In the just concluded World Championships in Beijing, participation of Indian athletes went unnoticed for obvious reasons. Over the years, track-and-field has been a neglected sector because of wrong policies of Athletics Federation of India, AFI and lack of serious interest by Government of India’s sports ministry. Milkha Singh, Chand Ram, PT Usha, Shiny Wilson and Anju Bobby George were the few bright spots over the last some decades but despite their prominent performances, they couldn’t earn any medals for India at Olympics or international levels.
Athletics is not the only segment, where Indians have failed to make their mark. The country was once a dominant force in men’s field hockey but after the 1960 Rome Olympics, that tag was lost. Although India did win some medals in subsequent Olympic Games, they yielded the position to Europeans and Australians. Women’s hockey team has a worse record as they have not been able to compete since 1980 Moscow Olympics. After 36 years, they will be making their mark in the 2016 Rio Games. In most of the other sports like football, basketball, volleyball, aquatics, handball etc., Indians are completely absent. The only sport, where India has better position is badminton. One of the most crucial reasons for such a state of affairs is a strong but needless focus on cricket, which is not a world sport. Younger Indians want to play cricket rather than pursuing track-and-field activities. But they cannot be blamed since athletics is not a paying proposition. There is no support in monitory terms at national level.
In American universities, athletics is encouraged through scholarships and participation in several professional events, which bring financial rewards. Poorer nations than India like Ethiopia and Eritrea are making their presence felt in global events. Jamaica is another example. Despite its tiny size, the national program of athletic development has its root in school curriculum, which contains athletics as a subject. Therefore, Jamaican children learn about athletics at a young age. Budding young athletes get recognized and groomed further. The most important athletics event in Jamaica is the VMBS Boys and Girls Athletics Championships, where athletes under the age of 19 show their talents to national and overseas coaches. Boys and girls compete in front of 20 to 25 thousand spectators. Such encouragement works as a motivational factor for them in preparation at world level. Dominant athletes are selected for Penn Relays, in which best Jamaican schools and universities compete against their American counterparts. For the last some years, Jamaican athletes have become virtually unbeatable at world events in short sprints like 100 and 200m and relays. Usain Bolt and Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce are the most celebrated stars in Jamaica. Athletic is not a paying sport by itself though many countries reward their medal winners. The real money comes from corporate sponsorship. Usain Bolt’s annual earning is 20 million US dollars, of which $ 9.1 million comes from PUMA alone. Bolt also gets paid by Visa, Gatorade, Nissan, Hublot and Virgin Media.
In India, young people have no incentive in taking up athletics as a full time activity. Unlike cricketers, who are millionaires, athletes cannot hope to make that kind of money. Some boys and girls show early promise but they abandon their dreams in preference to their academic careers. Lack of funds is a strong reason in most cases. This scenario is not conducive to the development of top-grade athletes in India. Some non-profit organizations are attempting to revolutionize collegiate level sports program in India by introducing a unique Student-Athlete concept, which is similar to the one practiced in American universities. The Student-Athlete will not have to sacrifice his/her pursuance of studies. The program will help the budding champions to excel in their chosen sports while their college studies go on simultaneously. The program designers believe that such efforts will create a large talent pool of Indian athletes, who could compete at global events. How far this would succeed is anybody’s guess.
At Beijing’s recently concluded world championships, India’s 17 athletes performed far below the world standards. There were hopes in men’s discus but Vikas Gowda threw below his own personal best of 66.28m. Gowda was eliminated in the finals to finish 7th among 12 men. Interestingly, only two men could cross the automatic qualification mark of 65m. Jamaica’s Fedrick Dacres won the gold with a throw of 65.77m, which was lesser than Gowda’s PB. This means; when it mattered most, the Indian failed to deliver.
In women’s 20km race-walk, there were two Indian athletes. While Sapana was disqualified, Khushbir Kaur finished 37th out of 42 women, who could reach the finish line. In women’s marathon too, of the three Indian athletes, two could complete the race. Jaisha Orchatteri finished 18th and still created a national record with a time of 2:34:43, while Sudha Singh was 19th with 2:35:35. In men’s 50km walk, Sandeep Kumar finished 26th and Manish Singh 27th by clocking 3:57:03 and 3:57:11 respectively. In 4×400 relay, Indian women’s quartet of Priyanka Pawar, Anu Raghavan, Mathew Jisna and Tintu Lukka finished 14th in their heat out of 16 teams and couldn’t reach the final. Lukka also participated in the 800m but finished 7th in the heats and couldn’t progress further. In women’s 3000m steeplechase, India’s Lalita Shivaji Babar qualified for the final. However in the final, Babar broke away from the pack and led until the halfway mark. It was quite obviously a faulty way to run and Babar fell short of her stamina and finished 8th at the end. Inderjeet Singh qualified for the final of shot put but finished 11th. Three Indian men did the 20km race-walk but finished poorly in the end. Gurmeet Singh ended at 35th place, Chandan Singh at 41st and Baljinder Singh dropped out of the race at some point.