By Siddhant Nag:
For my family, sports was a given. It was less an activity, but more a culture. Discipline, mental tenacity, teamwork, sportsmanship (ethics) and above all, the pursuit of improving one’s self. Whether it was my father playing hockey for the Western Naval Command, my mother playing basketball or my brother playing football for TUS Bad Aibling in Germany, there was a sense of purity attached to being an athlete. As for me, I was promised a call up for the U21 India football camp after school, but a last minute injury, ended any hopes of a professional career.
With the Olympics just done with, a lot has been on my mind regarding how athletes in India are treated. Involved in the sporting circuit, my brother and I have really seen and experienced what it means to be a sportsperson in this country.
Like witnessing the time when a state-level Jharkhand football team had to clean a stadium, to be able to pay for shoes, for their next match. We’ve also had statements like “excessive spending on athletes” thrown at us. I’m guessing they’re talking about that time when my brother had to be shoved through a window into the free compartment of a moving train, just so that the team could arrive at their destination more ‘economically’. They also found themselves sleeping on the floor, because they did not have reserved tickets.
I remember being taken as part of the Indian contingent to Holland, to play at the Youth Friendship Games; our chests beaming with pride as we stood at the airport in our matching tracksuits. I remember having a horrendous campaign there, losing all our matches, but I also recall having to leave 2 hours before our match, so that we could cover the distance on foot and reach the venue. Let it be known that I have almost no recollection of food during that time. I’m grateful to my parents for shoving 50 euros into my suitcase last minute, perhaps they saw this coming all along.
Qualifications for a national level football cup, held in Haryana, saw 3 rounds of consecutive matches, in the middle of an afternoon in the great Indian summer, with no water and no food. Luckily for us, there was a cricket stadium around 600 metres away, where we managed to find some Pepsi, bread pakoras and a fridge stashed with Bisleri.
And that’s just what I have gone through personally. A coach I know very closely, was beaten with iron rods on his calves to inhibit his ability to play the next day, during national team trials. You see, national team players get a regular income, which means you’d actually get paid for being amazing at what you love! He didn’t make the team, but as destiny would have it, years later he would form the team – he went on to become the manager for the national side.
I’ve heard a multiple medal-winning national swimmer tell me that she closes her eyes before she dives, and tries to swim with as little visibility as possible because the swimming pools are too dirty, and the nausea would prohibit her from competing. If you think I’m exaggerating, read about this young swimmer, who dove into the pool and hit his head on the floor, giving him serious cervical spine injuries, ensuring that he won’t be able to swim again. He dove into the shallow end, because he could not tell how deep it was, such was the filth in the pool.
I’m an extremely privileged citizen, part of that 1% that can afford an energy drink, an A/C ride home, and the option, of just saying, “I’ll do something else.” But there are those, like our Olympic athletes, who are thrust into an ecosystem that accounts for no basic facilities and yet expects them to achieve excellence. Oh and if they don’t, this is what comes their way – “Genetics hee nahin hain” (“They lack the genes for it”), “Yeh log practice hee nahi kartey, halkey mein le liya” (“They don’t practise, take it lightly”), “Inka toh kuch nahin ho sakta, inko pata bhi hai kuch” (“They will achieve nothing, they know nothing”)?!”
Rage is all I feel on behalf of my countrymen, who rise at 4.30 am, train all day, tend to responsibilities at home, denounce peer lifestyles and sacrifice, just to represent us in their fields – and then they have to hear this?
Some of our Olympic athletes have struggled to find a way to get to Rio. Isn’t that supposed to be the easy bit? Oh, wait, perhaps, becoming the best wrestler in a country of 1.2 billion is a feat that needs little commitment, but yes, the true struggle should be finding the financial means to sustain this exercise and compete. But don’t worry, the Minister of Sports Affairs will take a selfie with you, and you’ll definitely get 500 retweets, only thing is he may get your name wrong.
*Conditions apply – if you don’t win a medal, don’t feel bad if we ostracise you a little, and forget about you within a day or two. You see, your struggle may sell magazines and page-views, in fact we can feed you a spoonful of pity, but dare we actually red-flag and help you achieve your true potential. Whose got the time for that?
The Olympics were not just meant to be a medal tally for India, they were meant to reflect the lapses we have in the way we view, deal, engage with sports. The lack of conversation and lack of sustainable solutions have always cut short our prowess. As usual, we study the night before the exam and hope to top. We wave our flags months before an event and hope to win gold. We do parade our winners, but do those that don’t stand on the podium, have no right to be celebrated? Last I checked, being a world class athlete is worthy of applause.
There are multiple levels of intervention that must occur, right from the way we talk about our athletes, to the policies that influence them. We must look at grooming children from a young age, must look at nutrition more closely, demand appropriate facilities for our athletes, invest in training our coaches to meet international standards and expose young sportspeople to the highest levels of competition. At the international level, athletes require a troupe of professionals to help them perform – not a radiologist whose expertise in the area is under question or Indian officials that don’t turn up for a 42 km marathon, where our Indian runner has to compete sans water.
Our athletes may not have won us many medals, but they’ve definitely helped put sports back on the map for our country – a country that is truly limited by intent, not talent, ability or resource. Let’s make our athletes accountable, only when we have given them our best.
Trust me, they’re already doing theirs.