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Can India be the next sporting powerhouse of the world?

‘Did anyone expect a team without Kohli and all the ‘A-List’ players to win a test match?’

Yet we did! The historic win that just came through for us in the recently concluded test match is pre-cursor to the fact that how a sport (i.e. cricket) if run through a well-knit ecosystem (schools, colleges, leagues, domestic series, Ranji etc.) will never fail to keep discovering and developing great talent.

We all feel very elated when the Indian cricket team does well overseas or defeats their arch rivals on home soil. Fun and frolic all around. Today, if you talk to any person in this country and talk ‘sports’ – there is a 99.9% chance that it will be interchangeably equated with ‘cricket’.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, the answer to the question is a resounding ‘No’ until we as citizens of this great nation DO NOT change the conversation.

Are we bad at other sports? Of course Not.

In fact, if we look at the examples of folks this country has produced in sports that is beyond cricket, it is nothing short of remarkable.

Let’s start with hockey. Between 1928 to 1936 India won a gold medal in the Olympics and dominated field hockey consistently for 12 years! If you haven’t guessed it by now, this was the time when ‘The Wizard’ or our very own Dhyan Chand was the ‘gold standard’ for stick work.

Why restrict ourselves to a time when a lot of us were not even alive?

Let’s take the example of Sandeep Singh – the Indian professional field hockey player from Haryana, an ex-captain of the Indian Hockey team. Thanks to ‘Soorma’ we got to know the incredible story of ‘Flicker Singh’.

Let’s look at track and field events – a space where a country like USA or China just sweeps in and takes home medals in double to triple digits while we continue to hear stories about not even making it to the final round of heats (for the uninitiated – qualifying round(s) for the final event).

But it’s not that bad. We have had some fantastic track and field athletes produced from this country – Milkha Singh, PT Usha, Anju Bobby George are a few names that strike my head straight away before I can even think of an Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell or a Justin Gatlin.

Growing up, thanks to my dad, who was enthusiastic about all kinds of sports I did watch live broadcasting of not just the 2003 world cup matches where you saw the legendary batting order Sehwag, Sachin, Ganguly, Dravid & Yuvraj come out to bat and play those incredible shots against a deadly bowling attack on the other end, but also hockey, tennis, table tennis, commonwealth games to even the Under-19 games!

As a young child in his early adolescence, it always irritated me when I didn’t see an Indian complete a podium finish or the national anthem not being played during the medal ceremony.

This soon changed.

Early Medals – Olympics and the Commonwealth Games

Well, it soon became a matter of great pride for the country when Indian athletes started ending with podium finishes at the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. Once again, the pride was not restricted just to a few moments that would last for 3 days in 4 years but round the clock at multiple major events in the international stage.

On the other hand, Bollywood also capitalized on this trend to bring us stories that we would have probably missed had it not been adopted – Milkha Singh, Mary Kom and a host of other adoptions.

The Agony

Whether it was the story of Shiva Keshavan – the only winter Olympic luger from this country struggling to get sanctioned funds to help pay off the fees to his coach or Nissar Ahmed, the young 16-year-old running prodigy who had to eat a diet of salt and chappatis to continue training intensively because his family did not have enough income to sustain a ‘high-protein’ diet.

(Sihva Keshavan was able to raise the money through a clutch of corporate partnerships while Nissar went all the way to Jamaica to train with Usain Bolt for a running bootcamp.)

It is not surprising to read stories that have a template like this – ‘national games winner, struggled to fight all odds, won a medal, is probably not doing anything remotely close to sports – to make ends meet.’

Don’t we deserve better?

The answer is a resounding Yes. Yes, we do.

What can we do to change this?

The time-tested age-old method of truly excelling at something is to continuously keep doing it since a very very young age. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers has called it as the famous ’10,000 hours of practice’.

The only way you can do this if the sports ecosystem goes all the way down. If you go back down the memory lane all the way back to maybe when you were three or four years old, there is a 99.9% chance that you played with a cricket bat and a ball.

Is that a bad thing? Of Course Not.

As a country we need to think beyond Cricket. We have dominated a sport and are at the pinnacle of creating superstars every day! What next?

How can we do the same thing with other sports and create a thriving ecosystem?

Football seems to be doing something similar to what Cricket has achieved in this country. The ISL is not as popular as the IPL but yet, it feels like a step in the right direction – make the sport popular through a league, it percolates down to scouting for talent and create a funnel ground-up.

In the past we’ve seen this being done with Hockey, Tennis and even Kabaddi.

Secondly, if you look at a regular sport that is played in the Olympics or the Commonwealth games – track and field, badminton etc. – while the podium finishers or the top 10 players are often taken care of well, thanks to sponsorships or state support, what happens to the remaining bunch of folks who tried competing for the podium finish?

Some of them may come back to compete again and stay put with their training but 99% of them would then look at doing odd jobs which has got nothing to do with sports.

How do you ensure that these folks end up maybe as great coaches or fitness trainers at schools, colleges, private clubs and ensure that the country is ready for it’s next batch of podium finishers?

We all have a great example right in front of us – Cricket.

If we can do it with one sport in this country and make it almost a religion, what is stopping us to do the same with other sports? Do let us know in the comments section.

We at the Simply Sport foundation do believe, the question is not about how but it is about when. By working with policy makers and sports enthusiasts, we feel we can have a better conversation around this space and truly create a grass roots movement that can create a long term impact for serious sports development in this country.

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