Commonwealth Games make us proud (but sometimes they don't)
The opening of the Commonwealth Games has been exhilarating, even if the “chalta hai” culture raises questions which point towards the ability to get away with nonsense.
This Sunday, as the Commonwealth Games were declared open during an opening ceremony to remember, as an Indian citizen, I felt goose bumps, odd tears of joy and an unabashed sense of exhilaration.
We witnessed a cultural display which did justice to what my country is all about. A spontaneous crowd gestured to rake up the volumes once the Pakistani contingent arrived for the athlete’s march. Everything else to do with that day was exciting.
As I typed this piece, (touching wood and with fingers-crossed) the event seemed to have flagged off without any major issues. Contrary to the average citizen’s apprehensions, India had just clinched its eleventh gold medal through a little-known wrestler from rural Haryana and was perched in the second spot for the overall medal tally. As a sports writer, I believe this is what the Games are all about. Unfortunately, my country and its politicians let me down right through the build-up to these games - and as a tax-paying citizen I think I deserve to know about everything that went wrong.
Shining India plays to a fallen empire
Let me admit it up front: I am not a big fan of these Games and I have my own reasons. It’s just something the Government of India in its wisdom decided to commit itself to in 2003 and had to fulfill to the best of its abilities. A quick brush-up on history will show that the relevance of these Games is invariably linked to the organization it represents, the Commonwealth of Nations. And somewhere post-apartheid South Africa, this once-respected international forum lost its importance and to put it bluntly, is perhaps the last symbol of the fact that an empire existed, and worse, ruled us. Now that the Games are in Delhi, this proposition seems as defunct as the Commonwealth itself.
The time when India did make a successful bid for the CWG, according to the government of the day, India was 'shining'. If that was the plank and the deal was to put up a show and in doing so demonstrate our ability to host these events, I think we’ve done okay up until now, with major hiccups along the way (which I will deal with shortly). But as a sports-lover, I’d have loved to see some of our politicians display some amount of leadership and use these Games as a tool for catalyzing our dormant or let’s just say virtually non-existent Olympic sport culture.
It of course needed a vision, a desire to stare into the long-term, take decisions that might end up looking slightly dramatic in the short-term, but would have gone a mile in giving sport its due in an oft-ridiculed (in sporting terms) 'country of one billion'. Indeed, we have our share of world champions, but not a system with a lust for breeding champions. If we were such a country (such as Australia, for example), we’d be a country content and satisfied with our occasional trysts with excellence and our routine approval of mediocrity.
Why the Games are like a Punjabi wedding
In a way, we chose to opt to put up a show, and cheerlead to the best of our abilities. The objective, as time passed by, shrunk from “displaying India’s might as an emerging superpower” to “creating a sporting culture” to of course, “delivering a good Games”. And right through this discourse, there were disturbing narratives - which ranged from rank corruption to incompetence to a complete collapse of governance to everything wrong within the Indian system: a largely corrupt system complemented by an inefficient bureaucracy.
Our Sports Minister Dr MS Gill chose to liken these Games to a Punjabi wedding, whose grandeur hinged upon last-minute preparations. Reading between the lines of this ridiculous statement, you knew what we were planning to settle for mediocrity, despite the repeated cacophony of “delivering the best games ever”.
The build-up also hinted at the brazen cover-up that some of the politicians in the organizing committee had indulged in: a thorough lack of responsibility, the shameless act of constantly passing the buck, matched equally by some of the most irresponsible and unacceptable comments I’ve ever come across (ref: Lalit Bhanot and his standards of hygiene).
All of us, the Indian people, were left astounded by some of these omissions on the part of the politicos. It reflected upon a larger patronage of chaos,corruption and confusion and reiterated the “we are like this” or as we say in Hindi, the “chalta hai” culture, which points towards a larger lack of accountability within the system and worse, the ability to get away with nonsense.
Lessons to be learnt
What this has done is bring out the larger malaise within the system, the rot which has spread like a cancer in Indian sports. The heavyweight politicians, who have often resorted to sporting federations as an alternate source of power have stood exposed, and even through the apparently 'democratic' system they attribute their posts to. I am as disgusted, as any other Indian citizen is, by Suresh Kalmadi and his tenure as both Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and now CWG Organising Committee Chief.
He’s emerged through this phase as a symbol of the Indian sporting system (much like the Pakistan Cricket Board, I must admit). And Kalmadi, to me, isn’t quite the only problem, yet he comes across as a symptom of many ills - tolerance towards nepotism of the worst kinds, despotic tendencies while running these organizations and an increased level of politicization, which to me, has ruined Indian sports more than anything else. There is a systemic sense of denial, which breeds from the grass-roots, going all the way to the top and unless this status-quo is shaken and stirred up by politicians being barred from holding posts in sporting federations, Indian sport will languish in mediocrity.
India's lost opportunities
I see these Games as a classic case of missed opportunity, owing of course to poor leadership who lack the vision to create a lasting sporting legacy within the country and help create a system that outlives these events and help India breed champions.
Of course, infrastructure-wise, Delhi has indeed benefited, but not in the way other countries who have hosted these games. Instead of taking the Greenfield approach of developing a township and creating a new economy or uplifting an underdeveloped area, we opted to make Delhi the centre of our sporting attraction, without a clue of how we might end up putting the existing infrastructure to use once these games are over. You look at countries like England, Australia and now even China, who have ensured that multi-sport events aren’t the sole right of one host city.
I am afraid that’s sadly how it might turn out to be in India, should we suddenly wake up one day and decide to bid for the Asian Games or god forbid, the Olympics. I genuinely believe we’ve lost an opportunity by taking the Games to India, rather than bringing them to Delhi.
Of course, I want these Games to succeed and for Delhi to deliver its promises, but what I also want to see after the CWG is corrupt officials brought to book for their alleged misdemeanours during the buildup to these games.
The court of public opinion has already hanged them, the last word of which you all heard and saw on Sunday, where Kalmadi was booed and now is the time to clean up this mess we’ve created for ourselves. That very intent will help go a long way in creating a sporting system that is non-politicized, non-corrupt and one that I hope believes in making sincere amends for its past deeds.