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PV Sindhu’s reception not enough: Govt must promote sports ethos

A volunteer for the Special Olympics was dismayed at the pomp and show at the felicitation ceremony organised by theTelangana government for PV Sindhu at the Gachibowli stadium in Hyderabad on Monday. He told me how a few months back, when the national coaching camp ahead of the Special Olympics for softball and floor hockey was to be held, they asked for permission to use the stadium for practise. They were bluntly told to pay and use. Fortunately, the municipal body gave permission to use another ground in the city.

On Monday, taking the massive hoardings proclaiming their love for sports at face value and inspired by Pullela Gopichand’s emphasis on physical fitness, urban community activist Visha Reddy decided that it would be in the right spirit to cycle to the stadium. But she was disappointed.

“They talk of promoting sports and physical fitness. When there is no space for anyone but moving vehicles, how do they expect a city to be healthy and fit. I could not get near the stadium and returned,” said Visha.

Clearly, many a slip between the cup and the lip.

If the Telangana government converted the reception into a spectacle to pat itself on its back on Monday, expect more on Tuesday when a similar felicitation will be organised by the Andhra Pradesh government in Vijayawada. In copycat mode, the coach-student duo of Gopichand and Sindhu will be taken in a motorcade from Vijayawada airport to Municipal stadium. Just like in Hyderabad, where the double-decker bus route was from the city airport to the stadium.

In fact, badly jet-lagged Gopi and Sindhu and their families are being taken by a special flight on Tuesday morning from Hyderabad to Vijayawada. No effort or expense is being spared to claim copyright over the duo. If ministers on the dais in Hyderabad referred to Sindhu as ‘Telangana ammayi‘ (Telangana girl), expect Chandrababu Naidu to christen her ‘Andhra Koothuru‘ (daughter of Andhra).

That politicians know zilch about sports was revealed when Telangana deputy chief minister Mahmood Ali said that the government will try to get a ‘better coach’ for Sindhu, so that she gets gold next time.

Telangana went one up on Andhra, or so the state would like to think, by waiting for Naidu to announce the reward amount on Saturday. Once Naidu announced Rs 3 crore to Sindhu and Rs 50 lakh to Gopi, K Chandrasekhar Rao revealed his mind. Telangana’s reward amount was announced as Rs 5 crore to Sindhu and Rs 1 crore to Gopi. This despite its own order issued in January 2016, which says an Olympic silver will get a cash reward of Rs one crore. The order also says land sites are not to be given to any medal winners.

So to go one up on Telangana, at least in terms of visual appeal, Sindhu and company are likely to be nudged to take a holy Krishna Pushkar dip on the last day of the event and take part in the evening aarthi in Vijayawada.

If minister after minister praised KCR to the skies, expect the same in Vijayawada, with Naidu to be spoken of as the then Andhra CM who allotted five acres of land to Gopi in Hyderabad 2003 to construct the badminton academy.

The equation will perhaps be something like, if there was no Naidu, no Badminton Academy, no Sindhu. Hence Naidu brings Olympic silver.

With the squabbling between Telangana and Andhra to claim Sindhu getting a bit much for the 21-year-old to bear, Gopi stepped in to press ‘pause’, saying she is a daughter of India. Period.

No one is grudging the financial bonanza for Sindhu and Gopi. Not me for sure, because I have seen Gopi struggle during his playing days and later to put together the academy. They deserve it because after all, they sweated it out preparing for the Olympics and won glory for India. I also think it was important to make them feel special for what they had achieved. The fact that the city turned out in large numbers also points to the goodwill the two have.

But look at it from a long-term perspective. Will the gala event ensure the same governments have a sport ethic and do not react with disdain to other lesser known sportspersons? If not, the events in the two Telugu states are merely an over-the-top splurge at taxpayer’s cost to show the VIPs as sports-friendly leaders.

Will the celebration help produce ten more Sindhus for India? The optimist in me thinks it fires dreams in some minds, pushing them to follow in Sindhu’s footsteps. Gopi himself referred to having been inspired by Karnam Malleswari’s Olympics bronze. I know many youngsters in then Andhra Pradesh who took to badminton inspired by Gopi’s triumph at the All-England championship in 2001. Similarly, cricket got a fillip after the hype post the 1983 and 2011 cricket World Cup wins.

As a sport enthusiast, I hope that happens. But then unlike cricket which has several recognisable stars, just one Sindhu or one Saina cannot sustain the enthusiasm for long. A week from now, when the Olympics will be a forgotten chapter, I wonder how many people will follow the exploits of India’s badminton players in the Japan Open and Korea Open in September.

The need then is to invest in the system, focusing on better infrastructure, quality of coaches and support staff. It is important to ensure that the sport budget is invested in the right areas, not given away in charity or to create an impression that ‘I own you’. Sport administrators must ensure that every rupee is given to the right athlete, administrator and institution. When you stop an athlete from practising in a stadium, pointing out that the space has been let out to organise a film function or a political meeting, it reveals your real priorities.

While individual success should be celebrated, system building is key. You need a culture where physical literacy is given importance along with academic excellence. Sports is about sportsmanship, not petty one-upmanship. You cannot have a population which tops the country in number of diabetes cases and where 40 percent is suffering from hypertension. You have to invest in inspiring the people to lead a healthy life. If you want to promote a sporting ethos, treat promotion of wellness as top priority.

It is not just the political class, the media too is equally to blame for focusing on the product rather than the process. Last week when I wrote the story of the role Gopi and dad PV Ramana have played in pushing the shuttler towards excellence, a few tweeples suggested that the focus should only be on Sindhu and not the support system.

This is a typical myopic mindset that does not realise nothing is an individual effort. As Sindhu herself admits, the silver would not have been possible without Gopichand. Every student at the academy will tell you that if their parents had not taken the difficult decision to invest in badminton, they would never pursue their dream.

But the media, hungry for instant heroes stays interested only in momentary glorification. Much of the journalistic community is not invested in the process to create champions. Which is why you have a mischievously cheap and tabloidish headline like this one in ‘Mumbai Mirror’ on Monday.

PV Sindhu has what I did not have – My husband, says Lakshmi Gopichand‘. In the interview, Lakshmi, a former national badminton champion said “my husband, Gopichand as coach” but the hunger to sell more copies, is what converts journalists into – I hate to use this term – ‘presstitutes’.

Five years back, when I pitched the idea of a biography of Saina Nehwal to one of the biggest publishing houses in India, the editor asked, “Is there a romantic angle between Gopichand and Saina?”

I replied, “No, Saina calls him Gopi Bhaiyya.” In that case, he was not interested in a biography that had nothing non-badminton to spice it up. Fortunately for me, there were other takers for a honest look at Saina’s life and narrating, through that, the story of Indian badminton.

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