The Politics of India’s Record-Setting Olympics

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The Politics of India’s Record-Setting Olympics

Indian politicians are rushing to claim credit for the country’s sports heroes.

The Politics of India’s Record-Setting Olympics

Bronze medalist India’s Lovlina Borgohain holds her medal after the ceremony for their women’s welter weight 64-69kg competition at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Aug. 7, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.

Credit: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, Pool

Himanta Biswa Sarma, the chief minister of India’s northeastern state of Assam, and state Sports Minister Bimal Bora faced a public backlash recently when billboards flaunting their photos were splashed across Guwahati city to congratulate Olympic boxer Lovlina Borgohian – the only athlete representing Assam at Tokyo – before a crucial match in which she won a bronze medal.

The reason for people’s indignation was simple: There was no sign of Borgohian’s photo on hoardings meant to celebrate her achievement, even as the politicians basked in her reflected glory. The two were trolled on Twitter for “shameless self-promotion” and an embarrassed Assamese government scrambled to pull down the publicity material soon after.

Olympic silver medalist weightlifter Mirabai Chanu had a similarly ignominious experience when minuscule photos of her greeted crowds at a government felicitation ceremony. Instead, local politicians hogged the limelight, delivering lectures on what they had done for Indian sports.

These two episodes are not rare examples. Indian politicians are known to routinely rush in to appropriate the credit of national heroes in their moment of glory. The athletes’ achievements are usually followed by full-page ads in national dailies or TV promos heaping praise on the ruling dispensation and explaining how the government supposedly helped the athletes scale the Olympian heights.

For instance, union Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs Anurag Thakur, while gushing about P.V. Sindhu’s Olympic bronze in badminton this year at Tokyo, didn’t fail to draw a parallel between her achievement and the efficacy of the BJP government’s “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” scheme, which aims to empower Indian “daughters.”

Sometimes, in the South Asian nation of 1.3 billion people, the politicization of sports can even trigger mud-slinging matches between chief ministers. Punjab and Haryana’s chief ministers argued publicly over how many Punjabis and Haryanvis were on the Indian hockey teams. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was “happy to note that all three goals were scored by Punjab players” – namely Dilpreet Singh, Gurjant Singh, and Hardik Singh – in the match that secured the men’s hockey team a place in the semi-finals. (They would come away with a bronze medal.) His Haryana counterpart, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, was busy boasting about the fact that the Indian women’s hockey team had no less than eight players from his state.

“In the Indian women’s hockey team, nine players are from Haryana and the captain of this team, Rani Rampal, is also from Shahabad, which is a matter of pride for the people of Haryana,” Khattar posted.

Meanwhile, Sindhu’s bronze medal triggered a war of words between two southern states, both claiming the athlete to be their protegee. In fact, within hours of Sindhu going up on the podium in Tokyo to claim her prize, local politicians from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh started bickering over her origins while digging up her family tree.

While Telangana claimed Sindhu as from their state, born and brought up as the player was in Hyderabad, neighboring Andhra residents would have none of it. They emphasized that because Sindhu’s mother was from Vijayawada, a city in Andhra Pradesh, the player should be considered their own.

Refreshingly, some Indian politicians also have the decency to give credit where it’s due – to the athletes themselves. Away from the Olympics’ pomp and show, Naveen Patnaik, chief minister of India’s eastern state of Odisha, won hearts by congratulating the victorious hockey players without focusing the spotlight on himself.

Ironically, he had much to boast about had he chosen to do so. A low-key politician, Patnaik is credited for bringing about a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of Indian hockey by investing millions in world-class infrastructure and financially backing talented sportspersons.

The Odisha government also signed an agreement with Hockey India in 2018 to sponsor both men’s and women’s national teams for five years. The state government pumped 1 billion Indian rupees into their training even as naysayers accused him of “wasting” public money on an unglamorous sport like hockey, where India hadn’t won any medal in the last four decades.

Regardless, the Odisha government created a nurturing ecosystem for local talent, while also hosting major international hockey championships in the last few years, including the men’s World Cup in 2018, World League in 2017, FIH Pro-league, Olympic qualifiers, and others. The result? The men’s hockey team bagged a bronze, and the women’s team finished a commendable fourth in a game most people had given up on.

Experts say that taking a leaf out of Patnaik’s playbook, other politicians would do well to focus on providing facilities and financial backing for gifted athletes instead of only showing up at felicitation ceremonies. That’s especially essential because many Indian sports stars – the same people who win glory for the nation – live penurious lives.

For instance, Bollywood actor R. Madhavan tweeted that he was “shocked” after seeing Olympics silver medalist Mirabai Chanu’s Manipur home in a photo where the weightlifter can be seen in a cramped home having her meal on the floor. “Hey this cannot be true. I am at a complete loss of words,” the actor tweeted.

According to a survey, India invests 6 paise (or 6/100th of a rupee) per Indian on sports as compared to China’s 6 rupees. In the 2020-21 annual budget, the ruling NDA government allocated $400 million for sports, about 10 percent less than the previous year, despite it being the year of the Olympics. “For a nation of 1.3 billion, this is a ridiculously low amount, but not surprising considering sports, especially women’s sports, has never been a priority for the government,” said Amit Nautiyal, a Punjab-based football coach.

Nautiyal added that the country is more focused on sports like cricket, which make for a lucrative business, rather than less-profitable but promising sports like women’s golf, for instance, where Indian female player Aditi Ashok performed very well, or sailing and fencing, where Indian women again showed remarkable promise despite the lack of government backing.

“We need to not only revamp our model of sports governance but also change our mindsets completely towards sports if we’re to do well on the global stage,” advised Nautiyal.

Unsurprisingly, the paucity of finance and facilities has plagued many Indian athletes. The mother of athlete Dhanalakshmi Sekhar, 23, who lost her father at a very young age, was forced to work as a domestic helper in the tiny hamlet of Gundur in Tamil Nadu. Mirabai Chanu gathered fuel from forests near her home as her kitchen had no gas stove.

Hockey player Neha Goyal, who lived in a shanty near a drain in Sonepat in the northern state of Haryana, worked alongside her mother at a local cycle factory straightening spokes for about 2,000 rupees a month. Today, Goyal, 24, is part of the 16-member Indian women’s hockey team. Javelin thrower and Olympic gold winner Neeraj Chopra, who lives in a tiny village in the northern state of Haryana, is also a farmer.

Perhaps once Indian politicians learn to respect and support the country’s players even between competitions, they will feel the need to put only the athletes’ photos on billboards celebrating their victories.