A shorter version of this piece was published in Friday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal Asia.
It was a gunshot heard across a subcontinent. On Monday, Abhinav Bindra, a 25-year-old shooter from India, took aim for his final shot in the 10-meter air rifle event at the Olympic Games. The pressure was intense, but Mr Bindra shot an almost-perfect 10.8 to win the gold medal. His fans and supporters jumped up in delight in the stands, as wild celebrations began across the country. India’s 24-hour news channels became 24-hour Bindra channels, and there was much talk of national pride.
Mr Bindra’s achievement warrants such celebration. On a national level, this was, astonishingly, the first gold medal India has won in an individual sport in any Olympics. And on the more important personal level, it was a testament to the years of single-minded hard work Mr Bindra dedicated to his sport. Not surprisingly, the government immediately took credit for his achievement.
India’s sports minister, Manohar Singh Gill, came on television and said, “I congratulate myself and every other Indian.” But while India’s shooting association is better than most of the bodies that run sport in the country, it was Mr Bindra’s family that enabled his success. Mr Bindra was lucky that his father is an industrialist who dipped into his personal wealth to support his son. He built a shooting range for Abhinav in his farmhouse in Punjab, and made sure he never ran out of ammunition, which is not made in India and has to be imported.
India and China are studies in contrast. The full might of the Chinese state goes into creating sportspeople who will bring it pride. The Indian government, on the other hand, does a pathetic job of administering sports in the country. Rent-seeking bureaucrats run the various sporting federations – or ruin them, as some would say. A great illustration of this is hockey, a sport once dominated by India, which failed to qualify for Bejing. Even though there is no Indian hockey team at these Olympics, four hockey coaches have duly made their way to Beijing. Franz Kafka would feel at home as an Indian sports journalist today.
Most of India’s finest sportspeople are self-made athletes who owe nothing to the system – Viswanathan Anand, the world chess champion, is a case in point. The sport where India has been most successful, cricket, is not administered by the government. Surely, nationalists would argue, there is a case to be made for pumping more money into our sport.
Such arguments are wrong. India’s leaders need to have a clear sense of priorities, and there are two things they would do well to consider. One, despite the gains sections of our economy have made since the liberalization of 1991, India remains a desperately poor country. Two, unlike China, India is democratic, and its government thus carries a certain responsibility towards its people, and the taxes it collects from them.
Any money that the government spends on sport could be better spent on building infrastructure: roads, ports, power-generating units etc. It would also do a lot of good simply left in the hand of the taxpayers, who would then spend it according to their own individual priorities. Hundreds of millions of Indians are forced to part with their hard-earned money through direct or indirect taxes, and it is perverse if that money is spent towards something as nebulous as an outdated notion of national pride.
For too long now, India has been an insecure nation craving validation from the West. Even many of us who speak of India as a future superpower have one ear cocked towards the west, straining to hear similar forecasts in a foreign accent, ignoring the condescension that such pronouncements sometimes carry. Similarly, we look to the sporting arena for affirmation of our self-worth. That attitude might have been understandable during the days of the cold war – but it no longer is.
Sport is a zero-sum game – for one nation to win, another must lose. But real life is non-zero-sum, and nothing demonstrates the win-win game of life as well as globalisation, with nations (and individuals) trading with each other to mutual benefit. In these times, it is clear we do not need Olympic medals to be a great nation, but economic progress that all Indians have access to. It is beyond the scope of this piece to spell out the many reforms that are needed for that happen – but spending taxpayers’ money responsibly is a key part of the puzzle.
I shall go against the prevailing wisdom, then, and say that I don’t mind if our government spends less money on sport, or even none. Where will our Olympic medals come from then, you ask (as if the last few decades have brought us a slew of them). Well, lift enough people to prosperity, and the sporting laurels will roll in. Ask Abhinav Bindra.