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India Struggles with its Olympic Performance - 2004-08-31


After lifting a solitary silver medal at the Olympics in Athens, India is agonizing over a question raised many times before, why does a nation of more than a billion people not perform better in sports?

A leading newspaper termed India's performance at Athens a "Greek tragedy", another called it a "flop show", yet another described the country's emotions through the Olympics as "Denial, anger, pain and finally acceptance."

When its 75-member contingent left for Athens, there was optimism that India would win more than the single medal that it brought home from the 2000 Olympics.

But the country's hockey team, tennis players, the athletes, the women weightlifters - all crashed out.

There was only one medal, the country's first Olympic silver for shooting, bagged by an army officer.

Many Indians, such as consultant Umesh Sood, bemoan the country's 65th ranking at the Games.

"It's depressing, it's embarrassing, but I cannot say that it is entirely unexpected," he said.

In Olympic history, India, one of the world's most populous nations, has captured a meager four individual medals. The country's only gold medals were won decades ago by its field hockey team. But even in that sport, it now lags behind, and finished seventh in a group of 12 competitors at Athens.

For a country proud of producing some of the world's best engineers and scientists, its under-achievement in sports is beginning to rankle.

Sports writer V. Sri Vatsa calls it the neglected field.

"We have to accept a basic fact, in the country's priority list sport does not come high at all, leave alone very high," he notes.

There has been endless debate to unravel the reasons for India's failure in sports. Some say the government mismanages sports, others say a developing nation cannot afford to spend on sports infrastructure, still others blame corporate sponsors for being indifferent to any sport but cricket.

But the arguments are quickly turned on their heads - after all, much poorer countries like Kenya shine in events such as running.

So another question crops up - are Indians simply uninterested in sports barring cricket?

Teachers say that may be true. Schools only pay lip service to sports - they would rather build computer labs than playing fields. The unwavering focus is on academics and high scores that will get students into elite universities.

Parents have no quarrel with that strategy. In towns and cities, they want to see their children become technocrats, engineers and doctors - not sports professionals.

Mala Kapoor, a sociology professor, says neither schools nor parents encourage the sports ambitions of children.

"There is no emphasis at all on physical activity, even at home you find in many families the emphasis on games, on playing, is not there in a healthy way," say Ms. Kapoor.

Mr. Sri Vatsa, the sports writer, says that when sports administrators once turned to the country's villages to find talented youngsters, they made little headway.

"Their parents came to the site and started shouting at officials, 'You think we produce children to play sports? Who will work on our farms?'" he asks.

So is it all gloom and doom? Not really, say the optimists. They point out that India won its first individual medal in 1952, then waited 44 years to win another in 1996. Since then it has won one medal at each Olympiad. They say that indicates India may be waking up to the fact that Olympics is not just about competing, but winning as well. As Indians look with admiration at the winning performances of other Asian countries, many are beginning to think India's athletes should be bringing home the gold.

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