As time runs out on 2006, I can look back with pride on the good sporting year that India has had, bringing home 50 medals from seven disciplines in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and 54 medals from 16 disciplines in the Asian Games in Doha. Golfer Jeev Milkha Singh won four titles, including the Volvo Masters in Europe, archer Jayanta Talukdar won a World Cup title in Croatia while Geet Sethi claimed a world billiards title for the eighth time. In my own sport, I am proud that India has two world champions in Abhinav Bindra and Manavjit Singh Sandhu. Personally, I had a good year with five podium finishes in eight competitions. There have been many other great performers. M.C. Mary Kom won a world championship for the third time, providing a lot of thrust to women's boxing in the country. Saina Nehwal became the first Indian woman to win a badminton Grand Prix when she claimed the Philippines Open in May, and Sonia Rai secured India's maiden pistol medal in a World Cup. Joshna Chinappa has been keeping India's flag flying in squash.
Of course, the Indian cricket team has had its shares of ups and downs, winning Test matches in the West Indies and South Africa but losing its way in one-day cricket. Hockey is our national sport and we all know that it has been a year of nightmarish results for the men's team, battering our pride. It's time a conscientious effort is made by those who matter to get rid of the malaise in the system. Everybody goes through a phase that may not be the best, but how we deal with this phase will dictate our future. I hope we will see some great days ahead.
Yet, when I sit back and look at how we fared in 2006, the first thought that comes to mind is that despite a none-too-encouraging scenario, we have moved forward. Despite the inefficiencies of the system and negative attitudes all around, we are still moving ahead in terms of accomplishments. A number of fine displays at the Asian Games that come to mind but I shall single out rower Bajranglal Thakar for mention here. He won silver in the single sculls event, breaking the monotony of 10 bronze medals India has picked up in this sport over the years, yet Thakar has hardly found time and space in the media. To me, he represents the quintessential non-professional Indian sportsperson.
We really need to give credit to such people who by sheer hard work and determination are pushing themselves to achieve results. Of course, the government gives cash incentives to sportsmen for winning medals at the international level. While the awards that we give our achievers are higher than most countries, our policy is flawed. If you win medals at lower-level competitions, you are rewarded with more money than if you win the best medal in the highest competition. Obviously, it encourages sportspersons to divide their energies into more events and dominate competitions at lower levels and be richly awarded, rather than pursue one discipline and achieve excellence at the highest level. Sports policies must be continuously revised, lest the very essence of such rewards is rendered futile. Should we be rewarding mediocrity ahead of excellence?
I am in the most coveted position among amateur sportspersons, but let me confess, even I go through bouts when I don't want to train because it all seems so fruitless. The biggest issue with some of us is the thought that the country does not care for what we do. Like soldiers fighting in far-off lands, we are immensely proud of what we do because we feel responsible to our countrymen and we fight in the competitions for our own self-respect, for the self-respect of every Indian. But then, how far can anyone go on empty tanks? The will power does take a beating once in a while as we wait for people to recognise what it takes to be an Olympic athlete.
After all, the greatest morale-booster in amateur sports is the fact that the country recognises the sportspersons' effort. The people remain our biggest strength, our biggest motivation, our greatest pride. They are the ones who inspire us to go out each day, despite the limitations and hurdles, and run farther than our legs can take us, punch till it hurts no more and shoot down every target thrown up. Those who fulfil the peoples' dreams and expectations can be wonderful role models. Let's also urge the corporate world to not commercialise patriotism by supporting just cricket. Perhaps, it could start by spending 10 per cent of their cricket ad spends on Olympic sports. Perhaps, state governments could make policies that help sportspersons live their lives with dignity and pride, so that they can think beyond free bus passes. When this happens—and I believe it will—then and only then we will become a sporting nation. Why am I asking for all this? Simply because the only prize that really matters in amateur/Olympic sport is the sight of the national flag being raised.
(Lt Col Rajyavardhan Rathore won a double trap shooting silver medal at the Athens Olympic Games and is currently ranked third in the world.)
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