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Why does India not succeed in the Olympics?

India, a country with around a billion people, has around 28 medals in the prestigious Olympic games as of Rio 2016. One can argue that with a large talent pool, India could have easily won more than this, but why does it not happen?

You may say in India--where “Sport” is heavily limited to “Cricket”--it is generally unreasonable to expect us to outperform any other nation. Case in point, the top sport in the US is American Football, a sport only they play, yet the US is a sports powerhouse constantly churning medalists from a talent pool that is one-fifth of ours. Why is it so?

Parents in India make it a point to distract and villainise sports. Sports are considered a secondary concern to most. This is because the sport has not been marketed as a means of going up the social ladder when it clearly is a great means. For example, Silver Medalist Mirabai Chanu now has a promotion in the Indian Railways and free pizza for life. This is also because school and sports are not intertwined. They have been separated for a long. Something that successful countries do not have.

In the US, high school students are encouraged to play, in fact sports are a path to college for these students. They are recruited by colleges to play for the college team while they get a world-class education for free. So while they prepare to win an Olympic medal they have a backup degree that comes to them thanks to their sporting ability. This provides an incentive for parents to encourage their kids to improve their skill set for a particular sport. But it doesn't stop at high school, American colleges, both private and public spending massively on their sporting programs. This means that it is private donors, state governments, corporate sponsors who fund their sporting programs and the executives actually have an incentive to work towards the sport. The Federal government has little or no involvement in this. This decentralised system should work in India which has an equal amount of diversity or perhaps more than the US. Moreover, sporting programs are extremely popular. College-level tournaments get more crowds since small towns that do not have an NFL (American Football’s IPL) team, support their college team even more. This means that massive sponsorship deals are signed. From Apple to Audi to Mercedes, American college teams are sponsored by these massive companies. But the popularity has to do with the sporting culture. People are invested in a particular sport because they played it from their childhood. Sports are seen as an integral part of American culture. People are encouraged to play any sport they wish to. This culture and the incentives of guaranteed education as a result of sport together galvanise the Americans into sports lovers.

What about India? Well, we aren’t a sporting nation. We are a cricketing nation, and Indian cricket’s experience with the interaction between entertainment, corporate sponsorship, massive broadcasters, marketing should be a lesson for all of us. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) today has unsurmountable control over world cricket, thanks in part to the money it controls. That is thanks in full to BCCI’s corporate structure and operation. Most sports federations in India are overburdened with bureaucracy and redundant decision making. To encourage people to take up sports, business-oriented decisions have to be taken.

Sports should shift from being athlete-centric to the audience and people-centric. Moreover, India should get a bottom-top approach where kids are encouraged to take up sports by marketing it to their parents. Governments have to offer better sports quotas in universities to ensure parents that their children’s futures are secure even after taking up a career as risky as sports. As more people take up the sport and play it, it is only a matter of half a decade that viewership for certain sports climbs up and funding from other private channels begins. This level of commercialisation of sport only spreads it further to rural India increasing our talent pool at the grassroots level. Now, it's time for the scouts to go and find athletes at the grassroots especially from the age groups of 10-18 years. This is because most of the development of bone mass, muscle mass takes place during this age for most children. They must be guided very carefully through this phase by monitoring their diet, workout plans and mental health. Once we create these world-class athletes aged 15-21, they need to be acclimatised to the pressure of competing. The only way this happens is to ensure they take part in competitions regularly throughout the year at every level, State, National and International. As they gain more experience they also need access to better sports psychologists and physiologists. As India gets better at sports its sets in a virtuous cycle where more and more kids take up a sport, get trained to win, play tournaments where they earn money, retire from the sport to get a safe job using the education they got or the ones governments give.

In any case, we are with targetted marketing campaigns, early scouting, corporate and university involvement and finally at the core of it, respecting the athlete by giving them the facilities they deserve. The only way this can be achieved is to model sports federations across India to function the way the BCCI does - as a business.

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