Why India is a bit player in the world of sport

Deep-seated cultural attitudes may be to blame for the Commonwealth Games fiasco
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The Independent Online

Does India always have a problem making a strong entrance on the world stage? That was certainly the view of E M Forster's fictional English hero Fielding in A Passage to India who ranked the country alongside Belgium as cutting a sorry figure.

As India booms, that may sound like an outdated concept. Yet the hash the Indians are making of the Commonwealth Games suggests that even Belgium would object to being compared with them. Belgium successfully staged the 2000 European football championship, albeit in partnership with Holland, and the same duo is hoping to host the 2018 World Cup.

In contrast, the Delhi Commonwealth Games have seen the deaths of numerous construction workers, a massive uprooting of the capital's poor and, following allegations of corruption, the Indian Prime Minister stepping in to appoint officials to supervise the project.

And, despite spending a staggering $6bn (£3.8bn), as delegates arrived in Delhi this week they condemned the athletes' village as filthy, unhygienic and unfit for human habitation. Dave Currie, the head of the New Zealand Games team, even suggested that this could lead to the Games being cancelled altogether. And, to add to the mayhem, a footbridge gave way near the main Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

The problems the Games have revealed are more than the usual Indian contradictions. This ancient culture which is supposed to be measured and slow is actually one where everyone wants to go fast. One of the favourite Indian expressions is "Juldi, juldi" ("hurry, hurry"). The only problem is the stifling bureaucracy and the agonisingly inefficient infrastructure. The result is that cries of "Juldi, juldi" rise like a cloud of vapour while the actual pace of the journey matches the legendary Indian bullock cart.

And, while India still has a Soviet-style Planning Commission which produces five year plans, the country has an instinctive aversion to the sort of long-term planning which major sports events require. The Indian ability to improvise cannot be doubted. Last year, when security concerns meant that the Indian Premier League could not be staged in India, within weeks it had been moved to South Africa in the sort of operation that would be unthinkable in any other country.

The organisers of the Commonwealth Games, aware of this, took the unprecedented decision of moving their chief executive Mike Hooper from his comfortable office in central London to Delhi. The hope was that the feisty New Zealander would bring a much needed dose of Anglo-Saxon realism to the Indian belief that it will be all right on the night, summed up in the phrase "Chalta hai" ("It will do").

But not even Hooper could have solved the deep-seated problems revealed by the Commonwealth Games. These raise serious doubts as to whether, for all the money being spent on the tournament and all the talk of national pride, Indians actually care about sport.

Cricket apart, India is one of the great underachievers of modern sport. Until 2008, India's Olympic golds had all come in hockey. In Beijing, the country did win its first individual gold in shooting, but it has never done anything of note in the high-profile events of swimming, track and field. Its contingent for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver was so shambolic that the city's large Indian origin population started organising donations for the team. The odd individual Indian has sometimes made sporting headlines but, given the country's immense size and its long exposure to western sports, its failure to make a mark on the world sporting stage is astonishing.

One explanation has been provided by Ashwini Kumar, a former vice president of the International Olympic Committee."India has no base for sports despite its enormous population. Sport in our country is khel-khood (just a bit of fun)," he said.

"It goes against the grain of our country, against our tradition to play sports the way they do in the West. If a child in our country returns from the playground, he is not asked by his parents how he fared, but slapped for missing his studies and wasting his time. Sport is against our Indian ethos, our cultural tradition."

It has been estimated that less than 2 per cent of schools have playgrounds and even these are not the sort of playing fields common in the West, but just a little piece of open land where the children can run about.

Matters are not helped by the fact that education is not controlled centrally but by the various state governments. This leads to a profusion of policies, with sport often falling between the two stools of the centre and the state.

Unlike other countries, Indian politicians have historically shown little interest in sport. The Commonwealth Games are due to start in Delhi the day after India celebrates the birth of Mahatma Gandhi.

Yet the man venerated as the father of the Indian nation never concealed his aversion to sport – a fact that he frankly confessed in his autobiography. Indeed, in 1932, when Indian hockey ruled the world and Gandhi was asked for help in funding the team's participation in the Los Angeles Games, the "great-souled one" famously enquired: "What is hockey?"

The contrast with China and Mao could not be starker. The first paper Mao wrote back in 1917 was about the importance of sport.

In language that the Victorians, who popularised sport in this country, would have understood well, he said: "It is absolutely right to say that one must build a strong body if he or she wants to cultivate inner strength." For Mao, sport was also part of state policy, as he demonstrated in the 1970s by using "ping pong" diplomacy to seek a rapprochement with Richard Nixon and the United States.

The great Indian savant Swami Vivekananda did once advise his countrymen that they would find God more easily if they played football rather than spent hours studying the Gita – the Hindu bible – but his was a voice in the wilderness. Jawaharlal Nehru did his bit for sport and cricket in particular, not least by keeping India in the Commonwealth – a decision which went against the policy of the ruling Congress Party. But, unlike China, sport in India was never part of any centrally-driven policy.

This sports vacuum has been ideal for bureaucrats and low-level politicians, who have found sport a useful base upon which to build public support. Their path has been helped by the fact that, cricket apart, former Indian sportsmen and women have little or no involvement in running sports organisations, and most sports, particularly those contested at the Olympics, do not attract much commercial support.

For years Indian football was run by a Calcutta-based politician, while Suresh Kalmadi, a former pilot in the Indian Air Force and a Congress politician who is organising the Commonwealth Games, used Indian athletics and then the Indian Olympic Association to build his powerful base.

Even in cricket, which has always had upper- and middle-class support – having been sponsored by the Indian princes and then by Indian business – politicians are playing an increasingly important role.

Where once former cricketers were involved in running the sport, now it is powerful politicians like the current leader of Indian cricket and world cricket, the Indian cabinet minister Sharad Power. While his political clout cannot be doubted, there is nothing in his background which suggests much of an involvement with the game.

The most galling thing for the Indians is the contrast this provides with China, which used the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a giant coming-out party, proving that it could beat the West at its own sports. The tragedy for India is that, whatever happens in Delhi over the next few weeks, the world will conclude that this is another area where India cannot match its Asian rival.

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