Sports is a pristine aspect of nationalism, one that asserts and establishes an identity peacefully and passionately
Given the ignored potential and perpetuated lack of opportunities and recognition, the multitude of the young Indian generation that is now ripe to return to contribute to the economy grew up largely in an environment where it was customarily stressed to 'study first and play later'. This common household phenomenon reflected a larger situation in a miniscule way. What would play lead to? Pretty much nothing! But there is one game that has changed the face of Indian sports and taken it to an exclusive and isolated pedestal: Cricket. Another colonial relic, perhaps. India, particularly these days, has a penchant for the past; and any semblance of a legacy becomes a pillar of pride.
A cherished British left-over game shaped and streamlined the culture and spirit of sports in its erstwhile colony. The popularity of cricket in India is a result of some factors playing out in tandem, but above it all, it was the patronage it received that has propelled cricket to where it is today. The reason for the rise of cricket was also why the popularity of other sports dwindled. The most dominant pre-Independence game (to the extent that it is erroneously assumed to be India's national sport) to have earned several accolades before cricket even made a mark is a near-forgotten entity. Lack of basic facility upgrade for Hockey like playing on AstroTurf to keep up with international standard hampered the game and performance to the extent of its decline.
Patronage to indigenous games in India does not make much business sense either. Investments deserve to go into where returns would come from. Kho-kho and kabaddi are not the games to be played in grand stadia, not to be competed sensationally with international contenders. Several tribes in India happen to have a sport they communally identify with but find no aegis. Tribal communities have contributed abundantly to Indian sports but like most aspects pertaining to this section of India's populace, they find little support and recognition. From what used to be their method of survival, livelihood, and thriving in the bygone times, settling down and switching to farming activities have also distanced them from their traditional activities.
Dying clan identities like archery among the Baria community of Gujrat found spotlight in a rare instance when a fourteen-year-old Premila won a national level championship in Archery in 2014. There has been no looking back for her ever since; she went on to compete in various tournaments and won accolades for India internationally. Predictably, very few (or perhaps none) would know of such a feat. Likewise, the tiny Bilaspur village of Siwatarai in Chhattisgarh has emerged as a hub of archers in the last decade and has given more than 50 national players who have bagged 122 medals in different state and national level tournaments. If not discovered in a buried news report, they remain anonymous.
Reflection of a people's ethos did not escape the arena of sports when Japan's elimination from the World Cup 2018 was marked by tremendous dignity as the crestfallen Japanese fans cleared up the stands before leaving as they did in all the four matches Japan played, even the one it lost against Poland. The Japanese contingent cleaned up their changing room to perfection and left a note saying 'Thank you' in Russian before making their exit. As much as the games were played professionally, the profound personal impact the Japanese left in this grand event is telling of not just a good game of football but also of the representation of a nation in its very essence.
In the same event, the Croatian President set a precedent of leadership when she travelled economy class at her own expense to attended all Croatia matches except one due to work commitment. The crucial takeaway with regard to statecraft from this sporting event is the matter about managing and integrating people from outside. Croatian Captain Luca Mordic was a Serbian refugee at age 6. Nineteen of France's twenty-three players are either migrants or children of migrants; and despite France's reservations against the many traditional ways of the migrants, it is them who brought France their moment of globally applauded national pride.
Haryana is a state that has produced numerous athletes for India. The government's Sports and Youth Affairs Department released a circular recently for athletes employed in any department of the State government or any other government bodies participating in professional sports or endorsements that they will be accorded extraordinary leave without pay. The diktat also mandates that sportspersons deposit one-third of their income from professional sports and endorsements to Haryana Sports Council for "development of sports" in the state. This is sufficient deterrence to pursuing sports on a professional level despite having the security of a government job. The fact that a government could come up with such a proposition betrays their understanding and respect for sports culture. Geeta Phogat opined that such a rule was better suited to a sport like Cricket (which is formidably privatised). But for reasons known all too well, Cricket in India is a pursuit beyond sports.
An eighteen-year-old's sprint to fame in 51.46 seconds in Finland on July 12 was a poignant long moment of pride for most Indians who witnessed India's glory that she made possible. Hima Das is the first Indian to win Gold on an international track. But what shifted the discourse from her athletic accomplishment was her confident conversation in a foreign language that many Indians are proud (and even arrogant) to claim to know. An interesting reference may be made to the French for whom English is just another alien language because they have a very rich one of their own. India is a country that is incapable of respecting its endowments. Sportspersons are disregarded endowments too. The Indian Football Captain had to beseech his compatriots to watch the matches and help Football have a place in India once again.
In August 2017, a national-level wrestler, 25-year-old Vishal Kumar Verma was electrocuted in Ranchi from a short circuit at the inundated and dilapidated stadium building which houses the office of the Jharkhand State Wrestling Association. An unfortunate incident and a grim picture of the working condition of our athletes. Consistent institutional support is instrumental to fully tap the immense potential India has in the area of sports. Sports is a pristine aspect of nationalism, one that asserts and establishes a nation beyond its borders, peacefully and passionately. There is no reason to not take sports seriously.
(The author is Senior Copy Editor with Millennium Post. The views expressed are strictly personal)