While the Sochi Games roll on, a piece of Olympic news that affects one billion people came and went with little fanfare on Tuesday: The International Olympic Committee has ended its 14-month banishment of India.
India was out of the Olympics? Who knew? Heck, even if India were in the Olympics it would have gone largely unnoticed.
In fact, India did send three athletes to Sochi but they had to march in the Opening Ceremony under the Olympic flag because of the IOC ban. And you read that right, three, from a nation of over one billion people.
India has never claimed an Olympic medal in the Winter Games. In fact, India has just one individual gold medal in its entire Olympic history, when Abhinav Bindra won a shooting event at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. With only 26 medals overall, India ranks right between Estonia and Georgia, two former Soviet republics that only started competing as independent nations in 1992.
To be sure, India’s lack of success at the Olympics is nothing new. But being banished by the IOC was such a national humiliation it finally made many Indians take notice of the ineptitude and corruption that exist at the highest level in the country’s sports infrastructure.
The IOC suspended India’s national Olympic committee in December 2012 after Lalit Bhanot, who spent 11 months in jail on corruption charges, was elected as treasurer. A protracted battle followed between the governing bodies, until a new election was finally held on Sunday and Narayna Ramachandran, president of the World Squash Federation, was elected as the new president of the Indian NOC.
“It is the first time in Olympic history that a suspension of an NOC has been lifted during an Olympic Games,” the IOC released a statement Tuesday, “and the decision will have an immediate impact. Indian athletes entered the Sochi Games … can now compete for the National Olympic Committee of India and will walk behind their national flag at the Closing Ceremony on 23 February.”
The timely reinstatement at the very least helped the trio of Indian athletes avoid further humiliation in Sochi. And the reaction from India’s athletic elite was swift and unanimous: It’s time for India’s sports authorities to clean up their act.
Sushil Kumar, a wrestler and the only individual to win multiple Olympic medals for India, said his country’s athletes now can finally look forward to the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games without further dread and shame.
“It’s a great day for all the athletes who put their blood, sweat and tears to represent the country under the Indian tri-colour and win medals,” Kumar told the Times of India. “My humble request to all the officials is we don’t want a repeat of the Sochi Olympics. The ban should not have happened at all in the first place. All this brought disrepute to our country. It was really disappointing. But now I can hope it’s a new beginning. Now it’s time to work together and build a better tomorrow.”
That better tomorrow hopefully will feature a more competitive India at both the Winter and Summer Games. While the most popular sport in India – cricket – is not an Olympic sport, it’s still bewildering that the world’s second-most populous country has won just 0.16 percent of the 12,796 total Olympic medals awarded prior to the Sochi Games.
To make India more competitive in sports is not an easy task. Avinash Subramaniam argues that India is in need of fundamental changes as a nation first in order to become a sports power.
“Quite obviously, it’s poverty and its consequences that thwart India from excelling as a sports entity,” Subramaniam writes in the Indian edition of First Post. “If this running, kicking, jumping, wresting and other such fun and games can be turned into a quest guaranteed to set you up for life, … Indians will take to sport in droves.
“Our repeated exposure to hardship and poverty makes us desperate to escape it by seeking, more than anything else, a source of income for life. … Sport has never been the horse an average Indian would want to bet his proverbial ‘dhoti’ on. For India to win more Olympic medals, this must change. If India has to become a sports heavyweight, sport must become a middle-class pursuit.”
In a country that’s constantly beset with economic instability with a power elite that has an aversion to reform, that’s much easier said than done.
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.