At the Asian Games held in China last year, 256 Indian athletes won medals. Since this was India’s largest medals haul at the Games, what followed was much chest thumping in the world’s most populous nation. Mihir Vasavda’s carefully researched story points to a more bittersweet underlying reality behind these medals. He says, “Ninety-six athletes who medalled in Hangzhou stumbled upon their sport in either school or at a local ground. Many others were introduced to a game, by chance, by an enterprising coach at a basic academy with the bare minimum facilities. Stars, then, have to miraculously start aligning from that moment on.

Essentially, a career in sport is a game of luck — to be spotted at the right age, given there’s no scientific scouting network; to be given the right environment, as a majority come from underprivileged backgrounds; and to be shown the right direction as the athlete, in most cases, enters blindfolded in terms of her career path.

Perhaps, it’s this fear of the unknown that keeps parents with stable, government jobs from being keen to push their child in this direction. As the data showed, only 33 medallists out of 256 had parents who were in the service class. For these parents, the absence of a safety net in case of a sporting career gone wrong seems a far bigger concern than any gains — financial primarily.”

To understand further why so few middle class kids with parents in the service class produce medals, Mr Vasavda digs deeper into the motives which fuel India’s medalists: “Money remains the primary motivation for the families to put their child in sports. It’s why a daily wager moved from Varanasi to Sonbhadra; why a petrol pump attendant encouraged his daughter to take up running; and why a tribal belt in Sundergarh has more hockey turfs than colleges”

The other side of this coin is that India’s biggest cities (which have the best facilities and most affluent parents) barely produce any medallists: “It is also glaring that big cities like Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore accounted for just 41 medal winners between them. Ahmedabad, which is hyped up as the host city for the 2036 Olympics, had only one.

These disappointing numbers raise questions as to why the privileged or middle class from urban areas who can afford high-nutrition food, have access to the best gyms and state-of-the-art training facilities, do not think of sport as a viable career option.

Shrinking public spaces and a comfortable lifestyle means the participation of people from big cities in sports like hockey — which requires big playing grounds — and wrestling, a hard strength-based sport, is negligible. Likewise, the entry barriers and high cost in sports like squash and tennis mean that those from rural backgrounds — who accounted for one-third of the medalists — can only dream of a career in such sports.”

As we write this edition of 3 longs & shorts sitting in a big city airport in India, we can see the children of affluent parents hanging around with their $200 headsets, their $100 trainers and their $5 beverages. These boys & girls seem more likely to migrate to America than medal for India. The challenge for India is to put a system in place for the kids in rural areas who have the hunger and the financial need to gun for glory on the global podium: “Indeed, the government — at the centre and in the states — has finally woken up to the benefits of prioritising sports. This is evident from the increasing investment — the central government’s sports budget of Rs 3,397 crore this financial year is nearly double what it was 10 years ago — and ambitious projects announced, including the debatable bid for the Olympics. At the state level, new infrastructure is being built from scratch and sports policies are being revised.

The results, in theory, should only get better going forward. The earlier generations, despite their talent, never benefited from endless resources and customised training at an elite level, as athletes today do.”

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