You have to hear Christine Still, a British gymnastics coach and BBC commentator, exulting when Dipa Karmakar attempted her second vault in the final of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow to realise the enormity of the achievement. The 20-year-old from Agartala pulled off the hardest routine in the final and suddenly made all of us aware of the Produnova Vault.
If you research a bit more – and that is really easy these days isn’t it? – you will realise that Karmakar is only the third gymnast to successfully execute the vault with the highest degree of difficulty in a world class competition. And that will make you wonder where she got such audacious courage from to attempt the glory-or-bust vault? Did she know no fear of failure?
Karmakar represents the new age Indian athlete who is no longer happy with just qualifying for the major events but is eager to compete with the best in the business and bring some metal home. She symbolises the athlete who knows success does not come easy, that international medals are not easy pickings and is prepared to go the extra mile with hard work to be able to savour success.
Those who point out that India won only 64 medals in Glasgow and compare them with the 101 medals won four years ago are overlooking the fact that a number of events were dropped from the programme this time around. And we are demanding a great deal from a handful of our athletes without being a sporting nation where a vast majority is happy to watch quality sport from its couches.
Of course, seasoned professionals like Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang, Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt and Vijender Singh secured podium finishes but the heartening thing was that there were at least a dozen and a half Indian athletes who were winning medals for the first time at such a stage. There is hope that this generation of medallists will go on to inspire many more youngsters to move from couches and smartphones to take up sport.
Unlike in sports like shooting, weightlifting and wrestling, a gold medal in Commonwealth Games track and field sport is, by all means, a phenomenal achievement since the quality of competition is higher than in the Asian Games. And discus thrower Vikas Gowda struck gold in Glasgow to become only the second Indian male athlete after the legendary Milkha Singh to secure Commonwealth Games gold. No, one is not clutching at straws to prove there has been an attitudinal change to sport at many levels but this has been incremental rather than quantum shift.
This has been possible primarily because parents are readier than before to seed dreams. Malaika Goel’s parents allowed her to give up school in Ludhiana so she could turn professional shooter. Ashim Paul, Ayonika’s father, is an employee of the Indian Railways who withdrew from his Provident Fund to buy her a rifle so that she could pursue her passion and travelled with her from Chembur to Pune every weekend to train there. Karmakar’s father, Dulal, a weightlifting coach in Agartala, encouraged his daughter to take to gymnastics very early in her life.
Thanks to the Commonwealth Games 2010 Delhi, India may have chanced upon the successful formula of State-funded training schedules for the cream of its athletes across many sports. But the reduced allocation for athletes’ preparation in 2014, not to speak of problems in some National Sports Federations, has had its impact on the returns. There is a certain inevitability to the National Sports Federations’ dependence on Government funding to train athletes – at home and overseas – and to create infrastructure. Some are innovating with products but none of them has really got to the stage where their dependencies on public funding comes down.
There have been organisations like Olympic Gold Quest and Anglian Medal Hunt, not to forget the now-defunct Mittal’s Champions Trust, that have chipped in to plug some gaps but India needs to invest more in its sport if it is to make a mark in more challenging competitions.
India needs to audit the infrastructure created not just for the Commonwealth Games but also the National Games. To conclude that Commonwealth Games 2010 Delhi did not create any legacy is off the mark. The larger stadia may not have held too many sporting events but a clutch of training centres outside Delhi, upgraded in the run-up to the 2010 Games, have been put to good use. The facility at Sonepat has been used by wrestlers while the boxing centre and the weightlifting centre in Patiala have been beehives of activity. There is a simple message there – India needs to create more such centres of excellence rather than spend hundreds of crores in building terraces in stadia that will be used but sparingly.
It makes little sense to get into a debate whether the glass three-quarters empty of quarter full. Suffice to say, it is filling up, drop by drop. The pace of change will increase only when sport becomes a way of life in our country. Until then, we must celebrate the fact that some wonderful dreams, including one that nailed the Produnova Vault at one of the biggest international stages, are sprouting across the country – from Agartala to Kolhapur, from Vellore to Balali village in Haryana’s Bhiwani district.