Saturday, April 21, 2007

Sports in India and America

In recent weeks Indians all over the world have been mourning the national cricket team's abysmal performance in the World Cup. Sadly, failure in the arena of international sports is nothing new for India - the occasional success in cricket being the exception rather than the rule. India’s disappointing performance in the Olympic Games is well known and is much lamented.

Whenever we Indians contemplate our sporting failure, we tend to blame the usual suspects:
(1) The national sports federations are accused of incompetence and/or nepotism.
(2) In cricket, the top players are accused of being excessively greedy, and are said to be spending too much time and energy on product endorsements.
(3) For other (non-cricket) sports, the govt is accused of not providing sufficient financial support for top athletes.
(4) The govt. is accused of not providing “world-class” training facilities for our top athletes.

However, as I see it, these are not really the fundamental problems with Indian sports. Rather, I believe that the fundamental problem lies in the complete lack of interest in sports at the local level – school and college sports, state level sports, etc.

Indian Top-Down Approach Versus American Bottom-Up Approach

I think much can be learned by comparing India's approach to sports to that of other countries. Having lived in the United States for over a decade, I try here to make a broad comparison between the Indian and American approaches.

The Indian approach to sports can be characterized as “top-down”. Great importance is given to how India performs at the international level, but there is very little interest in sport at the school, college, and state level. What little interest there is in, say, neighborhood cricket, derives from the excitement generated by the national team. In stark contrast, in the U.S., public interest in sport is primarily at the local level, not at the international or even national level. Huge amounts of time, effort and money are spent on local sports - especially in high schools and colleges. Of course there is interest and money in national level sports - the National Football League (NFL), the National Basketball Association (NBA), etc. But this interest in national (and international) sports is built upon a culture of sports at the school/college level. Thus in the U.S. one sees a building-block approach – interest in national and international sport has tended to build upon already existing interest and involvement in local sports. On the other hand in India one sees a trickle-down approach – interest in neighborhood sports has tended to trickle down from interest in international sports. Some of this trickle-down effect can be seen in the establishment of “national academies” or “centers of excellence” to feed the national teams. It is hoped that these academies will select a very small number of highly talented youngsters and coach them into world-class athletes. In the Indian “top-down” model, improving the average standard of sports - by, for instance, building or improving sports fields in a large number of schools - is not considered important. Rather, the priority is on discovering talented individuals who can be coached into winning at the international level.

Consider the Following Observations

The nine largest sports stadiums (excluding auto/horse racing venues) in the U.S. cater exclusively to college sports - Michigan Stadium (University of Michigan), Beaver Stadium (Penn State University) and Neyland Stadium (University of Tennessee) being the top three. In college sports, billions of dollars are spent on facilities, coaches, and equipment, as well as on advertising, TV rights, etc. Athletics is a big part of the identity of many colleges. In contrast, there is hardly any public interest in college sports India – far from attracting gigantic crowds of spectators and TV audiences, sometimes even the players and coaches fail to turn up for college-level sports competitions in India.

High school sports is also taken very seriously in the U.S. Though high school sports stadiums are not as large as college stadiums, they are usually also of high quality, with floodlights and rubber running tracks. For the student body, as well as the local community, high school athletics is part of their identity, and often an immense source of pride. This is especially true in small towns in Middle America. If you drive into a small town in say Iowa or Alabama, be prepared to be greeted by a sign saying something like this: “Welcome to Riverside, Home of the 2003 Division 3A State Champion Riverside Eagles” (see this). In contrast, most schools in India do not take any serious interest in sports. Hardly anybody in India is aware of athletic events involving their neighborhood schools/colleges. Only if somebody makes it to the international level, do Indians take pride in their “local boy” – “Sehweg is from Najafgarh”, “Dhoni is (was?) the pride of Ranchi”, etc. Many high schools in India do organize a rather elaborate annual “Sports Day”, but the emphasis is usually more on pageantry, chief guests, and march-pasts, rather than on the sporting performances themselves (for example, see this).

In the U.S. sports instruction – or coaching – is taken very seriously at all age groups and at all levels. Even very young children, say six years old, often get some form of organized sports instruction. In many parts of Middle America the word “coach” connotes a certain respect and trust that goes beyond athletics, and is often used as an honorific, in the same vein as “prof” or “doc”. Some of the most legendary coaches in America have been college coaches, who have never coached at the national or international level (such as Coach “Bear” Bryant). In India on the other hand, sports instruction at the school and college level is almost nonexistent. Many schools do not even have a single full-time sports instructor.

