What I learnt from not watching the Olympics

About a month ago, the husband and I suffered a broken television, thanks to an elephant being thrown at it. I mean one of my metal haathi curios, of course. It’s a long and weird story, so don’t ask for details. Just know that the LCD screen cracked inside. And what started as a small black spidery scrawl, has over the weeks turned into a giant gaping blackhole, which now covers more than three-quarters of the screen.

Neither the husband or I bothered to get anything done about it. In the past, he’s made gallant claims about banishing the TV altogether to have one less wired gadget to hook ourselves too. I’ve scoffed at him every time, because between the two of us, I barely watch any TV (save a few annual shows I watch in their time), while he’s the one who usually needs the TV on, mindlessly surfing, watching anything that catches his fancy, no matter what point of telecast it is at. But when he took this as a sign to make do without a television, and actually didn’t do a thing about it, I sat up and took notice. Its been almost 6 weeks now, and we haven’t so much as turned the TV on.

Anyhoo, the point of this long winded backgrounder is to say this: we missed the Olympics. Every last minute of it. So while I was informed about our third, fourth and fifth medal wins thanks to the news and ultra enthusiastic followers at work, I didn’t actually get to watch any of it myself. What I didn’t miss however, is the general disdain of India’s wonted performance. Every four years the excitement begins, as the games near desh-pyaar videos crowd television channels and now, youtube too. Suddenly everybody is united in a rather impulsive sense of national pride. Then our athletes perform abysmally, and of course we slip back into the same old arm chair philosophers mode. Making misguided comments, running down what little we do achieve, having generalist sweeping opinions that discount the few achievers we do have.

Why does India always under-perform, in the eyes of fellow Indians? Is it because we aren’t equipped? Cannot afford it? Or maybe its because we simply do not care. I think it goes beyond the obviously cited reasons like we-only-spend-money-glorifying-cricket and we-have-no-infrastructure-to-support-athletics. I don’t think these are reasons that run deep enough. Because it doesn’t explain how athletes from Jamaica, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan and Azarbaijan went back home with more medals than the Indian team. We’re richer, we’re stable and certainly in a position to more for our athletes than some of them could have. So it cant be the money and the infrastructure alone. Like I shared with some of our friends on Saturday night, I think a lot of it is cultural, sociological, and what we are conditioned to be and do with our lives.

As kids we grow up with the need to perform academically, ingrained in us. Success and failure in life is measured against how well one does academically. Being independent and happy in life is seen only in what kind of hi-flying job one can find and how quickly one can move up the ladder. We’re a “job” obsessed country. And these jobs are almost all conventional, 9-5, office-going activities. Sure, things are changing slowly, but I can’t remember the last time someone from my generation chose to pursue a career in sports. Or chose to become a chef. Or an artist. Or even work with an NGO, for that matter.The tragedy is I’ve had more than a handful of classmates who were at some point or the other interested in cricket and other sport, enough to pursue it professionally. But somewhere along the way it peters out. Academic pressures take over. Because we cannot fathom success in any other way except in big bucks and fancy lifestyles.

Sports has, and always will be considered, to quote a term I loathe, an extra-curricular activity. Never a priority. An after-school recreational activity. Never taken seriously. And I think somewhere it reflects in situations like this. When as a nation, we’re faced with fierce competition, even the best amongst a billion of us, fall short.

I’m sharing a piece I was especially pleased to see in The Atlantic, which cites many reasons why Indians win so few Olympic medals. And I found that I was in agreement with lot, though not all, of their opinions.

I was overjoyed when I heard about Mary Koms medal, and humbled by her reaction that followed. Yes, she’s overcome many odds, some unimaginable for those of us living perfectly secure, normal lives. But why let that take away form the fact that at the end of the day she is a sportwoman first. Mother-of-two next. She is one of the very very few people who took her sport seriously. Who followed it like her life depended on it. She had the will. And that’s what it takes to fight all the odds.

When was the last time you heard an Indian parent genuinely encourage and inculcate that sort of spirit in his/her children? And no, don’t give me the its-not-practical lecture, or the Mary-Kom-is-a-one-in-a-billion case. Because its that attitude that brings us back five medals (or fewer), once every four years.

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