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Debjit Lahiri looks into India's claim of being a "multi-sport" nation and analyses the whether we truly stand up to the term in the actual reality...

 Debjit Lahiri
 Analysis | India
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Stretching from the mountains of Kashmir to the shores of Kanyakumari; India is a land of various cultures, beliefs, races and languages. In the midst of this very diversity, there are perhaps only a few things that can bind the country together. Sports, as they say, could very well be one of them.

Sports in India dates way back into the Vedic era and even as early as the ancient Indus Valley civilization. Archaeological findings in Mohenjodaro and Harappa at the turn of the last century revealed traces of sports such as marbles, balls, dice, swimming, hunting and even boxing being prevalent among the region's very first civilization.

Infact, the essence of ancient Indian sports could be felt from the following quote in Atharva-Veda which says - "Duty is in my right hand and the fruits of victory in my left."

The words somewhat echoes the very sentiments of the traditional Olympic oath.. "For the Honour of my Country and the Glory of Sport." ..stressing upon the duty of upholding the honour of one's nation and thriving towards victory and bringing glory to the sport.

Over the years, sports has been modernized and the country today boasts of competing in varied disciplines in various International events. So, when the The All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel claimed that 'India was never a one sport nation' at the International Football Arena (IFA) roundtable this week, he certainly had a point. Afterall, the country, as we see, has truly been a hub of a variety of sports, nurtured and practiced from the most ancient of times.

But before we jump into a conclusion, it would be wise to give it a deeper thought. Is there a scope for a counter argument? Well, a step by step look into the various major sports in India would certainly be able to reveal just that..

The mid-20th century saw modern India's stupendous rise in the game of hockey, as the country picked up a still unparalleled haul of 8 Olympic golds, last of which came in the controversial games at Moscow in 1980. The game, which some believe to have originated in India itself, was popularized by the Imperial rule after being introduced by the British regiment. Although the first hockey club was founded in Calcutta in 1885, the game was mostly played in parts of North India and Maharashtra, but a continued string of stellar performances at the International level meant that hockey managed to catch the imaginations of the country, equally at all regions.

The legendary and "invincible" team led by Dhyan Chand became a national craze

However, things were to change; and change quite drastically. With the advent of synthetic turf in hockey in the 1970s, the Indians failed to adapt with the new modifications and thus came about what can be termed today as one of the biggest declines in modern sport. To make matters worse for the hockey fraternity, their fall coincided with the rise of another sport in the nation, Cricket!

When Kapil Dev's underdogs defied all odds to lift the Cricket World Cup in 1983, the Indians had found a new source of attaining self-esteem. Incidentally, the hockey team had been drubbed 7-1 by bitter rivals Pakistan a year before, much to the embarrassment of the fans here.

But now with cricket setting new examples, the Indians had an alternative - they no longer had to rely on the falling standards of hockey; a factor that perhaps eventually shut the doors for the sport to launch an immediate comeback. There was no looking back for cricket though as the game commercialized and the flow of money became endless; where as hockey, on the other hand, was now a game of the past, no longer fantasized by the masses; out-muscled by cricket; declining in popularity; and saturating in terms of the talent outlets.


India, today, are the reigning World Champions in cricket. From small towns to big cities, the country is flooded with academies and with the expanding scope earning a more than a lavish livelihood by it, both at the International level as well as in the domestic level (with the introduction of the Indian Premier League), thousands of kids are willing to take up cricket as their profession.

Timeline Hockey Timeline Cricket
1928-1980 Olympics - 8 Golds, 2 Silver, 1 Bronze

World Cup - 3rd, Runners Up and Winners in the first 3 editions respectively.
1932-1983 Test Format - India recorded their first Test victory against England at Madras (now Chennai) in 1952 (Couple of decades after their inaugural match). Rare wins followed in the 60s till the late 70s.

ODI World Cup - Round 1 Elimination in 1975 and 1979
1980-2012 Olympics - No medals, Failed to qualify for the 2008 edition in Beijing and finished last in the recently concluded games in London.

World Cup - Haven't bettered the 5th place finish in 1994 yet; finishing as low as 11th in 2006 and 8th in 2010.
1983-2012 Test Format - The team gradually made giant steps and finally achieved the No. 1 status in 2009.