High school and college sports occupy pride of place in American popular culture and are often celebrated in movies (such as this), TV shows (such as this), and in the local media (for example see this). The best athletes occupy prestigious positions in the school/college social hierarchy and usually command high values in the “dating market”. On the other hand students who favor academics over athletics are often labeled as “nerds” and are looked down upon. The situation in India is quite the opposite. People are barely aware of the existence of school and college sports. Even the super-hit cricket-based Hindi movie Lagaan played on the theme of sport as competition between nations, with a ragtag bunch of Indian villagers – representing the Indian nation – pitted against the mighty British. If Indian newspapers ever report on school/college sports they are usually buried deep in the inside pages. What the Indian media does report very prominently are high school academic examination results (see this or this).

When a youngster in the U.S. takes up sport, he or she does not do it with the dream of “bringing glory to the country”. Of course he (and his parents) may indeed have dreams – perhaps of becoming a high school star, or winning a college sports scholarship and playing for a college. However, it is generally believed that doing well in sports is worthwhile in and of itself, even if one never gets to represent the country. Americans believe that sport not only promotes fitness, it also builds character, leadership qualities, social skills, discipline, etc. In India, by contrast, neighborhood sports are generally considered worthless pursuits, with maybe some redeeming recreational value, but nothing more. Other than recreation, sport is perceived primarily as a way to attain national glory.

In India it is often said that if only the govt were to pump in more money into top-level (non-cricket) sports facilities and top-level sportspersons, India would be a world power in sports. However after seeing the sports scene in the U.S., I have come to the realization that this argument isn’t true at all. In the U.S., though top sports professionals make fortunes, the vast majority of sportspeople have virtually no prospect of ever enjoying any financial return from their sporting endeavors, and they are themselves well aware of this. The most that a talented youngster can generally hope for is to receive a college scholarship and an opportunity to be a college athlete. In fact there are plenty of American Olympic medal winners, in events like say shooting or wrestling, who do not receive any significant financial reward. The lack of any financial incentive does not deter thousands of young athletes from spending huge amounts of time, effort and sometimes money, in their quest to excel in their in sports (unfortunately, sometimes to the detriment of their studies). In comparison, top sportspeople in India – and not just in cricket – are quite lavishly rewarded for any success in international competitions (see this). Even in terms of equipment and facilities top Indian athletes do not appear to be too badly off. The fact that India has been winning a good proportion of its international medals in the sport of shooting says something. This is a highly technical sport that requires a good deal of investment in facilities and equipment to be successful at the international level (even a single bullet for top-level shooters costs significant money). If India really lacked top-level facilities, one would have expected India to do poorly in equipment-intensive sports like shooting and relatively better in sports that do not require expensive facilities, such as long distance running. Instead, quite the opposite is true.

What I think Should Happen in Indian Sports

The American “bottom-up” model is certainly not perfect - I have come across many a college professor ruing the fact that undergraduates prefer to spend much more time and energy on college athletics rather than on college academics. But some aspects of the American model – with its emphasis on school and college sports – are worth emulating in India.

I believe the Indian public should take an active interest in local sport and the govt. should encourage this by building more sports facilities at the grasroots level. Rather than spending colossal sums of money building facilities for a handful of top athletes, why not spend the same money to build sports fields in muncipal and panchayat schools?

There are indeed some encouraging signs. Cricket really does have a mass base now. Recreational cricket is quite widespread in India, and its reach is expanding all the time. Interest in top-level cricket is, of course, huge. What is needed is to fill in the intermediate levels between recreational cricket and international cricket. These intermediate levels – inter-school championships, inter-college championships, state championships, etc. – need to be heavily promoted and energized. Surely this is not impossible, given the interest and money that is there in Indian cricket today.

Outside of cricket the outlook is a lot murkier. Many new schools are starting up in Indian cities without any playground at all. However there is reason for optimism as well. I was in Pune last year during the running of the Pune International Marathon. It was heartening to see many thousands of Puneites, including many school and college students, run the 5k and the 10k. In the publicity leading up to the event, it was good to see the organizers emphasizing and encouraging large-scale public participation. In fact I would encourage the organizers to go one step further, and completely do away with substantial prize money for the top international runners. Instead, why not use that money to buy good running shoes for the top 100 10k finishers from amongst local schoolboys and schoolgirls, or use the money to fund a distance running program in Pune schools run by professional coaches?

If India does indeed build a solid sporting foundation by encouraging school, college and other local sports, the lives of many millions of youngsters will be enriched through sports. There is also little doubt that, with a population of more than one billion, this will eventually lead to better international sports performances.


Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

I was glad to see Indian sport minister Mani Shankar Aiyer's comments on India losing its bid to host the 2014 Asian Games. I share his sentiments completely in this regard. Quote: "My guess is by not hosting the Asian Games we probably saved ourselves something of the order of INR 5000 crores (approximately $1.2 billion) ... If I can leverage this to provide kitty to Panchayat Yuva Khel Abhiyan (a body that promotes sport among youth in villages) by 2012, I can assure you there can be at least minimum organised sports infrastructure, sports coaching and sports management for a large population of the neglected 720 million of our fellow countrymen".

Link to the full new-article here.

April 23, 2007 3:52 PM  
Anonymous etlamatey said...

Do you think Subhash Chandra's idea of a "parallel" cricket league at the domestic level [link] is a step in the right direction?

April 23, 2007 9:36 PM  
Blogger Pramit said...

It is one of the best posts on the sad state of Indian sports I have read.

Great work. Yo are spot on about Top down management and how Indians visualize success in sports.

April 24, 2007 5:06 AM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Thanks for the compliment!! Regarding Subhash Chandra's proposed "parallel" domestic cricket league, I think it is a step in the right direction, but a very small step. Unfortunately it looks to me (admittedly based only on very preliminary information) that the league will focus mainly on celebrity cricketers - we may see headlines like "showdown between Sachin XI and Saurav XI", etc. It would have been much better if, instead, Zee TV would put in money and publicity effort into the the more broad-based Ranji Trophy tournament, or an inter-college / inter-university tournament. But you really can't blame Subhash Chandra or Zee for this. Like any good company they probably follow the maxim "the customer is king" - as long as the customer (the Indian public) is interested only in celebrity international cricketers, that is where Zee will invest its money. Still it is a step in the right direction as it seeks to expand public interest in cricket to a slightly broader base than just the national team.

April 26, 2007 4:53 AM  
Blogger Sinfully Pinstripe said...

Mr. Shome, I must say your ideas, albeit positive, detailed, observant and indeed, noble, did get to only the periphery of the problem. Would like to someday write a full-fledged post on the basis of the problem with Indian sports that you have discussed here (and the basis of the contrast between indian sport and the same in the US, and indeed, Tanzania), but as of now, would like to bring your attention to an email discussion I had more than two years ago on the same topic with a close friend, who (like me) is appalled at the sporting standards of Indian sports, and like you, has been staying in the US for nearly a decade... and we together tried to get to the heart of the matter. Possibly you might, too.

For your reference.

April 27, 2007 12:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi. came upon your post by chance and found it very interesting. there is a lack of interest in sports at the local level, but i feel that it is primarily due to the structure of the educational system in india. the age at which a sport becomes serious for a child is in the teenage years of 14 - 18. unfortunately in india, this is the time when kids start focussing on the public exam routine. however high the interest level in sport, no parent would encourage their child to pursue sports and risk a poor showing in their exams. so competitive is the environment in indian schools that no child would risk failure at academics. failure to get into a good college often means that the child is doomed to a mediocre career. the high school sports worth mentioning. this is due to the fact that colleges base admission decisions solely on academic parameters. gain, this is because there is no srong sports scene in indian universities or at the state level. this calls for intervention at a higher the top down approach is not all wrong. it just needs to be balanced out.


May 01, 2007 9:17 PM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Thanks for your comments. You are right that the "top down approach is not all wrong, it just needs to be balanced out". It is not so much a question of whether the top-down approach is right or wrong, but we must at least recognize that the Indian approach to sports is indeed top-down, which leads to highly imbalanced top-heavy funding and support. The top-down approach exists because of various cultural, historical and other factors, which of course cannot be reversed, but we must at least recognize it as such and try to compensate for it, or as you say, "balance it out".

You are partly right that lack of interest in local-level sports stems from the structure of the exam system in India. And who can deny the importance of doing well in competitive exams. However, there is more to it than that. It is not that extra-curricular activities are entirely absent amongst youngsters in India. Many schools/colleges in India put up rather elaborate cultural events/festivals, at least once a year. Here, one can witness dramatics/music/dance/quiz productions of high quality, where the participants display a high level of competence, which would have obviously required lots of time, devotion and hard work, and perhaps even some professional training. Even those students who do not perform in these cultural events take an active interest and turn out in large numbers to watch and cheer. Among the general student body the level of interest in such cultural events in usually more than in inter-school/college sporting events. Thus, even allowing for the fact that the Indian academic system sqeezes out extra-curricular activities, sports gets a low priority even among the extra-curricular activities that do exist. Quite the opposite is true in the U.S., where sports is by far the most prominent extra-curricular activity in schools/colleges. A serious effort must be made to popularize school/college level sporting events in India. Organizers and participants should try to involve the larger student body and generate some excitement or "buzz". Perhaps sporting events should be made part of college cultural festivals. Perhaps the introduction of cheerleaders or other entertainers in sporting events will help. The media can also play a big role. Maybe something for sports along the lines of the "Bournvita Quiz Contest" or "Indian Idol" TV programs could be started - at least for cricket such programs are likely to be financially viable even today.

