The Politics of India’s World-Record-Setting Olympic Performance

image: Lovlina Borgohian Indian bronze medalist

Politicians in India are eager to take credit for the country’s sporting heroes. The chief minister of India’s northeastern state of Assam and the state’s sports minister, Bimal Bora, recently faced a public backlash after billboards with their photos were displayed across the city of Guwahati to congratulate Olympic boxer Lovlina Borgohian – the only athlete representing Assam at the Tokyo Games – before a crucial match, in which she won bronze.

The reason for the outrage was simple: Borgohian’s portrait was nowhere to be found on the hoardings intended to commemorate her accomplishment, even as the politicians basked in her reflected glory. The two were mocked on Twitter for engaging in “shameless self-promotion,” prompting the Assamese government to hurry to take down the promotional material as soon as possible.

Mirabai Chanu, an Olympic silver winner in weightlifting, had a similar humiliating experience when microscopic photographs of her were displayed to the public during a government recognition event. Instead, local politicians monopolised the stage, offering speeches on what they had done to advance Indian sports.

These two incidents are not outliers. Indian politicians are well-known for rushing in to claim the credit for national heroes when they are at their peak of glory. The athletes’ victories are generally followed by full-page advertisements in national dailies or television commercials in which the ruling regime is praised and explanations are given as to how the government allegedly assisted the athletes in reaching Olympian heights.

For example, while gushing about P.V. Sindhu’s Olympic bronze medal in badminton this year in Tokyo, Union Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs Anurag Thakur didn’t miss an opportunity to draw a parallel between her achievement and the efficacy of the BJP government’s “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” scheme, which aims to empower Indian “daughters.”

In this South Asian nation of 1.3 billion people, the politicisation of sports can sometimes even lead to mudslinging contests between chief ministers, as has happened in the past. The chief ministers of Punjab and Haryana engaged in a public spat over the number of Punjabis and Haryanvis on the Indian hockey teams. During the match that earned the men’s hockey team a spot in the semi-finals, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said he was “pleased to note that all three goals were scored by Punjab players,” referring to Dilpreet Singh, Gurjant Singh, and Hardik Singh. (They would take home a bronze medal in the end.) His counterpart in Haryana, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, was busy bragging about the fact that the Indian women’s hockey squad included no fewer than eight players from his state.

“Nine players from Haryana are part of the Indian women’s hockey squad, and the captain of this team, Rani Rampal, hails from Shahabad, which is a source of great pride for the people of Haryana,” Khattar wrote on Facebook.

Meanwhile, Sindhu’s bronze medal sparked a verbal exchange between two southern states, each of which claimed Sindhu was their protégée. In fact, within hours of Sindhu claiming her victory on the podium in Tokyo, local politicians from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh began squabbling over her ancestry and digging up her family tree.

While Telangana claimed Sindhu as a native of their state, having been born and raised in Hyderabad as the footballer was, inhabitants of neighbouring Andhra Pradesh were unconvinced. Sindhu’s mother was from Vijayawada, a city in Andhra Pradesh, and as a result, the players should be regarded their own.

Some Indian politicians, which is a breath of new air, have also shown the civility to give credit where credit is due – to the sportsmen themselves. Away from the Olympic pomp and circumstance, Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of India’s eastern state of Odisha, won hearts by congratulating the triumphant hockey players without drawing attention to himself.

Ironically, he had a lot to be proud of if he had decided to do so. Patnaik is a low-key politician who is credited with bringing about a spectacular turnaround in the fortunes of Indian hockey by investing millions of dollars in world-class infrastructure and financially supporting exceptional athletes.

In addition, the Odisha government struck a five-year sponsorship arrangement with Hockey India in 2018, which will see the state support both the men’s and women’s national teams. The state government invested 1 billion Indian rupees in their training, despite criticism that he was “squandering” public funds on an unglamorous sport like hockey, in which India had failed to win a medal in the last four decades.

Odisha has nonetheless established a supportive environment for local talent, while also hosting significant international hockey championships in recent years, including the men’s World Cup in 2018, the FIH Pro-League in 2017, the FIH Pro-league, Olympic qualifiers, and other tournaments. As a result, The men’s hockey team took home a bronze medal, and the women’s team finished a respectable fourth in a game that many had written off.

Experts believe that other politicians would benefit from borrowing a page from Patnaik’s playbook and concentrating on providing facilities and financial backing for outstanding sportsmen rather than simply attending felicitation events. That is especially important because many Indian sports heroes – the same people who bring honour to their country – lead impoverished lives.

A snapshot of Mirabai Chanu’s Manipur home, in which the weightlifter can be seen in a tiny home eating her lunch on the floor, prompted Bollywood star R. Madhavan to tweet that he was “shocked.” “This can’t possibly be true, can it? “I’m completely at a loss for words,” the actor wrote on Twitter.

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According to a poll, India spends 6 paise (or 6/100th of a rupee) on sports for each Indian, while China spends 6 rupees. Despite the fact that it is the year of the Olympic, the ruling NDA government budgeted $400 million for sports in its yearly budget for 2020-21, a decrease of around 10% from the previous year. “This is a shockingly low number for a country with a population of 1.3 billion people, but it is not surprising given that sports, particularly women’s sports, have never been a priority for the government,” said Amit Nautiyal, a Punjab-based football coach.

It was also stated that India is more focused on sports such as cricket, which is a profitable business, rather than less profitable but promising sports such as women’s golf, where Indian player Aditi Ashok performed admirably, or sailing and fencing, where Indian women once again demonstrated remarkable promise despite the lack of government support.

“If we want to do well on the global stage, we need to not only redesign our model of sports governance, but we also need to radically transform our mindsets towards sports,” Nautiyal urged.

Many Indian athletes have been hampered, not surprisingly, by a lack of financial and physical resources. After losing her father while she was a child, Dhanalakshmi Sekhar’s mother, Dhanalakshmi, was compelled to work as a domestic servant in the small hamlet of Gundur in the state of Tamil Nadu. Mirabai Chanu collected firewood from nearby trees because her household lacked a gas burner.

Neha Goyal, a hockey player who grew up in a shanties by a drain in Sonepat, in the northern state of Haryana, supported herself and her mother by straightening spokes at a local bike factory for approximately 2,000 rupees a month. Today, Goyal, 24, is a member of the Indian women’s hockey team, which consists of 16 players. Neeraj Chopra, a javelin thrower and Olympic gold medalist who lives in a small village in the northern state of Haryana, is also a farmer.

If Indian politicians learn to admire and support their country’s athletes even when they are not competing, it is possible that they may feel compelled to use solely the athletes’ photographs on billboards announcing their achievements.


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