In ambitious but medal-poor India, a growing quest for athletic success


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
In ambitious but medal-poor India, a growing quest for athletic success

BANGALORE, INDIA -- India is a rising economic power and a world leader in technology and brainpower, but its performance in international sports is as sad as the dingy pool where Sandeep Sejwal, one of the world's top swimmers, trains near a throng of splashing toddlers.

"The pool is crowded these days, but I try to tune everything out when I swim. . . . India needs me," said the curly-haired Sejwal, 21, the best hope for gold in a country that ranks dead last in Olympic medals per capita, behind Niger and Iraq.

The quest for athletic success has become a matter of national pride in this increasingly confident and prosperous country, which has garnered only one individual gold medal in Olympic history. The Indian government is pouring millions into efforts to produce world-class athletes and build state-of-the-art sports complexes.

Athletic achievement has also become a measure by which India finds itself lagging miles behind archrival China. India has a fast-growing economy, nuclear weapons and an ambitious space program, all badges of honor in its intense competition with its regional nemesis. But China has 430 Olympic medals in total -- 100 at the 2008 Beijing Olympics alone -- while India has just 20.

"India has a lot of catching up to do," said G.S. Mander, vice president of the Indian Olympic Association. India has 2,000 swimmers registered with local federations, compared with 650,000 in China.

Abhinav Bindra, 27, who won the individual gold medal in the 10-meter air rifle shooting event at the 2008 Olympics, noted that with about 1.2 billion people, the numbers are on India's side.

"India has an abundance of untapped talent," Bindra said. "What we lack is nurturing of that talent. India needs top coaching, far better facilities and just a feeling that we as a nation should be winning in world sports."

Bindra's gold medal, along with two bronze medals for wrestling and boxing, surprised Indians and raised expectations for Indian athletes in other global sporting events.

But Bindra's path to glory illustrates a fundamental flaw in India's system. He trained for the Beijing Games in an Olympic-size shooting range that his father, a wealthy curry trader, built for him in his back yard.

India's premier Olympic training institute -- the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports in Patiala in Punjab state -- is only an hour away from Bindra's home. But its gym is crumbling and its air conditioning rarely works, despite summer temperatures of 110 degrees or higher. Bindra called the facility "antique and shocking."

In contrast, China systematically grooms athletes in modern sports academies nationwide.

Some analysts said the same problems that keep India's economy lagging behind China's keep Indian athletes from outperforming their Chinese competitors: government corruption, poor infrastructure and a byzantine bureaucracy. Many here say that money earmarked for training young athletes or constructing gyms and pools is too often siphoned off by corrupt officials. But India's government and corporate sponsors are showing a new appetite for building a national sports culture. India's sports budget is $150 million this year, compared with $60 million four years ago, said Rajesh Malhotra, a spokesman for the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. The government last year also launched a $300-million, five-year program to create basic sports infrastructure in villages across India, hoping to nurture talent.

Cricket has always dominated the Indian sports market, with sponsorships from major corporations and Bollywood stars among league team owners. Now, thanks in part to Bindra's gold medal, private corporations are more interested in underwriting infrastructure projects covering sports other than cricket.

Steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, one of the world's richest people, runs the $10 million Mittal Champions Trust to fund training in six Olympic sports, including wrestling, squash, boxing and archery. Other private corporations are paying to train Olympic hopefuls and build sports complexes.

In a sign of its new athletic aspirations, New Delhi is hosting the 2010 Commonwealth Games in October and building an indoor Olympic-size pool, a massive tennis complex and an ultramodern track-and-field stadium. The government has committed $135 million to train 1,300 Indian athletes for the games.

"India is finally on the world sporting map, and it's capturing the country's imagination," said Hakimuddin S. Habibulla, who is working with Sejwal and is a co-founder of GoSports, a sports management company based in Bangalore.

"It's going to take time, but with the economy and corporate funding growing, awareness is just starting about Olympic sports," Habibulla said. "Some Indian parents are even thinking that being an Olympic athlete is actually a good future."

Private sports training centers also are booming, with dozens opening across India, a country where about half the population is younger than 25.

P.T. Usha, who missed the bronze medal in the 400-meter hurdles by one-hundredth of a second at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, runs a track-and-field training center.

Every year, she picks 18 girls from poor backgrounds who have a passion for running. Usha said her academy offers food, education, medical care and self-esteem counseling.

"As a village girl, I ran without any proper food, without any facilities, without any athletic experts, without any foreign exposure and without any government support," said Usha, known here as the "queen of Indian track and field."

"It was only lack of experience that cost me that gold medal," she said.

India's mind-set about sports is deeply rooted, said Nihar Ameen, who coaches Sejwal and worked at an Olympic training center in Florida in the 1990s. "In India, where getting a space in a university is so competitive, parents see play as something frivolous," Ameen said.

Even the government's new commitment can sometimes feel a bit hollow, he said. Ameen was supposed to take Sejwal to Australia this month to train in a modern pool with other top athletes. But the promised government funds never came.

"It's like trying to get blood from a stone," Ameen said, standing by the pool in a T-shirt bearing an image of Bruce Springsteen. "Sometimes it's the red tape, other times it feels like they still don't care enough."

Ameen said he finally got a letter this week promising government funds for the swimmers to travel to Spain for training this month.

He said that many of the world's top swimmers have personal trainers, marketing gurus and nutrition experts, but that all Sejwal has is hope and, increasingly, pride.

"When we started swimming, no one was calling our names or supporting us," Sejwal said, smiling at the children learning to swim with puffy arm floats.

But at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games, 3,000 young Indians packed the stands, cheering and clicking photos with their cellphones.

"I didn't know we had fans," Sejwal said.

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