T20 Format - Winners of inaugural T20 WC in 2007 and founded the IPL, a cash rich domestic tournament with the mix of International stars, glamour and glitz!

ODI World Cup - Champions (1983 and 2011)

Champions Trophy or equivalent - Winners in 1985 and 2002.
A definitive timeline showing how hockey's decline co-incided with cricket's rise

While the "performance" criterion played a massive role in the fall of hockey and the rise of cricket in the country, delving a bit deeper into the issue, one fails to draw a similar analogy with regards to various other games.

Wrestling and Kabaddi, two of India's most ancient sports, dating back to the medieval times, have enjoyed a tremendous success at the International stage of late. While Wrestler KD Jadav was India's first individual Olympic medallist in 1952, the recent exploits of Sushil Kumar (Bronze- Beijing 2008 and Silver- London 2012) , Yogeshwar Dutt (Bronze - London 2012) and a host of other wrestlers have brought further glory to the nation. In Kabaddi, India is THE main force in the world, and are the consistent front-runners in both the Asian and the World Championships.

However, despite the performances, the "desi" nature of the games and the lesser money involved, have meant that they have failed to attract the sophisticated urban India and the games remain confined to the parts of rural masses. Sudden uproars during major tournaments these days have only managed to provide a temporary carpet over the long years of neglect towards the games.

"In one of the most bizarre incidents in 2011, the Indian National Womens' Kabaddi team, who were then freshly crowned the champions of the World, had to take up auto-rickshaws to return to their homes; as neither the government nor the federation bothered to arrange proper transportation for the homecoming world beaters."

Success but no popularity; the story of wrestling and kabaddi in India

Shooting is yet another sport where India has excelled in recent times, having bagged 4 medals in the last 3 edition of the Olympics. But given the expense involved with the sport, it is either pursued by the rich upper-class Indians or the ones involved in the National Defence. Some-what similar is the case with Lawn Tennis and Golf, which again are considered as "elite" sports.

Now, this is were the administration should come in, and take advantage of both the existing success and glamour associated with these sports, by making them accessible to the common masses; and thus reaping the benefits out of it.

In this regard, Boxing is perhaps a game that probably suits the Indian culture and economy pretty well, but the game is still on a rise, both in terms of popularity and performances, and is on verge of commercialising just like cricket; without yet making the giant leap. Of Course, the tireless efforts of the Vijenders and the Mary Koms have helped in this respect. However, Boxing is confined to the parts of North and North-east India, and is nowhere near a complete pan-Indian sport - something that must be looked upon.

There has been encouraging signs in Basketball as well, as the game today is played in virtually every school. Collaboration with the NBA few years back have meant that India is taking tiny steps forward into the game. However, no major International break-throughs are yet to be achieved, thus they are yet make THE impact required.

On the contrary, the country has been producing world class players in Badminton for a while now; despite top level infrastructure being limited to only the Padukone and Gopichand academies. The very reason why we are yet to outmuscle our Asian heavyweights in the form of China and Malayasia. Plus, the relative lack of glamour and money in the sport has seen it failing to reach the potential heights. Saina Nehwal's bronze medal in 2012 London Olympics is perceived as a possible catalyst for things to come; but we perceived the same when Pullela Gopichand won the All England Badminton Championships and Prakash Padukone was making consistent inroads in the world of badminton, didn't we?

Saina Nehwal brought success to badminton; but haven't we been here before?

In fact, this very lack of glamour has also affected another game that has been our traditional stronghold - Chess. India, despite being among the leading forces in the world, Chess has failed to find the limelight among their own masses! A decent number of kids do tend to start off in this game but comparatively the number is lot lesser when it comes to individuals, who eventually continue the process and come out as professional chess players. Where would they find the motivation when there is no recognition at all? The followership for the game, as quite understandable, has too been not up to the mark.

Moving on, while many have come close at the grandest of stage, the likes of PT Usha and Milkha Singh, athletics has never been India's strength. The evident lack of physical fitness (probably genetically) among us is perhaps the root cause behind the long barren run, which has seen us only being satisfied with success at the continental level and the slightly below par Commonwealth Games; rather than at the World stage. Infrastructure wise too India are a fair distance away from the world beaters. Understandably, so has been the popularity and the craze for the sport.

