needs of specific sports, the sports administrators this time adopted a policy of need-based assistance to all. Chopra was provided with a dedicated foreign coach and through him, 450 days of training on foreign soil too was arranged. Significantly, despite one single javelin costing somewhere around `1 lakh or so, a total of 117 javelins were arranged for Chopra’s training. In the case of Chanu, when sudden circumstances demanded that she had to go to the US for training, a proposal to that effect was cleared by the ministry within a record six days. For all others too, the experience of getting government support without allowing bureaucratic or technical impediments to play spoilsport was extraordinary.
All this happens when the country’s highest-level leadership works with strong political will. The personal attention given by PM Narendra Modi before, during and after the Games was something unheard of. Never before was an independent unit, namely the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), effectively activated some four years before the Games. TOPS facilitated scientific selection of players, structured and time-bound implementation of plans, ensured quick response mechanism in athlete funding as also synergy amongst all stakeholders, starting with the appointment of dedicated professional staff. Also important were other measures like undertaking recce of the Olympic venues and sporting facilities in Tokyo as well as conducting athlete development workshops for holistic growth, including sensitisation about Japanese culture. Since Covid-19 was not over, many countries had restricted the travel of Indians but for Olympians, a special visa cell was created to follow up with respective countries. Also, for the first time, athletes were served through a wellness cell to monitor their health, injury treatment and nutritional needs.
Undoubtedly, India’s Olympic performance is historic. But more importantly, efforts put in by the government, PM and Sports Ministers Kiren Rijiju and Anurag Thakur were equally exceptional. This underscores a tectonic change in the government’s approach towards sports.