Are we still a nation of underachievers in the global sports arena? At the turn of the millennium, one could have been allowed to harbour that thought. Not any longer. Not when a Saina Nehwal or PV Sindhu or Kidambi Srikanth trade killer shots with their Chinese counterparts, growling at them on crucial points.
When the table tennis contingent headed for Tokyo 2020, which includes the irrepressible Manika Batra say that they have a good chance of winning a medal, it no longer sounds like hyperbole. If the last decade was all about champion pugilists and grapplers, the last few years have seen track and field icons surge ahead and grab the limelight. Think Neeraj Chopra, Hima Das and Dutee Chand. The moment, then, may be ripe to channel this optimism towards realising our real sporting potential. This is the sentiment running through a new anthology on Indian sport. Edited by Nandan Kamath and Aparna Ravichandran,Go! India's Sporting Transformation includes essays by some of the brightest stars on India's sporting marquee Pullela Gopichand, Abhinav Bindra and Rahul Dravid along with a few brilliant wordsmiths, senior sports journalists Rohit Brijnath, Sharda Ugra, Shivani Naik, Neeru Bhatia and Abhijeet Kulkarni, to name just a few. "At the highest level, our athletes no longer view themselves as also-rans," says coeditor Aparna Ravichandran. "Pullela Gopichand speaks often of how Indian athletes used to be awed at meeting sporting greats at the Olympics, but now have evolved to become serious contenders..."
This couldn't have been possible without the unflinching selfbelief of a few trail-blazers. Sample Naik's sublime take on Saina Nehwal's work ethic: "Not all history is...a manic twisting of limbs and a moment's power play. Some success in sport is like a slow-cooking, flavoursome stew. Badminton, for instanceIf sporting excellence is about turning up day after day, battling a new opponent and newer challenge across the net every morning you wake up, and finishing the last woman standing, Saina Nehwal will beat every other sportswoman from India hands downThey used to say Indians didn't quite have the body the fast-twitch fibres, the calf muscles, the ripped core to lord over badminton. So Saina went out there and strung together a body of work."
Apart from a few driven individuals, the creation of a national sporting culture involves the athlete support system working as one, the governance of sport, sponsorship and career progression for athletes, the availability and delivery of allied services and infrastructure, says Ravichandran. Still, at the end of the day, it may boil down to the can-do spirit, as Brijnath writes. "...[Abhinav] Bindra, with the heartbeat of a mortician and the single-mindedness of an assassin, wins India's first individual Olympic gold in 2008, and it should be hung in a sports museum as ribboned proof. That Indians can. But to understand 'can', you've got to first meet can't.' Got to remember all those who tried who didn't know better, those who lived in India before Google, when 400metre training schedules couldn't just be downloaded from the Internet. And so Milkha Singh had to go and meet Charles Jenkins, the best 400metre runner in the world, at the 1956 Olympics and through an interpreter, in broken English, ask for his training schedule."
Sharda Ugra strikes a note of sanity as she punctures the flawed perception of sports as patriot games. "The Indian athlete has now emerged as the uber-patriot, the quasi soldier. And soldiers cannot be doubted or questioned. Which, of course, more than ever, requires that they must always be. It is a heady time to be listening to or telling stories about Indian sports because of its tumult and volume of activity. There are so many on their search of excellence, wanting to own a slice of history. As Indian sports grows ..., this is a moment in sporting history that calls for a more measured recounting. As witnesses and storytellers, we must again recalibrate our lenses and re-examine our notions."
An anthology for the sports aficionado to read, and re-read.
GO! INDIA'S SPORTING TRANSFORMATION
Editors Nandan Kamath, Aparna Ravichandran, Penguin India; Rs 299
By Rohit Brijnath :
A three-letter word. Has no great personality. Slang for toilet. Painted by Andy Warhol. Worth five points in Scrabble.
Then you look again.
'Can' has muscle. It means to have the ability, the skill, the belief. It's knowing 'how to'. It's having the 'power to'.
It's worth more points than you can estimate in competition.
'Can' is what Abhinav Bindra, a straight-shooting species with a sense of irony, helps India with. He's not the first one to dismantle barriers, because even in the 1920s and the 1930s, an army officer called Dhyan Chand and his buddies Leslie Hammond, Feroze Khan and Jaipal Singh Munda were telling the world that India could do some stickball magic.
Athletes reflect the society they live in, and in those years, they too were daunted. They'd look at everyone else's fancy equipment, gyms, facilities, coaches, trainers and tracksuits while eating a scientifically approved diet of McDonald's burgers because it was the cheapest place to eat, and they would shrink inside. Confidence all curled up.
How do you beat them if you don't belong? If sport is played in the mind, then that's also where suspicion of one's own talent rests. Indians anyway weren't conditioned then to voice their ambitions.
No one wanted to look too big for the boots they didn't even have. Well, not the nice ones their friends sometimes got from abroad.
On the plane to England in 1996 for his first Test tour, Rahul Dravid was all freshly shaved enthusiasm, thinking about whether a series could be won, till a senior, carrying the wisdom of the practical, said: 'Let's try and win one Test'.
Remember the Titans (2000) is a movie about the semi-miraculous, this was the real modest world of the Indian athlete. It's not that Asian athletes couldn't win medals at the Commonwealth Games, or score centuries at Lord's, but they were understandably inhibited at crucial times.
'In sport,' explained Dravid, 'the margins are so small that any inferiority is magnified under pressure. And so if things got tough, then we didn't have enough history behind us to show we could do this.'
...Awe needs a few visits to rub off. First time you go to Lord's or Wimbledon, you can be stilled by history.
All those boards, those statues, those names, that legend.
Second time, you might recognise that even at Lord's, the wickets are only 22 yards apart and the net at Wimbledon is the same height as the one in your club in Chennai. But once, says Gopichand, athletes hardly travelled, maybe two tournaments a year abroad, maybe four, and it was not enough to find the necessary comfort, to figure out the poster on your wall was no caped hero but just another nervous human.
As he put it: 'People idolised them so much, they couldn't beat them.' Why weren't you intimidated, I asked Gopichand, the All England champion in 2001, and he replied: 'I blindly believed I was going to win. I just didn't like losing, it didn't matter who it was. It was personal for me on the court.'
These people are the path-clearers, the roadfinders, the courage-givers, the confidence-restorers. This is also who Bindra is. Bindra doesn't gaze at his 2008 Olympic gold medal, and he's not even quite sure where it is most of the time.
But the medal is really for India to look at, a representation of the journey he's lived and endured for years. A medallion of proof.
An Indian can.