It is said that history only remembers the winners. History may well be kind to victors, but there is one section of society which uses them like trending topics on Twitter or Google, shamelessly riding their popularity to draw attention to themselves.
Sportspersons in India have the best fair-weather friends anyone can have – the friendly neighbourhood politician, holding out a salver of cheap financial rewards, government jobs and houses, ridiculous and uninformed promises of support, and, of course, a new, improved focus on “improving the state of sport in the region.” Each declaration made overnight, each one almost forgotten instantaneously.
This time too, the over-the-top welcomes accorded by politicians to PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar, India's top three Olympic performers at Rio, smack of unabashed opportunism, coupled with unhealthy and misguided attempts to appropriate their accomplishments.
Sports as propaganda
The use of sports and sporting achievements as tools for furthering political messages is neither new nor surprising.
Adolf Hitler wanted to use the Berlin Olympics of 1936 to boost his calls for ethnic cleansing and ideals of racial superiority. Benito Mussolini leveraged Italy’s 1934 World Cup win at home to showcase the country’s dominance at the global level and, four years later, allegedly sent a telegram with the words “Win or Die” as motivation to retain the same trophy.
The argument that athletic excellence has any link to racial superiority or prevailing societal conditions is a weak one and has been disproved time and again by, among others, runners from Kenya, Ethiopia and other third world nations. In such cases, the credit must go solely to the athletes and their support teams.
Indeed, India's athletes excel despite and not because of the system. Then why are those who suffer from sports amnesia between India's or Indians' triumphs the first ones to try to associate themselves with the victors? What right do political leaders have to bestow patriarchal titles like “daughter of India” or “Haryana ki beti, Sakshi Malik” (Haryana’s daughter, Sakshi Malik) when they have contributed in no way to their success?
Read the memo, politicians: athletes are women and men, not daughters or sisters, not sons or brothers.
Even if these titles are meant to be statements of admiration, did these athletes have to win Olympic medals to attain this status? Did Lalitha Babar do any less by becoming the first Indian athlete to qualify for a track final in 32 years? What about Aditi Ashok, the eighteen-year old who surprised everyone on the golf course in Rio her first two rounds?
A tug-of-war for credit
The spike in Google searches for Sindhu’s caste may have been an exaggeration. But the real crassness started when the badminton star and her coach Pullela Gopichand landed in Hyderabad.
The Telengana and the Andhra Pradesh governments spent the entire week in the aftermath of Sindhu’s memorable silver at Rio in a game of one-upmanship, each claiming the 21-year old shuttler as their own. The logic? Sindhu's mother is from Vijayawada in coastal Andhra while her father is from Telangana.
Earlier, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu had announced a reward of Rs 3 crore, a 1000-square yard plot and a Group-1 job offer for Sindhu, along with Rs 50 lakh for Gopichand. Telangana CM K Chandrasekhar Rao immediately beat the cash offer with cheques of Rs 5 crore and Rs 1 crore for Sindhu and Gopichand respectively.
Naidu raised his bid – for that was what it was – as coach Gopichand was allotted a 15-acre plot for a badminton academy in the proposed capital region of Amaravati.
In Haryana, Sakshi Malik’s reception in her village of Mokhra in Rohtak district started off as a reception for the bronze medallist but turned into a procession of netas and babus claiming a hand in her success.
After the BJP and Congress MLAs took turns speaking about how they would each start a sports facility in Sakshi’s name, it was Abhay Singh Chautala of the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), who took the cake.
He said, "Sakshi bitiya ne meri baat suni aur dekhiye aapke saamne medal hai. Meri baat agar Sakshi bitiya sune to agle Olympic mein gold pakka (Sakshi listened to me and the result is a medal. If she listens to me again, a gold is guaranteed in the next Olympics)." This, of course, is the same Chautala, who was reportedly partying in Rio when he wasn’t even authorised to leave the country as he was out on bail in a disproportionate assets case.
The latest tug-of-war started in Agartala as the Trinamool Congress spokesperson Derek O’Brien tried to woo Karmakar through an emotional open letter. The TMC’s desire to storm the CPI(M)'s bastion in Tripura is no secret, and the intention is obvious.
Karmakar had earlier been caught in a similar clash between the sports ministry and the Gymnastics Federation of India. She had only been included in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) after she had qualified for the event in April, barely three months prior to Rio.
Apathy in general
“Derek da”, as he referred to himself at the end of the latter, made one valid point in his letter. Karmakar’s request for her physiotherapist's presence was considered unnecessary until she made the final – a classic show of apathy from officials.
Sania Mirza, who finished fourth in the mixed doubles with Rohan Bopanna, was once referred to as “Pakistan’s daughter-in-law” by a BJP leader from Telangana. Mirza showed how much a medal had meant to her when she broke down after a loss in the bronze medal play-off.
Achanta Sharath Kamal, India’s ace paddler, did not mince his words when he described how non-medallists returning from Rio were treated. “Only when we get medals do we get one (reception). No receiving happens when you lose early,” said Kamal, who had lost in the first round at Rio.
Gopichand, having produced two medallists from his academy, fought a legal case against the Andhra Pradesh government in 2008 when the YS Rajashekhar Reddy-led government had taken back half of the land that had initially been allotted to the academy.
Telangana deputy CM Mehmood Ali had also claimed that Sindhu would be given “proper training” with a foreign coach in order to win gold next time. Gopichand wasn’t impressed by the theatrics. "We don't have a great system," he said, putting eight years of hard work in perspective. "Medals are a byproduct of a good system. It's not about a small group.”
Why did sports minister Vijay Goel wait 10 days after OP Jaisha's collapse in Rio to launch an investigation? As sports minister, was the well-being of India's athletes not his highest priority? Questions that should immediately have followed – Why did she collapse? Why did she not get enough water? – were not asked, as the minister was busy clicking selfies in Rio.
From Suresh Kalmadi referring to Abhinav Bindra as “Avinash” after the shooter had won an individual gold in Beijing, to Vijay Goel wishing “Dipa Karmanakar” all the best in her finals, the lack of connection between the authorities and sports hasn’t really changed.
One thing is clear though. Medals may make a great athlete, but they make for even greater political mileage. For politicians.