The global sports industry – of which the Olympics are the most important example – has largely skewed rational thinking about sport through feeding middle-class national egos in our part of the world. Sporting extravaganzas such as the Olympics have quite successfully made national welfare synonymous with what feels good for a tiny minority.

An idea of the public good should dictate a greater share of the national income being spent to improve health and educational facilities for the most disadvantaged sections of the population. However, around this time, there is intense breast-beating about the lack of Olympic medals and the need for greater expenditure on sporting infrastructure to create a “sporting culture” to increase the tally. But the problem is that sporting cultures cannot be created through greater expenditure on sporting infrastructure. Countries that have so-called sporting cultures are those that also have considerable expenditure on a variety of social indicators such as health and education.

Apart from cricket, the modern history of sport in India is similar to that of recruitment of army jawans. It is an arena where men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds find opportunities for material and social advancement. And, in both cases, they carry the burden of middle-class national egos.

A risky business

Both being in the army and – given the arbitrary nature of our sporting bureaucracy – trying one’s luck as a sportsperson is risky business. And so, we prefer that someone else’s child takes the responsibility for providing us that frisson of patriotic giddiness that a medal-winning athlete (or the heroic jawan) from the poorest strata of society provides.

We like the poor to fight our wars on both the battlefield and the sporting arena but are not particularly concerned to pressure governments to create conditions to lessen the risks of remaining in poverty. That may be because there is no genuine interest in creating a level playing field of opportunities.

Most sportspeople in India who reach elite levels do so as a result of some form of institutional support: employment by the army, banks and the railways, for example. Such jobs reduce the risks of failure in the risky endeavour of sporting success. Even if you don’t get a medal, you will still have a job and a salary. This should tell us something about the conditions that are needed for sporting success.

A sporting career is a risky one on many counts. Firstly, the rules of success are different to other fields of life. Workers in an office do not get turfed out because they did not produce paperwork at the fastest (or the second- or third-fastest) rate on any particular day. Big-business competitive sport is a caricature of life, even though we like to think of it as a reflection of it.

However, for many, disadvantaged through birth by the education system, sporting success is seen as a way out of a lifetime of grinding poverty. What else do the poor have to offer but their bodies? But, while sporting success depends on personal attributes, in the Indian context, it is also linked to the vagaries of patron-client relationships, political machinations and dumb luck in a number of ways.

For every Neeraj Chopra and Mirabai Chanu whose personal abilities were bolstered by a supportive institutional structure (the army and the railways), there are thousands whose sporting journeys are unsuccessful.

The fate of those who do not succeed is miserable indeed. The lottery of birth means that their non-sporting qualifications – education – condemns them to the same cycle of deprivation that they wanted to escape. However, when compared to the countries we seek to emulate in sporting success, India spends around 3% of its Gross Domestic Product on public education. In Japan the figure is closer to 6 % and in Germany it is around 9%.

‘Global power’ aspirations

In terms of other measures of public welfare – expenditure on healthcare, for example – we fare even worse. We expect the poor to carry the responsibility of national pride – that hollowest of sensibilities – but take no responsibility for their general welfare.

Consider, on the other hand, the amounts we allow our politicians to spend on projects such as “national” monuments, over-size statues of public figures, religious structures and urban “beautification” schemes. The national ego is primarily interested in the spectacle, that of shiny monuments, concretised riverfronts, grand vistas and the rare Olympic medal. We have come to believe that this is the national good.

The urge to be a “global” power without taking care of domestic public welfare lies at the heart of this obsession.

Our urge to be an instant “global power” has, to borrow a term from the French thinker Guy Debord, rapidly converted us to a society of the spectacle. The making of the spectacular does not demand any fundamental changes in the structures and systems – access to good public education, health, transport, etc. – rather, it substitutes one for the other. The spectacle itself becomes an indication of transformation.

Politicians love it because they can take credit for producing national “greatness” and the well-off think it is marvellous because they can bask in its glow without having to share in any of the risks. Building a spectacular monument might mean spending less on public health and education and the rare Olympic medal does not direct our attention to the lack of avenues for social and economic mobility for the majority of the population.

But we don’t mind. It costs us nothing.

Sanjay Srivastava is a sociologist.