India: Decades of Olympic mediocrity

Aug. 06, 2008, 6:43 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING(AP) It has more than a billion people, a population wild about sports and an athletic tradition that stretches back for centuries. So how is India, a nation always comparing itself to China, looking toward the Beijing Olympics?

``With a great deal of dismay, I have to say,'' said Sukhwant Basra, a prominent sports writer who covers India's Olympic tennis team - a group best known at home for the sniping between its male doubles partners.

When it comes to the Olympics, India has long been a laggard. The last time around, in Athens, it earned just one medal - a silver in shooting - and it has been nearly three decades since India took home a gold. In men's field hockey, the one sport where it used to dominate, it didn't even make the Olympics this year.

The list of countries that have outdistanced India ranges into the ridiculous. In Athens, everyone from Finland to Cameroon left India behind. Over the years, India has won a grand total of four individual medals.

Even the leader of India's Olympic association sometimes has trouble rousing himself ahead of Beijing.

India should not ``expect too many medals in China,'' Suresh Kalmadi told reporters recently in New Delhi.

India's economy is booming and the business of sports is expanding steadily, key factors that should help lift it out of its Olympic doldrums. Although there are signs things could be changing, most of its hopes are bogged down in bickering, underfunding and a national obsession with a non-Olympic sport: Cricket.

Cricket is something no Indian Olympian can escape, a sport that is nearly everything there and is played by nearly every boy. Indian cricket stars become famous almost beyond imagination - they are worshipped as minor gods in some places - and their faces become ubiquitous in advertising. If India wins a major cricket tournament, the victory is celebrated across the nation by millions of people shooting off backyard fireworks. Television rights are sold for many millions of dollars, and players become immensely wealthy.

No other sport comes even close, leaving top athletes in everything from weightlifting to track grumbling about a lack of funding, empty grandstands and training camps that might not even have air conditioning.

Only for the Olympics are these athletes ``plucked out of practice grounds, dusted and instructed to win medals for the country. When we fail, we are asked to explain reasons and all sorts of things are written about us,'' Manavjit Singh Sandhu, a top Indian marksman and one of the country's few medal hopefuls, told reporters.

Instead, he said, the money and attention go to what he delicately called the ``obvious sport.''

When it comes to the Olympics, Indian headlines over the past few months have been dominated by such things as the lawsuit on selecting competitors for the women's judo team and squabbling over why the men's hockey team didn't make it to Beijing (``a huge national disaster'' a former team captain said). On Tuesday, the news was that woman weightlifter Monika Devi had failed a drug test just before boarding a flight to Beijing.

India's press normally revels in comparisons to China - debating how quickly India can catch up to China's galloping economy, for instance, and repeatedly noting that India, unlike China, is a democracy. But it doesn't even bother when it comes to the Olympics, because the numbers are just too glaring. Although India took one medal in Athens, China took 63 - and 32 of those were gold.

Just why India has lagged for so long is a topic of bitter debate there. Some see the roots in centuries of poverty that, until recently, gave it little time to focus on athletics. Some see it in a caste system that put the highly educated at the top of the country's deeply complex social ladder - though ancient texts say India also has long celebrated sports competitions. Some argue Indians just don't have enough aggressiveness for sports, an argument that Basra, the sports writer, calls ``a silly assertion.''

The most likely explanation seems to be that India has paid little attention to sports other than cricket, and given those sports almost no funding.

Cricket needs little infrastructure - a ball, a bat, a few sticks and an empty field are enough for a pickup game - and in a nation of more than a billion cricket-mad people some stars are certain to rise above the fray. Modern Olympic training, on the other hand, often requires finding promising athletes when they are still adolescents, and helping them mature as competitors in a system of teams, sports clinics and well-funded foundations. It requires young people who have heroes to look up to, and parents who will encourage them.

Over the past decade, though, there have been signs that the situation could be improving. Lakshmi Mittal, the Indian steel billionaire, has put millions of dollars into paying for everything from coaching to surgery for promising athletes.

Perhaps more important, the culture of sports has begun slowly sifting its way through India's growing middle class. When Sania Mirza became the first Indian woman to crack the top 40 in world rankings a few years ago, the handful of Indian tennis clinics found themselves besieged by parents and children.

So, they're hoping in India, maybe it's time for things to get a little better.

``We've never been very good at these Olympics,'' said S.K. Sharma, a young man playing street cricket on a recent New Delhi afternoon. ``But soon we will show the world what we can do.''