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.