May 05, 2007 9:42 AM  
Blogger puresunshine said...

commenting on an earlier post. enjoyed the pictures and write-up on Jerusalem. Its so fascinating. I practically visited all the links. U've given me something to read up on for the next few weeks.


May 16, 2007 9:58 AM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Thanks puresunshine, for your very nice comment.

May 16, 2007 1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey sid, saw your response to my earlier comment. i agree with your view on extra currics, but have a slightly different take on it.

a) the extra curricular activities are typically annual days. kids get dressed in costumes and dance to 'patriotic songs' or 'state dances' for a week to perform on stage before doting parents with cameras. these activities require absolutely no skill or ability, only interest. sport cannot figure among these events for one simple reason, you cannot excel at a sport by practicing for a week. you need to practice all through the year. and that is something indian kids just dont do. found this interesting article on the web.

b) You are right in saying that a large number turn up and cheer....but that is about all they do. very few actually go out and play. indians just dont play as much as people in other countries. we seem to be culturally averse to physical activity. the sports that wee choose are the ones that require the least physical dexterity. case in point: cricket. how much physical agility is required to play it??? its a lazy man's sport. even there, our flabby, potbellied cricketers are nowhere near the fitness levels of the aussies or the south africans. now, even cricket is turning into a game that demands raw power and physical ability. and we start failing there too.

now this is a topic for a totally different debate, so i dont want to get into it :-)

I think you are spot on in talking about the need for creating a buzz around sports. the question is how.

btw, i came across an article about the chinese sporting machine and their version of the 'top down approach'. quite an interesting read. i dont think it would ever succeed in a country like ours.


May 17, 2007 10:24 AM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Hey Rahul. You are absolutely 100% spot on regarding Indian's cultural aversion to physical activity. This is probably the root cause for the lack of interest in sports in India. Clearly Indians look down upon physical activity, which is a stark contrast with attitudes in America. It has happened to me when visiting some relatives home in India that if I carried my own suitcases form the car to the house, my well-meaning hosts would raise strong objections, as if somehow carrying my own suitcase is beneath my dignity and reflects poorly upon my hosts. Instead, a servant/driver/gardener, old and infirm though he may be, would called upon undertake the task.

You are correct that kids performing 'Naga dances' and suchlike do not need much skill or practive. However, think about it: how many doting parents with cameras come to watch a football/soccer match (of the same standard as the 'Naga dances') involving their kids, and how many schools organize such sporting events? Also, keep in mind that there are other cultural events and competitions at the school and college levels in India that do need lots of skill and practice. I myself was part of the inter-school and inter-college general knowledge quizzing circuit in my days. Some of the top performers (myself not included) in quizzing do practice long and hard and are consequently very good. Consider also college fests like Mood Indigo ( Some (not all) of the performances in such events are almost of professional quality, clearly requiring lots of practice.

You are right that the highly controlled and ordered Chinese model is not possible in India's open and chaotic society.

In creating a buzz around sports, the TV channels should take the lead. How about an 'Indian Idol' or 'Survivor' type of show based on sports.

Interestingly, I was talking to a European colleague, and I learnt that there is no college sports in Europe. It seems that local sports are important but they revolve around sporting clubs.

May 17, 2007 4:33 PM  
Blogger Harisharan said...

Hi! Sid,

There are some really good thoughts on sports in India on your blog. Was also pleased to see that the responses are quite good.

We are organising a national level debate on why is indian sports in the gallows and what can and showuld be done to improve it?

April 03, 2008 10:03 PM  
Blogger Harisharan said...

You can send in your comments for the debate and on the off-chance that you want to be part of the debate or others who want to... I can keep you posted about the details of the event.

April 03, 2008 10:06 PM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Hi Harisharan,

Thank you very much for your comments. Considering that I am located in the U.S., to the extent that it is feasible for me to participate in the debate you are organizing through comments, etc., I will be extremely happy to do so. Please send me information on how I can send in comments, and how I can follow the debate.

April 04, 2008 12:52 AM  

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