The 18th edition of the Asian Games, being hosted by Jakarta and Palembang, has already seen India coming up with its best medal haul. While India has expectedly delivered in disciplines such as shooting, badminton and wrestling, the Jakarta and Palembang Games will be remembered for the performances in “non-Indian” events such as rowing, sepak takraw, wushu, and, most crucially, athletics — a drastic change from when India was dependent on only a handful of sports for all its medals. The past week was a good example of this major shift.
Even as the men’s hockey team crashed out to Malaysia in the semi-finals — an opponent it was widely tipped to steamroll on its way to gold — Jinson Johnson strolled to the 1,500m title, a comfortable victory few would have anticipated. This was, of course, only two days after Johnson finished second in the 800m, the same event that saw compatriot Manjit Singh put in a remarkable sprint in the final stretch to clinch gold. A 1-2 for India on the track at any level is a rarity, and it is a sterling testament to the duo’s efforts that they managed to achieve it on a big stage. Add to that Neeraj Chopra and his golden exploits in the javelin, and it is safe to say that the male athletes have made up for India’s disappointing finishes in hockey and kabaddi.
And it’s not only the men who have shone on the track. Dutee Chand, who won silver in both the 100m and 200m; Hima Das, who backed up her 400m win in the World Junior Championships in July with a silver medal; and Swapna Barman’s gold-winning showing in the heptathlon, are all incredible stories from the women’s side. Chand deserves a special mention here simply for the trying circumstances that she has endured throughout her career. Due to high testosterone levels in her body, an old rule meant that there was a time when she could not compete as a woman. The rule was struck down in 2015.
The jubilation over individual performances, however, must be tempered with some realism. Despite the emergence of new stars in relatively obscure disciplines by Indian standards, the country is still slated to finish behind the likes of Uzbekistan and Taipei in the medals tally — all much smaller countries with meagre sporting resources compared to India. The medal total is only four better than eight years ago; the number of golds won is just 15 out of about 450 at the Games. In that sense, India is still an also-ran, keeping company with Kazakhstan, Thailand and the like, and put completely in the shade by the three leading countries, China, Japan and South Korea.
That can improve only if India pushes a nationwide sporting culture that is still at an embryonic stage. And while a determined focus on the promotion of this culture has seen disciplines other than cricket garner popularity — badminton and table-tennis have particularly profited from this welcome change — it must be expanded to other fields. An initiative such as Khelo India School Games, for instance, should be taken forward with more fervour.
A report, Governance of Sports in India: 2016, by InGovern Research Services, an advisory which analysed publicly available data from 27 sports associations and federations, including the Indian Olympic Association, gave enough examples of the incompetence of India's administrators running many sports bodies as personal fiefdoms, characterised by nepotism and corruption. Heading a sports federation in India means you aren’t held accountable for unsatisfactory results.
This Asiad has shown that India has improved, but there is a lot of scope for a whole new level of effort and determination. The country’s sports lovers have had enough of poor governance and excessive bureaucracy. What India needs is integrated planning and a holistic approach to sporting strategy.