To a great extent, our response to crisis, to disappointments, to unfavourable turns in life, define our characters and characteristics. In the face of adversity, some get more determined, some lose courage, some suffer medically, and some behave lumpen. As for me, I over-think, try to work harder, and now in the last year, write profusely. Any surprises, that my most vehement articles sound most confused.
On a world-stage, sporting prowess at the multi-discipline Olympic Games has usually been the final indicator of a country's global pecking order. And to prove that in spite of being the flavour of Davos, India still has a long way to go, is our single-medal performances across all the Games since Atlanta in 1996 (when China is pushing the United States in medal tallies).
In per capita terms, Australia is the best sporting nation in the world. Any why not? When they lost the Ashes in 2005 after a gap of eighteen years, there was a crisis in Cricket Australia. (I visited Down Under that year, and can tell you the folks are not the best losers). Yet, their cricket-aficionado PM John Howard called the result 'good for cricket', Ricky Ponting (not such a great captain for me, but a wonderful bat, possibly the best I have ever seen) decided to make himself and his boys the best cricketers they could be, and in a nation of 200 million (about Delhi-&-NCR), cricket experienced the fastest growth in participation for any mainstream sport, to have more than half a million registered players. Any wonder, within fifteen months, they reclaimed the trophy, with the first whitewash in eighty-five years.
The typical response in India is slightly different. Why? I will let Mukul Kesavan explain with key excerpts from a brilliant article he wrote in the October 2006 issue of the Cricinfo magazine.
Indians leave sport behind on the road to grown-up-ness. As a result their devotion to cricket is a form of vicariousness. This is true to some degrees of all kinds of spectatorship, but in countries where sport is participatory, this vicariousness is moderated by a practical understanding of the game and its challenges, by the empathy created by the experience, even if that experience was gained at a much lower level of skill.
Not having played in years (or ever), the fan has no understanding of the contingencies that can turn a match, no first-hand experience of defeat. He has a happy ending in mind, and when that doesn't come to pass.......
This sense of entitlement is nursed and fed and watered by television reruns which either show matches that India won (a relatively frequent occurence in the new century only, under Sourav Ganguly), or excerpt great Indian innings from matches that India unaccountably lost. The most satisfactory cricket match ever played is not listed by Wisden because it was played in a country that ICC doesn't recognise: the colonial India confected by Aamir Khan in Lagaan.
I remember having a very similar, though much less eloquent, debate with my college room-mates. If India was a country teeming with achievers in their respective fields, it would have been fine to be entitled to a happy ending. Please do check out Amit Varma's apt rebuke at http://indiauncut.com/iublog/article/indias-loss-to-sri-lanka/.
In today's Hindustan Times, Kadambari Murali says that top cricketers (who are the best paid sportspersons by a distance) earn less than their other relatively-equal glamorous counterparts, from India Inc. or Bollywood. And this when you possibly sacrifice your childhood, a normal family life, all for a possible working career where being active ten years can be considered successful. For a comparison, nature-&-destiny willing, I plan to professionally work for a longer time than my stay on Mother Earth so far.
Sports is said to build character, teach you about life, give you strength. The big marketers associate themselves with sports to associate with the right values, and connect with the right audience. It is unacceptable that Shining India remains acceptably competent in just one sport, where the hype is more for individual performances than team victories (ever wondered about Golf and Shooting?). Yet, I am not sure as to how many of the 300 mn. strong middle-class, who crib about the cricket team and the Olympic standings, will want their kids to play sports professionally. Maybe, it helps if the kid is good, and will get admission in a decent educational institute. But no-one will remember that before Nike advertised otherwise, the spirit of Olympics was all about participating.
I was never naturally blessed, except in chess and tennis to some extent. However, in a way somewhat similar to Mr. Kesavan, am trying to eke out some sort of living of professional sports. And I would be satisfied if in my lifetime, we actually manage to re-create the American sports scenario in the country. I am somehow sure the Chinese medals will follow!