20 Aug 2016 18:24 IST

The Olympic dream

New Zealand’s Nikki Hambling and the US’s Abbey D’Agostino helping each other after they took a fall in the 5000m | Reuters   -  REUTERS

What it really means to play a sport and be one too

John Kennedy famously said: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

That’s exactly what Indian sportspersons have shown at the Rio Olympics: they have gone out there, leaving behind their baggage of woes accumulated over the years, and performed to the best of their ability. With whatever facilities they had or could muster or were, on occasion, provided with.

Most of all, they put their faith in themselves and those close to them, who worked hard so they would qualify to participate with the best on the most exciting and glamorous platform of the sporting world.

Grip of expectations

The exploits of athletes such as Vikas Krishan, Aditi Ashok, Lalita Babar, Abhinav Bindra, Dipa Karmakar, Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu in 2016, and others who went before them, send out many messages. Right up there is the accomplishment itself, whether they medalled or not, for which credit goes entirely to the individuals, their talent, their hard work, and the unstinting support of their coaching teams and/or sporting academies/organisations, not to forget their families.

But success on the field comes from the individual or team, and performance on the day, despite all the training — or lack of it — and oodles of talent. So, every time we bay for blood as medal hopes come crashing, we pin our sportpersons further in the iron grip of the burden of expectation.

It’s our desperation to win, much more than the sportsperson’s ultimate dream, that wears everybody down. We fail to look around us, at each other, at ourselves. What are we doing for sport? As children, as parents, as educationists, as civil society, as industry and business leaders, as politicians and bureaucrats, as citizens of a democracy?

Yes, we can blame the government for many things. Seventy years on, independent India still does not provide half-decent playgrounds for children and adults, forget sports facilities properly equipped and efficiently run. It does not even guarantee two full meals to every child and adult, nor healthcare, nor a home, nor education, nor the hope of getting a decent job at the appropriate time. Is it realistic, then, to think the government will, at any time, be able to provide infrastructure that will enable Indian athletes to win medals galore in the future?

Let’s be clear: that is never going to happen. Nor is it fair to harbour such hopes.

Rudimentary demands

What’s fair is to demand the bare minimum: The Government must ensure that every village, town, city has ample playgrounds free from the clutches of real estate sharks and which are open to everybody. It must promise (and act upon that promise) not to appoint corrupt officials to sporting bodies; and any wrongdoing on the part of officials should see them removed from the position immediately.

The next time a sporting delegation is sent off, it must see that it is accompanied by the tiniest number of officials who are all persons of the highest integrity. We don’t need a radiologist passing off as team doctor because he happens to be the son of an important IOC official, whose only answer to an athlete’s complaint of fatigue is a dose of Combiflam, and who would rather spend his time watching the swimming or downing several into the wee hours. We are sick of such incidents and we will not stomach them anymore.

The third thing the Government must do is ensure that sportspersons who have represented the country are enabled to live a decent, dignified life after their playing days are done, and are not drowned in penury or forced to sell their trophies. There have been far too many instances of such neglect. The Government cannot disrespect its sports personalities, and that includes trainers and coaches too — but not petty officials.

This is not a considered or exhaustive charter of demands, but this is the very least the Government must do. What we, as members of civil society, would do well to remember is what the Olympics is really about and why, while winning medals is fantastic, it’s not the whole story.

The Olympic spirit

Abhinav Bindra, known as much for winning India’s only gold medal as for his fearless and considered opinions on India’s sports administration, articulates it brilliantly. In letters prefacing two books for children, India’s Olympic Story and India at the Olympic Games, put out by his foundation, he says: “Even though I won a gold medal for India at Beijing – and I am happy for it – I truly believe that the Olympic Games, and sport in general, are not just about medals and glory. It is about the person you become and the sporting values you bring into your daily life.”

The Ancient Games, as invented and practised by the Greeks, was all about physical prowess. The Modern Games, as envisaged by Pierre de Coubertin, were inspired by an ‘ah’ moment about the importance of physical education in developing body, mind and spirit.

By the middle of the 20 th century, as severely wounded soldiers battled physical, psychological and emotional consequences of the Second World War at a hospital in Aylesbury, England, a Dr Ludwig Guttmann hit upon the idea of sport to help heal their scars and the Paralympic Games were begun.

Although the Olympic Games have a competitive motto — Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger) — and the Paralympic Games go with “Spirit in motion”, there is a philosophy underlying them based on the values of respect, excellence, friendship, courage, determination, inspiration, and equality.

This philosophy is all to do with sport and the sporting spirit. Alongside the excessive pumping of arms and aggressive celebration of victory that recall more a scene of battle than a sporting event, there are also images such as New Zealand’s Nikki Hambling and the US’s Abbey D’Agostino helping each other after they took a fall in the 5000m, or China’s Yanan Sun carrying Indian wrestler Vinesh Phogat’s bag after the latter was injured in the course of their quarterfinal bout. The latter instances are what Olympism signify and the Olympic Games celebrate. That’s what we must remember.

Does this mean you can be an Olympian without ever participating in the Olympic Games, or even playing a sport?