I was flipping through the TV channels and stopped when I saw two rowers racing neck and neck with another team in a fight to the finish. It turned out one of the teams was from India and I sat down right there, calling out to my mom and brother. As we watched in delight, Sandeep Kumar and Manjeet Singh first overtook, then surged away from their Egyptian competitors, ultimately finishing more than four seconds ahead.
Was it a gold or silver, my brother wanted to know. Aware of the notoriously difficult conditions our rowers conduct training in, I asked him to hold on. It could be a qualifier to enter the next round.
It was a qualifier all right, but a qualifier to decide who would finish last.
Our rowers finished 19th in the Men’s Lightweight Double Sculls in a field of 20 teams, handing the ignominy of last place instead to their Egyptian rivals.
It was crushingly disappointing to realise what we had been cheering them on for. However, it has to be said that rowing is among the fringe sports in India, where sports itself is on the fringes.
The Indian way of life is geared towards stability. We don’t like risks. Safety is as much a staple as salt in Indian households. We have a paranormal fear of losing. It’s as if every Indian has the words of Howard Hughes’ mother ringing in his ears: “You are not safe! You are not safe!”.
To realise what needs changing in the Indian mentality, lets fly west across the Arabian, Red and Mediterranean Seas and on to England. The legendary late English football manager, Brian Clough, had been operated upon for liver transplant and was recovering in the hospital. His doctor, a brilliant surgeon named Derek Manan, visited Clough to check up on his progress.
Clough was a livewire who could be relied upon to produce ingenious one-liners in almost any circumstance. “Hospitals are wonderful places when you need them,” he recalled later. “But you need to break the ice from time to time”.
Clough asked Manan what his hobby was. It turned out to be golf.
“Any good?” asked Clough.
“Not bad, I am off fifteen”.
“What’s your weakness?”
“My short game, chipping to the green”.
“Well,” Clough said, “I’ll tell you what you’re doing for a start”.
“You don’t know what I do. You’ve never seen me play golf,” the doctor said.
“Maybe not but I bet you’re never up. I bet you nearly always leave the ball short of the hole”.
Seeing the doctor smile, Clough asked if he could offer any advice. Sure, he said. “Never up, never in — that applies to a lot of things in life”.
The trouble with a majority of Indian households is a fear of what would happen to their child if he/she fails to make the cut as a sportsperson after compromising study.
A dominant number of Indian sportspersons take up sport as a career either because (i) they have no other choice or (ii) they can afford to fail and have an upper-middle-class (or better) family life to fall back on.
A majority of school and college-level athletes hail from rural backgrounds, managing to get an education by virtue of their exploits on the field. In my years as a sports correspondent and a student office-bearer in college, I’ve come across only a handful of athletes from the middle-class.
And no revolution can meaningfully start unless the middle-class takes it up. All roads in a consumer-oriented globalised world are starting to make inroads into middle-class India. Middle India is the swelling, soaring monolith whose spending power makes its cricketers figure among the world’s richest sportspersons despite the game’s span being stretched over eight to ten countries.
The argument of the middle-class is that there is no money in other sports as in cricket, and they’re right. World class athletes like Mary Kom and Gagan Narang should have at least half as much air space in advertisements as Virat Kohli and Gautam Gambhir. When success is measured by different yardsticks in different sports, it is natural parents and their wards are wary of making an unrewarding career choice.
But success, however hard it may seem, breeds success. Just look at what Michael Phelps has done for swimming. Or closer to home, what Vijender Singh and co. have done for boxing after their exploits in Beijing 2008.
While Vijender was the lone Indian among the 5-member all male contingent to make the semifinal back in 2008, this time around three Indians have an opportunity to make the last four stage, including the imperious Mary Kom. In a team much stronger than the one that left for Beijing, Vikas Krishnan too made the quarters before being controversially knocked out following a successful appeal by the U.S. against him.
Moreover, letting children do what they want, what they are good at, will mean a much greater success rate of talent conversion and frankly, happier lives. Would a state-level athlete settle for a job in a bank if he has accommodating parents who encourage him or a corporate culture that is willing to back him? Children need heroes to look up to. Stability is a desirable quality in life, but there are no certainties in life, only probabilities. To dare is to live. To fear is to shrink.
“Never up, never in”.