26 November 2014

Sports in South Asia needs to raise its game

(An edited version of this article originally appeared in Republica)

A short while ago I was asked to write a tribute for a silver medal winning South Asian sportsman for a local organization about to honor him. When doing research for the homage, I stumbled upon a rather peculiar fact that most media members must have missed-out on or chose to ignore. It turns out there were only two people competing in the competition. The silver medal was assured!

Unfortunately, these types of sporting anomalies or lucky breaks, however you want to look at it, are what South Asian sports fans most times must hope for to see their fellow countrymen find a place on the medal podium of major international tournaments.

South Asia’s track record in high level sports is abysmal. A South Asian team has never made the FIFA World Cup and in the past half-century has not come anywhere close to qualifying. After capturing 11 gold medals over the span of 13 Summer Olympic Games, South Asian field hockey sides have failed to even medal for the last 22 years. With 1.7 billion inhabitants, a quarter of the world’s population, Indian shooter Abhinav Bindra is the sole person from the region that can claim an Olympic gold medal in the past 3 decades. In that period, India has won a paltry 3 silver and 8 bronze medals, Sri Lanka 1 silver, Pakistan and Afghanistan 2 bronze each, while Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal have not won a single medal at the Olympics.

Based on per capita, the regions results at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games are nothing to boast about either. Thank god for cricket!

How might South Asia break-free from its sporting futility? Many stakeholders have an important role to play.

At the most basic level parents can encourage their children to participate in sports. While attitudes are starting to shift, sports are unfortunately still seen as a distraction to academics for most South Asian parents, when in fact sports have so many benefits for youngsters such as being a good diversion for kids, promoting a healthy life style and fostering social engagement.

Sports bodies need to invest in professional staff that are capable of developing marketable properties that can generate revenue and help fund grassroots initiatives.

The private sector can make a strong contribution through corporate sponsorship and corporate philanthropy of sports.

The Indian franchise leagues including the Indian Premier League, Indian Super League and Pro Kabbadi League as well as initiatives such as the JSW Sports Excellence Program and Mittal Champions Trust are good examples of the above points.

As the 18th SAARC summit gets underway here in Kathmandu, it is only fitting to also encourage South Asian governments to support sports.

For a region that has severe challenges when it comes to health, education and infrastructure, making a case for governments and NGOs to pay attention sports can be quite awkward. What good is sporting success if citizens face the threat of hunger and disease?

Certainly, no reasonable person can argue that sports development should be prioritized ahead of basic health and education. Sports, however, can parallely play a critical role in national and regional development.

As we have seen with cricket in this part of the world, sports has a unique capacity to identify, mobilize, and energize a nation. In a region often divided by religion, ethnic tensions and socio-economic factors, sports is one instrument that can unite the masses.

Sports also provides role-models that can inspire youth and guide them on a path of discipline and good health.

Done correctly, building sports facilities can regenerate neighborhoods and provide an economic boost to communities.

Lest we forget, there is also the power of sports diplomacy.

The greatest gift sports provides perhaps is the ideal of sportsmanship, something that all of us in South Asia – politicians and citizens, could always use a little bit more of.