India won its first gold medal in twenty years and its first individual gold..ever. Frontpage stuff, if ever there was. “Congratulate Abhinav” links spring up on every website to be dutifully filled in with comments that go”…you have made the country proud…”. Courtesy the full spotlight coverage, we know that he’s now back in India and has meetings scheduled with some well-known sports afficionados; for instance, the president..whazzername. From the slew of coverage that followed, there were 2 common themes; 1. He’s rich. His training costs in the tens of millions were sponsored by a doting father and 2. The reason the third most populous country in the world routinely misses most sporting top 10 lists is the lack of infrastructure and financial support from the government. If the columns are to be believed, there are scores of atheletes in the nethers of this country, straining at the leash to burst forth and deliver Olympian podium performances if only given the right kind of support. Await calls on increasing funding for sports, coupled with complaints on how cricket has cannibalised every other sport in the country. No, this post is not in defense of cricket.
Firstly, how loud would the voices demanding the commissioning of world-class facilities be if they had to fund them? Going by data on Abhinav, it would cost anything between 5 and 10 Crores Rupees to win an Olymic gold. And this is after having identified those select few with a natural ability far above average. So how much are we willing to foot to garner another dozen medals? After all, you can’t put a price on national pride. You think a dozen golds will do just fine, I think it has to be atleast more than that bully of a neighbour. Maybe we can settle that with parliamentary debate? But doesn’t just plain natural ability count for something? Sure it does, its safe to say that the likes of Sergei Bubka and Mark Spitz would be leading sportsmen in their fields irrespective of where they were born, but its anyones guess whether they would be the legends they are if denied world-class training facilities. This might seem contradictory to what I started off saying that setting out to win Olympic golds cannot be a state endeavour. The point is, achieving sporting supremacy is a naturally evolving phenomenon, combining supremely talented individuals with the requisite training facilities to enable them. An economist Daniel Johnson has succesfully predicted medals tallies over the last four Olympics based on economic factors. We might therefore find our medals tallies growing exponentially once larger percentages of the population have access to potable water.
Secondly, what are the rest of us so happy about anyway? This is not a cynical, rain-on-our-parade kind of question. I’d ask this of any American exulting in the glow of the bushel of Michael Phelps’ golds waving a red-white-blue. Winning an Olympic gold is the ultimate sporting achievement. Beating every other proponent of your sport, single-mindedly training for a significant portion of your life, only visualizing those final few moments knowing you will need to muster every ounce of skill you were born with while maintaining monk-like control on your emotions is stuff that the rest of us will never be able to imagine. For us, a lifetime’s training and preparation ending disastrously on account of mistiming by a fraction of a second forms a ‘sports bloopers’ video on youtube. The discs of gold (or silver or bronze) are not symbols of one nations’ superiority over all the others, they signify much more, of one individual’s superiority over the law of averages, over the limits of human endurance and performance. They should indeed be applauded, celebrated…not by only those whose passports bear the same crest…but with unadulterated awe and appreciation by every individual.