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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

1.1 billion people, only 1 gold

And on the flip-side of things, we have the case of India. Probably the world's other emerging global superpower that can stand up to the wave of China, the Indians have a very different view of all thing Olympic as China races ahead to own the medal tally. And yes, I really love this article.

1.1 billion people, only 1 gold
India's first individual Olympic gold begs the question: How come?
By Ravi Velloor, India Bureau Chief
Source - (Date of Access 13 August 2008)

IT IS said about Alexander the Great that on his way to conquer India in 326BC, he stopped to take the blessings of a powerful Hindu sage meditating on the Khyber Pass.

The sadhu readily gave his benediction to the invader.

On his way home, the Greek king stopped to thank the mendicant and flush with victory, grandly ordered the sadhu to ask for whatever reward he desired.
The old man opened an eye briefly to look at the conquering hero.

'Just this,' he said. 'Move out of my way. You are blocking my sunshine.'

On Monday, the 25-year-old shooter who brought India its first-ever Olympic medal in an individual event, accepted his victory with the same detachment displayed by the ancient sage who encountered that early invader from Macedonia.

There was no fist-pumping, Tiger Woods style. No Michael Jordan high- fives or V signs.

Just a slightly bemused expression playing on the lips of crack shot Abhinav Bindra, almost as though he was watching someone else on the victory stand.

Not for nothing is the man from Chandigarh called The Monk.

Yet, even as Bindra's parents and national leaders erupted in joy at the unexpected gold medal that came India's way in Beijing, the larger questions loom.

India has a population of 1.1 billion people, though admittedly poor in large part.

It has a military of 1.3 million, where diet, discipline and spare time ought not to be an issue, especially since India hasn't fought a war since 1971.

Yet, while it has participated in every Olympics since at least 1900 it had never won an individual medal before. Much smaller countries have done a whole lot better.

Indeed, the country's most celebrated sportsmen are two who narrowly missed bronze medals in athletics: 'Flying Sikh' Milkha Singh for the 400m at Rome in 1960, and the woman sprinter P. T. Usha who lost by 1/100th of a second in the 400m hurdles at Los Angeles in 1984. She was mistakenly declared third before the announcement was withdrawn.

The last time India won any gold was 28 years ago and that was in a team event, hockey, always considered the national sport until it got overwhelmed by cricket.

This year, the hockey team did not even qualify, leading to much soul searching across the nation.

How to explain all this?

Infrastructure is clearly one issue. India has few quality stadiums and few notable facilities have been added since it hosted the Asian Games in 1982. Indeed, there is deep worry that New Delhi may fail to keep its deadline to host the Commonwealth Games that are scheduled to be hosted by the national capital two years from now.

Aside from cricket, its sportsmen and athletes barely get recognised.

Budgets are sparse. Bindra's parents could afford to give their lad a private shooting range in their home, but not every athlete is as lucky.

Usha, the sprint queen of the 1980s, says she wore her first running spikes as a mature teenager although her talent had been evident for years prior to her success.

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram allotted the equivalent of $390 million to sport in his annual Budget this year. Much of the money goes to waste, and is often used by officials for their own junkets. Indian participants at the Beijing Games number less than 60, a tenth of the men and women carrying the Chinese flag.

And of course, there is corruption. A senior official of the hockey federation had to quit in disgrace recently over allegations that he took money to include players in the squad.

But perhaps there are larger social and philosophical issues at play behind India's lack of will to win big.

Indian parents push their children to study hard, not work on their sport, although that is slowly changing, especially with the upper classes.

Mr Sudhir Damodaran, who pioneered the satellite television dish business in India, also attributes the absence of a searing desire to excel in sport to the Hindu mind's highly developed sense of impermanence.

'Unlike in the West, we Indians do not worship the human body,' says the 51- year-old businessman who works out three times a week. He insists that his weight - 67kg - has remained the same since he was 28.

'We see it as a mere temporary vehicle for the soul's journey towards salvation. And so we neglect it. We do not take pride in our physiques.'