India's 2016: Success on the field but main battle was off it


Before we knew it, ESPN.in's first calendar year was out. The last six months, the first of our lives as the major port of call for sport that Indians love, play and follow, have been replete with trailblazers and news makers, athletes who made us laugh, cry, rejoice and mourn. As 2016 was Olympics year, India's lesser-known athletic heroes occupied centre stage, with performances that were to change their lives, re-script legacies and rewrite textbooks of how the Indian sporting ecosystem continues to produce frequent magic.

PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik, Aditi Ashok and Dipa Karmakar had their breakout years, Virat Kohli's team took off on a trajectory that contains delicious promise, Indian hockey made its biggest move upwards in decades and India's Paralympians caused a nation to fall into awed silence.

Yet 2016 was to end on a bum note struck by the Indian Olympic Association and the fallout of its latest round of elections. The emergence of Suresh Kalmadi and Abhay Singh Chautala on the news landscape reminded us that Indian sport occupies several ages. Several individual athletes may have begun open engagement with forward-planning, scientific training and modern medical intervention. What rules their universe in the background however, can remain feudal and medieval. Cue: enter Kalmadi and Chautala, both accused of corruption and presiding over electoral processes which led to India being suspended from the Olympic movement by the IOC for five months.

No matter how much we celebrate the achievers of 2016, it is worth remembering that India's Rio contingent, the largest in its Olympic history and easily the best funded, returned with two medals, several personal bests and gnawing questions about many disappointments.

So as 2016 ends, does Indian sport celebrate or ruminate? About what can be, what is promised and what eventually is? What is it that must dominate our sporting memory? Surely the winner and the striver over the power-broker and the whiner? Yet, no matter how laudatory the headline, it is the fine print that eventually does contain layers of truth and it must be noted. The Kalmadi-Chautala faux life-presidencies tell us again that battles among Indian sporting administrators are never about sport they govern, they are always about the power they wield.

Many who go to the Olympics bemoan about the mediocrity that surrounds Indian sport - whether in the operational ability of our Olympic machine or the breadth of ambition of the Indian athlete. The former is in some cases given not given credit where it is due. The latter does hold true in many but it never makes up the entire picture. What cannot be denied is that the majority of India's sporting administrators are yet to join the majority of our athletes in a striving for excellence across a breadth of sport.

It is what has led to the rise of very Indian jugaad sporting species of bridge-entrepreneurs - agencies like OGQ, GoSports Foundation, Lakshya Foundation, Anglian Medal Hunt and others liase between the elite athletes, current and future, his or her federation and the sports ministry's coffers and facilities. Until the federations do what they ideally must, these bridge-entrepreneurs will remain a vital part of the Indian sporting landscape.

So did 2016 leave Indian sport as a glass half empty or half full? Depends on your gaze, because the two halves may in theory occupy the same single space, but they do not stand for single whole. Better to think of Indian sport not as a glass to be filled, but a contest: between the exertion of authority and control and the success of athletic ambition. It is why every year in Indian sport shows us both inspirational progress and aggravating stalemate. 2016 was no different.