Indian television

Channel surfing: Thank you, Olympics, for showing Indians a world beyond cricket

The Rio Games have given even diehard couch potatoes a kick up the pants.

Nothing has been able to top the Olympics on television these past few weeks, especially given our sports warriors PV Sindhu, Dipa Karmakar and Sakshi Malik. Respect, admiration and glory to them, in spades.

Reams have been written about their struggles and huge wins, and loads have been said the infrastructure challenges, lack of financial support, and a broad understanding of the various nuances of their sports. Karmakar, who can take pride in acquainting Indians with the Produnova vault, cannot be blamed for being slightly exasperated with the line of questioning by her fellow Indian journalists. As Reuters reports:

Just how oblivious Indians are about gymnastics was clear on Sunday when a throng of reporters bombarded Karmakar with questions such as: “Couldn’t you have done the landing better?” “Is this your highest mark?” “Does anyone else attempt this vault?” “Someone even asked me, ‘Why didn’t you do the Produnova twice? If you did it twice, you would have got the medal!’” Karmakar, who got a career-best of 15.266 for the vault, said rolling her eyes. “That’s when I realised how ignorant some people still are about gymnastics. I had to explain to them that the rules state I have to perform two completely different vaults, one going forward and one going backwards.”

No points for sensitivity there – but perhaps no surprise, given that gymnastics has never been a big draw in the country. There is a possibility that this attitude will change, at least in some small way, thanks to Karmakar and her incredible journey. Let us not be under the illusion that one Karmakar means that India can turn into an engine like the former USSR, but that’s not to say the country can’t make a start.

The positive side is that there is interest and there does seem to be a collective competitive spirit. For all the talk about cricket being the national obsession, it does feel like Indians now care not just about gymnastics, but also about badminton, tennis, wrestling, even weight-lifting. (Thank you, Olympics!)

While athletes aren’t quite able to cash in yet, there is money flowing in at some level, judging by the proliferation of India-based televised sporting events. It’s a far cry from the monopoly Test, ODI and then T20 enjoyed just a few years ago.

There’s the Premier Futsal League with some major players on board. They were estimated to have spent some Rs 45 crore on promotion and marketing this year. The Managing Director of Premier Futsal, Dinesh Raj, reportedly estimated that team promoters would shell out Rs 8 to 10 crores in this inaugural year.
Then there’s the Pro Kabaddi League, already in its fourth season. As of last year, Star India, which had invested more than Rs 300 crore in the league, was hoping that they would turn a profit by 2018. By all accounts, they seem to have captured a healthy viewership, especially in different language editions.

And then you have Hockey India League, as well as the Indian Super League soccer tournament. Will this all lead to the development of a wider sporting culture and infrastructure? That is certainly the hope – and the ISL for one claimed to ensure commitment to the development of a “grassroots” soccer programme.

Maybe we will get there, after all. If nothing else, this Olympics was a bit of a kick up the pants, even for diehard couch potatoes. All it takes is an India angle for us to collectively lean forward to cheer on, and then think about how much more the country needs.

If this Olympics gave us any catchphrase, I would hope it is “Fight like a girl,” with thanks to veteran sports journalist Sharda Ugra.

Amrita Tripathi is a freelance journalist and author. She can be reached @amritat.

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