- We are about to lock up the largely empty medals cupboard for another four years. Small-town women and men will go back to their small towns, though some may manage a well-deserved escape from their generally hard lives through participation in the Olympics. There will be recognition by different levels of government, cash awards and, if they are really lucky, a government job for a few. A wrestler or two might become police officers, though future policing is unlikely to scale any great heights as a result.
- The social media heart-burn over India’s lack of medals will die down and the junketeering contingent of officials will return with tales of wild nights in the Olympic city (and the fact they were not given due importance as Very Important Persons). We will return to our little lives of quiet desperation, cursing the fate of an apparently Great Nation whose destiny is stymied by puny bureaucrats and self-serving politicians.
- But, there is always cricket.
- How did we start to take our measure through success in sporting events? How did the extraordinary strivings of Indian athletes, which cannot be assessed through the undemanding task of medal-counting but, rather, the byzantine hurdles of their subaltern lives, become a crisis of national character? How did poor Indians – running, grappling, boxing and vaulting their way out of their predicaments – become our Mohammad Alis: tasked with securing glory for the nation while being denied basic human comforts and rights? By converting sporting success into contemporary medallions of having arrived and become global, perhaps.
- It’s the arrival – always the arrival – that matters, the journey be damned. The despondency over Olympic medals is both marked by an aversion about the journey and a steadfast focus upon brilliant individuals rather than the collective life that produces brilliance. The idea of the brilliant individual feeds into the fantasy of individualism: that we don’t have to undo the structural darkness at the heart of our lives.
- We like to celebrate the success of the Dalit sportsperson without having to address the fundamentals of the caste system. We love the poor athlete whose parents work as domestic labour, but will make sure that those who perform domestic labour in our houses live as close to the bone as possible. There is a reserve army of the miserable that must gather national happiness on our behalf.
Natural ability and national glory
- There is nothing more condemnable in our times than the sporting imagination. So, whereas on the one hand, it is a tool for a variety of well-heeled to live off the tribulations of the foot-soldiers of sport, on the other, it allows the rest of us to feel that success is a matter of natural ability. The rise of the idea of “natural ability” is the blinding light that obscures the fact that natural ability can only be nurtured in the crucible of social circumstance. The notion of natural ability in a deeply unequal society is a handy tool for maintaining a particular delusion: that anyone can succeed, if only they try hard enough. Competitive, globalised and corporatised sport is not really a great leveller, it is, actually the simplest way in which we are able to justify the way things are: we don’t do well because of lack of natural ability, and, if we do well, it is because the sportsperson has natural ability.
- This way of thinking about achievement, while common in the sporting arena, has wider consequences. It blinds us to the fact that social well-being comes about through schemes for the well-being of large numbers of those with ordinary abilities. It denies the fact that it is the improvement in social well-being that leads to large numbers of extraordinary individuals. It obliterates the natural abilities of those at the bottom of the socio-economic pile.
- If we are really serious about sports, then it might be a good idea to spend more money on electrification of villages, building effective health, schooling and transport systems and squarely addressing the social rules and norms that restrict basic human rights. Son-preference has not secured any medals and other forms of discrimination cage countless others with ability. By now, we should know that expenditure on sports, by itself, is an ineffective way of achieving sporting success.
- Rich countries secure their medals at great cost: a recent report suggested that it cost Australian tax-payers around $11 million per gold medal in terms of the expenditure on training and other costs. It is a cost they can, perhaps, bear. The cost of the sporting imagination for poor countries is of a different sort and far bigger. It consists in the inability to imagine a future that can be made through re-thinking short term ideas of success in favour of long-term concerns with well-being.
- The remarkable effort that has gone into securing the medals India haswon has occasioned well-worn lamentations about the necessity of a “sporting culture”. Sadly, this is another version of jingoistic nationalism, rather than a concern for national life. It is little more than a cruel joke to suggest that India lacks sporting prowess because of the lack of a sporting culture. For the vast number of sports-people in India, sport is a means of escaping poverty and ill-being. It is not a lifestyle activity. This is why the ranks of our athletes are rarely peopled by the daughters and sons of the well-off.
- What do calls to build a sporting culture mean in this context? Nothing more, really, than the self-serving thought that the reserve army of the miserable, while continuing to live in misery, should serve the aims of the well-heeled to secure national glory through sporting achievement. Planning their journey is insignificant, since what is important is ourarrival.
Let them eat sporting culture, we seem to think.