Independence Day is a good time to salute our champions and examine the shackles from which Indian sport has broken free.
Today we are churning out competitors across disciplines, most hellbent on competing with the world's best. The success of homemade franchise leagues is re-jigging how sport is viewed by the wider public. There's more money reaching Indian sports federations than there has been in the past - three times the share of the budget than ten years ago -- up from 11% of the national sports budget in 2009-10 to 34% in 2016-17.
India is no. 4 in the world behind USA, China and Japan, in terms of the number of 20000-plus seater stadia in the country, most of those grounds owned by government, aside from ten regional SAI centres, 56 training centres, 14 centres of excellence and 20 Special Area Games centres.
So many hurrahs all around.
Yet there is much that still holds back Indian sport. This 73rd Independence Day is an opportune moment to list some still elusive liberties.
In other words, Indian sport needs freedom from...
Wilful ignorance - of the 'governors' of sport
There's no shortage of money, infrastructure and role models in Indian sport. What's missing is the intention of a majority of sports federations to put in place a structure needed to widen their base, grow their numbers, give young competitors a pathway to find their place in the sun. Which means an organized calendar (hello there, Swimming Federation of India), with enough events to play across age groups for which they must aim to raise their own funds.
Federations exist, it appears, not for their sport but their office-bearers' addiction to power and their appetite for feuding. The feuding could be between rival factions eager to cannibalise whatever is available - archery, gymnastics, kabaddi, equestrian, volleyball - or with anyone they believe threatens supremacy. Like the good folks at the Rowing Federation of India and their skirmishes with the Army Sports Institute. It doesn't matter if the feuding leads to athletes careers being stalled, disrupted or destroyed. A professional career often depends on favours and handouts from the men at the top who dole them out in order to extract loyalty or silence.
One of the most quietly muttered asides in Indian sport is this -- that the governors of Indian sport, not all but the majority of federation honchos, in truth do not want their athletes to succeed beyond a particular level because it will render their images, words and issues irrelevant. Do people worry about the Badminton Association of India elections these days, now that the players are so successful? Other than the mad hold that BCCI politics has on news column inches, who would pay any attention to the official over the world-beater athlete? The best of athletes are rarely angelic role models but we put up with their melodrama because what they possess - skill and ability - is in short supply. Indian sport needs freedom from those managers, officials, bureaucrats who believe it is they who are ordained to be self-obsessed, attention-seeking temperamental teenagers.
Like that of India's National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA), never quite the sharpest tool in box. For all earnest intention, NADA has been found wanting in quantity (not enough testing) and the National Dope Testing Laboratory (NDTL) in quality, with procedural errors and discrepancies leaving both red-faced in the face of challenged findings. NADA are tardy about out-of-competition testing, even of those athletes in their registered athletes' pool. Every positive dope test from an Indian athlete at the international stage is a marker that the national body was asleep on its job.
Like the perpetual tenures of cut-out coaches, whose expertise is negligible, but whose access to the federation boss means they can either show up for the photos after victory or sidle away and apportion failure to someone else. Dozens of anonymous, committed development coaches around the country find early years of talent identification and encouragement wasted by the lack of enough quality performance coaches at the top of the tree.
Like believing 300-day camps are the path to athlete development and those who stay away from these iron clad rules are without exception, dopers. As if elite athletes are merely easily replaceable eggs in their basket, not highly skilled, incredibly gifted and often demanding, insecure individuals.
Like not sending entries on time out of pettiness. Not sending them at all out of arrogance. Not knowing that entries needed to be sent in time out of incompetence.
Or those nightmare travel routings to and from competition: Nine-hour halts when direct flights are available, thirty hours travel time to Indonesia, 65 hours one way to South America with stopovers, layovers and fallovers. The most circuitous routes with the most expensive tickets from our tax money. Of the many things Indian sport should be free from, inept travel agents should be the easiest to get rid of.
The mega-event gravy train
God do we love 'em, with their short-term buzz and long-term buzz-kill. Upgraded stadia, weeks of excitement and promise, and then a fading away into status quo. Latest example - a lively under-17 football World Cup distracted, but it did nothing to solve Indian football's problems, not least its two-league dilemma. From many other mega events like CWG2010 we see the stars created by these grand extravaganzas either turn into entitled divas or getting crushed by some leftover resentment from rival/ minister/ bureaucrat which plays itself out as they try to take their game up another notch..
For medallists to be showered with money, cars, gifts, when they achieve some high like a world title or an Olympic medal. Because perhaps, their community had paid scant attention as they were growing up, tried to create obstacles if they didn't toe invisible lines or was too busy score-settling to send them to quality competitions as they were trying to climb up the ladder. Sure everybody loves winners, but a proportionate celebration and encouragement of the consistent competitor trying to win would be more helpful. And so won't require future splashouts.
Over star athletes being allowed short cuts or free passes onto contingents, events or career extensions even as younger challengers try to break through. Just because the nation worships achievements from a few years ago. Which allows the stars in the run-up to Olympic year, to opt for non-Olympic-class competition because, well, they can. Because they can't be questioned. At this point they become that most powerful entity out of the reach even of the federation or ministry. More than mere medallists, they are quasi-soldiers, the new patriots.
Obstacles to the Sports Bill
Which aims to regularly examine and overturn the accountability-proofed role of the politician and official. To dismantle the fabricated no-good 'state' Olympic associations created to dole out favours for votes. To bring in one-man-one-post and end the vainglorious multi-designated individuals of zero achievement dotting our sport landscape. The Bill means the President of So&So India cannot be vice president of the Asian So&So or Uber-So&So Presidente-Globale. Global sporting bodies are not squeaky clean Charlies but can be constantly under fire over misgovernance, unlike in India where they have the backing of political benefactors. It is no surprise nobody - left, right, centre and margins thereof - wants the Sports Bill to bring their house down.
The glory of being mega-event host and medal-distribution lies on the easy path. The difficult path involves real labour. Relentless, daily in the interest of the sport and its primary shareholders, the participants and their fans. To work for the last athlete in the line, not the first official on the stage.
This independence day, let us hope Indian sport can free itself of its own limitations and choose the hard road less travelled.