Did You Know? - "Norman Pritchard, a British origin athlete, who is considered by the IOC to have represented India in the 1900 Olympic games, is officially the bearer of India's only two medals in athletics; quite ridiculously that is, given all other International committees credits them to Great Britain. Having said that, if we are to overlook Norman's achievements as an "Indian athlete", our first ever representation in Olympics also comes via the track and field events  - PD Chaugule in the 10,000 metres & the marathon in the 1920 games."

In the Manas Olhas (1135 AD), Someshwar has depicted the game of Bharashram, the ancient form of Weight-lifting, which is now an Olympic sport. The early roots were finally brought to the limelight when Karnam Malleswari bagged India's only medal in Sydney 2000 in weight-lifting, But a series of controversial doping scandals since then have meant that the game is at a complete disarray in the country.

Today, Football is perhaps the only sport that is fast catching up with cricket in terms of popularity. Not the indigenous brand though, but the fancy European one. Yes, the modern age of televising has seen a changing trend in the urban culture, as a large community of the new generation have pledged their loyalties to various foreign teams. But the interest, as a whole, for the game has increased, and now that we already have an existing base of followers, we must take this opportunity to divert some of them for the welfare of our own brand of football, which is relatively easier than creating a fan base for the game from the scratch. So, basically the influence of foreign football, has been sort of a 'necessary evil'.

A recent survey by a reputed media house revealed that over the year of 2010, while there were 170 million cricket watchers in the country, they were closely rivalled by a new emerging group of football followers, who numbered upto 155 million!

Further Neo Prime, the broadcasters of Euro 2012, was viewed by as many as 19 million fans during the 3 week extravaganza; comprising of mainly affluent urban male customers.

The National team, although having never recreated the magic of the Golden age of 1950s and 60s, when India was a continental heavyweight, are fast attracting a lot of eyeballs across the country.

However for it's limitations, the game is being professionally played only in chunks of the country, mainly in Goa, Kerala, West Bengal, Maharashtra and the North-east. Something that needs to be equally spread, if we are to harness any desire to evolve as a footballing nation.


So finally to put things into perspective, if games are to be rated under  three basic criteria - 1) Popularity throughout the country 2) Infrastructure and 3) Performance; none of the major sport in the country fulfills all the aspects, perhaps only barring cricket!

What it does is it only boils down to one simple fact - India is a 'multisport' nation, just for the sake of it and not in the actual reality. Cricket, undoubtedly remains our sole dominating sport, as of today. And harsh as it may seem, we are being simply illusioned and all the other sports we boast of are merely playing catch up.

Now, don't get us wrong! The unparalleled rise in cricket is certainly encouraging and must not be undermined at any cost. Pulling down a game, for others to rise, is certainly not the correct way to look at things. We must understand that cricket is not the devil today, neither was hockey in the yesteryears. Remember, both games itself started out from the scratch in their initial years; what we need is other sports to follow the example set by them and travel along the path of a similar success story. Co-existing is the key.

A collective effort is the call for the hour - from the government, the federations, the media and most importantly the masses!
The government must pour in the money; the federations must manage it; the media must put it to the limelight and as for us, we need a change in mentality.

It is only a normal human behaviour to follow something in which we are achieving success; but if we are to stand out to the world as a multi-sport nation, we must ourselves prepare to make the paradigm shift; and brace ourselves to look beyond cricket NOW, and not when the sport declines or not by compromising on the game itself.

And then we have another set of followers whose patriotism evoke only during every major tournaments; concerned about the nation's mediocrity in "other sports", vociferously blaming the more successful ones for it. Well, how many of these 'concerned individuals' have actually tried following the National Games (that is, if they are still telecasting it!) or for that matter even the continental championships?

Yes! it is indeed something worth pondering..

We do not require any rocket science to decipher what is the right path to follow. In fact even here, it is again the same old, vastly repeated 'facts' that we are stressing upon. As the old saying goes, strike and strike and strike; until one finally gets the breakthrough; and in this case until India is finally awakened.

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