07/15/2022, 19.35
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Cultural and educational changes are needed for India to excel in sports

by Alessandra De Poli

Neeraj Chopra, Murali Sreeshankar and Jeswin Aldrin are India’s newest track and field stars. Although some will bet at the World Athletics Championships, which opened today in Eugene (US), India remains a desert when it comes to Olympic medals. Cultural attitudes and poorly made investments seem to be the main causes; however, things appear to be changing.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) - The World Athletics Championships Oregon22 (WCH Oregon22) began today in Eugene, Oregon (United States). Indians will closely follow Neeraj Chopra, a 24-year-old javelin thrower who won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics (India’s first top award in athletics) with a throw of 87.58 metres.

Late last month, Chopra achieved his personal best at the Stockholm Diamond League with 89.94 metres and the 90-metre barrier could be breached at the WCH Oregon22, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (United Kingdom) later this month, or at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, in September.

Described by sports media as the fella next door, Chopra is chased by companies for sponsorships, becoming one of the country’s newest celebrities. This year he won the Sportstar of the Year Award, but he may soon be followed by other emerging Indian athletes.

Chopra himself, who now trains near San Diego, in the United States, believes that Indian track and field is in good health, especially in the long jump.

Murali Sreeshankar (born in 1999) is the leading jumper. Holder of the national record with 8.36 metres since April of this year, he is in a healthy competition with another young athlete, Jeswin Aldrin, a 20-year-old Pentecostal Christian from the small village of Mudalur (Tamil Nadu).

This year, while most of Aldrin’s jumps fell short of Shreeshankar’s, he did manage to jump 8.37 metres, which was not registered because it had a tailwind of 4.1 m/s.[*]

Trained by former Cuban champion Yoandri Betanzos, and driven by a desire to do better than his fellow Indian, Aldrin seems to have a promising future ahead of him. In the end, he was not included in the Indian team going to the World Athletics Championship.

India is slated to overtake China as the world’s most populous country (1.4 billion people) by next year, and yet it had the lowest per capita medal count until last year’s Tokyo Olympics. In his career, US swimmer Michael Phelps alone won as many Olympic medals as India: 28.

Over the years, various explanations have been given for India's failure to capitalise on its huge human capital. One is economic. Despite 30 years of constant economic growth, India remains a poor country with poor infrastructures, which are essential when it comes to training, national meetings, and competitions.

India’s high rate of child malnutrition and genetic traits are other factors often cited, but this argument does not stand up to scrutiny since other countries like Ethiopia, Kenya and Jamaica have similar rates of underdevelopment.

According to some Indian commentators, culture plays a role. Over the decades, India’s caste system has influenced the world of sports, while the country’s elites have always viewed intellectual achievements as superior to sports. Good students have always enjoyed greater media coverage than sports champions, the one exception being cricket.

Yet, things have been changing a bit in recent years as a result of successes in track and field. After the 2016 Rio Olympics when India won only two medals, the government and the private sector began to pour money into sports, although funding was aimed primarily at top athletes, not the less prestigious sports.

Several NGOs have tried to fill the gaps left by local government in the field of sport, even if their actions in rural areas are broader and sport is included to cooperation projects only as a socially useful activity. For them, developing a sports culture is an important goal.

For their part, businesses enjoy tax benefits if they invest in sport as part of their corporate social responsibility, but a basic problem persists: raising funds is hard for sports associations without a celebrity athlete sponsor whose role can be monetised. For their part, athletes can hope to get money only after they reach international status.

To propel India to the top levels, the only solution seems to be investing in youth to develop the best talents. This means ensuring that sports are part of school life for children and teenagers. This would help NGOs and businesses to better target their investments.

In Neeraj Chopra’s case, the only reason he stepped on a track was because his parents wanted him to lose some weight.

[*] A jump is not registered as a record if a tail wind exceeds 2 metres per second.

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