Sunday, August 24, 2008

Pride and its prejudices

17th February, 1871; Paris: A little boy sees the victorious Prussian forces march out of the city they had just captured… crushing his pride and the pride of the entire French nation under their heavy boots as they stomped past. The tame French surrender in what came to be known as the Franco-German wars were to haunt France for a long time to come. As the little boy grew up, stalked by the ignominy of this defeat, he rationalized that France lost the war because it had become a ‘flabby’, physically and spiritually. Born of this sense of humiliation was a movement that has become the repository of geo-political complexes and conquests – the modern Olympics.

That little boy was Baron Pierre de Coubertin, and to put Orville Schell’s Newsweek article in perspective, it isn’t just China that runs in the Olympics on an anabolic called an ‘inferiority complex’. In a world where wars had begun to lose their romance (it was a period that saw two of the worst ever, yet there was no glory for the aggressors), the Olympics became the battleground for national pride. Countries could establish supremacy without losing or claiming lives to satiate the ego of a nation. Who knows, perhaps the glorious contests between the Soviet-bloc and USA where to a certain extent, instrumental in staving off a real war during the Cold War period, for when Zbigniew Pietrzykowski took on Cassius Clay in the boxing ring in Rome, 1960, or when American sprinter Eddie Hart chased after Valeri Borzov in Munich in 1972, it wasn’t just a clash between individuals but a battle between two ideologies.

Unlike soccer or tennis, most Olympic events, like track & field, swimming and weightlifting, are more about athletic absolutes like strength, speed and endurance, rather than skill. And it takes years of expensive research with respect to bio-mechanics, training methods and nutrition coupled with a supportive infrastructure that ‘takes care’ of its athletes to roll out an assembly line of champions across disciplines. I spent some time at the Australian Institute of Sports in Canberra recently, a state of the art training facility where athletes across disciplines have dedicated their lives to ‘the pursuit of gold’. Walking down a corridor with larger than life cut-outs of Olympic champions Michael Klim and Petria Thomas, I was reminded of one of India’s cradles for Olympic hopefuls – Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. There, after doing time at the cricket ‘nets’, I would sit down with national athletes in the canteen and hear them lament their lot, complaining about rusty gymnasiums, nepotism and an apathetic administration. I remember asking once how they hoped to win medals under the circumstances and was told “medal ka kya karna hai, ek naukri to milley…” And I don’t blame them. In a country where legends like KD Jhadav, India’ first ever individual Olympic medalist (and it’s a pity his name needs an introduction) and even the legendary Dhyan Chand lived out their lives in penury and obscurity, what right have you or I to demand commitment to such a nation, or its pride. When I see Australian athletes, representing a population not much greater than Delhi’s, focused on medals to add to their list of nearly 400 Olympic medals, while our athletes worry about landing a job with the Railways, I understand, and say, ‘way to go’, for we, especially those who run sports in this country, don’t deserve any better. And an Abhinav Bindra, or even an Akhil or Jitender winning a couple of more golds, wouldn’t change a thing about sports administration in this country.

Going back to the question of infrastructure and athletic absolutes, the economic and military might of the greatest nations in the world at a given point in time, can be judged from their medals tally at the Olympics. For instance, in the early 1900s, Great Britain was at the height of its powers - an empire where ‘the sun never set’ and predictably enough in the 1908 Olympics, GBR won twice as many medals as the next best, USA, to finish on top. In the 1930s, Hitler had galvanized a resurgent Germany into one of the most powerful nations in the world. And in1936, Jesse Owens’ heroics notwithstanding, Germany finished on top of the medal heap. After WW II, the two most powerful nations in the world, USSR and USA dominated the Olympic medals tally until perestroika. Then USA became unbeatable in a unipolar world, until China emerged as a worthy contender, both in the global as well as the Olympic village. Moreover, you’ll consistently find permanent members of the UN Security Council and most G-8 nations consistently amongst the top 10.

In light of this indicator that separates the men from the boys, how are we to reconcile our crowing over a single Gold, our first in 28 years, and our only individual gold ever with our ambitious assumptions about being the next global super power?Well, there is hope. A Foreign Policy article calls India ‘the world’s worst Olympians’ primarily because our results are especially poor keeping in mind our enormous potential, and phew, our obvious economic might. And here’s a moot point – Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal was the result of sheer private enterprise, commitment, dedication and ambition, unfettered by those in public office, and similarly, our economic growth too perhaps owes more to private enterprise than public policy. But this nation can only go so far on ‘private steam’. It needs committed political will and leadership to become a ‘secure’ nation on both sides of the border as well as to prove across disciplines, that we’ve finally arrived. It is up to our leaders to change for the better, failing which, it is up to us to change our leaders, for peace, and for pride.


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