|A lack of sporting facilities and playgrounds for children has been partly blamed for India's failure to nurture sporting talent
As dusk falls in Defence Colony, an upmarket neighbourhood in New Delhi, a group of joggers walk through the turnstile leading to a park, as elderly couples stroll past the hibiscus and jasmine.
But children are not allowed to play here; a big board by the iron railings says "No cricket or football allowed".
The civic-minded matrons who live in Defence Colony have taken over the upkeep of the park, turning it into a tranquil oasis in this teeming city of 14 million people.
And they do not want children running around ruining the lawns and squashing the hyacinths.
Increasingly, the public spaces in New Delhi where children can play sports are shrinking.
Such a lack of sports facilities and playgrounds for children, says Kiran Bedi, a former Asian women's lawn tennis champion and social commentator, has contributed to India's repeatedly poor performances at the Olympic games.
"We don't have any system in place. Other countries have had systems for 60-70 years. We don't take pride in producing athletes and so there is no will to put such a system in place," she said.
"When we do spot someone with potential, it's too late. Children need to be caught young."
It would be unfair to blame the Defence Colony dowagers for the fact that India, a nation of 1.3 billion people, will be lucky to win even one medal at the Beijing Olympics but their attitude reflects a widespread indifference to sport.
In the media, the anguished breast-beating that breaks out every four years for a month has begun. "Why are we so pathetic at sports?"; "How do the Chinese win so many medals?" columnists in the daily newspapers ask.
Then, to everyone's relief, the games end, a new cricket match begins somewhere in the world and the angst stops.
For a nation that sees itself playing a larger role on the world stage thanks to a booming economy, it is a setback to repeatedly fail to achieve gold at the world's biggest sports event.
"It is embarrassing being an Indian journalist at the games," Kunal Pradhan, the national sports editor with the daily The Indian Express, said.
"You avoid people's gazes. It is miserable. There is a sigh of relief if we win anything at all."
Lack of support
In recent years, India has produced world class engineers, hi-tech professionals and award-winning business managers. Many of its industries - telecom, aviation, automobile and hospitality - are second to none in their technical standards.
But every time the Olympic games come around, Indians watch sheepishly, knowing they will not be hearing their national anthem played.
Even India's hockey players, those redeemers of national pride at previous Olympics, last won gold medals in 1980. But they failed to qualify for Beijing 2008.
"What do you expect? The government did not harness any talent or spend any money on the players," says Alok Sinha, a sports writer for the daily Times of India.
At the last Olympics in Athens, the country erupted in joy when Army Major Rajyavardhan Rathore won a silver medal for trap-shooting. But that was quickly overshadowed by China's 63-medal tally.
Experts say a combination of factors - government apathy, lack of funding and sports infrastructure, the heat, and the obsession with cricket to the virtual exclusion of other sports - have all contributed to India's dismal Olympic performance.
Jumping the hurdle?
But the two overriding reasons are government control and culture.
|The popularity of cricket, to the exclusion of other sports, hinders India's Olympic chances
While cricket is controlled by the private Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), sports is in the hands of the government.
India spends just over $105 million annually on sports - less than one per cent of its annual budget, which is about 10 cents per person.
The low budget is exacerbated by the lack of a system to identify young athletes and develop their talent, monitoring their progress, and pushing them to Olympic standards.
Coaches have to report to bureaucrats. Sports federations have to beg for money from bureaucrats instead of being able to rely on private sponsors.
Rathore was unusual in that he enjoyed access to the Indian army's facilities.
If other sportsmen such as tennis champions Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, former ragpicker Karnam Malleswari (bronze in weightlifting at Sydney), and Milka Singh (400m sprint) have won medals, it has been thanks to their own determined efforts, not to any help. Corporate support required
India's best known sprint athlete, P.T. Usha, laments the absence of training academies.
"People need to be systematically groomed," says the former track queen who missed winning the bronze in the 400m hurdles by just 1/100th of a second at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
"To reach an Olympic standard, our athletes need international experience to see where they stand against other athletes and the government doesn't do any of this," says Usha, who now runs her own training academy in Kerala, south India.
Bedi says India requires planning, investment, sustained professional coaching, and support systems.
"We can't have the right environment without government, sports federation, and corporate support. These three, together, then need to support the children identified by families or schools," she says.
But other analysts feel culture has a larger role to play. In India, young minds - and bodies - are groomed for academic excellence only.
"For middle-class Indians, the dream is for your children to become doctors or engineers," says Sinha.
"We don't take pride in excelling in sports the way other countries do. Even in Asia - in China, Japan and Korea - they pursue excellence in physical pursuits."
Many school teachers would agree with Sinha when he complains that sport is not valued by Indian society. His daughter attends a top private school in New Delhi yet all it offers is a 30-minute session of physical education every day.
The school has one cricket field. There is no stadium near their home. She enjoys tennis but her school has no coach and the nearest tennis court to her home is 14km away.
Abha Adams, a former principal and educational consultant, says physical education is neglected in the school system.
"Culturally, we are an exam-driven society. Parents want children to get good exam results and a well-paid job," Adams said.
"They want them to study and cram and nothing else. Sports is regarded as a distraction."
Adams' husband, Bill, tried running a sports academy at the prestigious Sri Ram School in New Delhi but was dismayed at parents' behaviour.
Some children were doing well in football and basketball training but when they turned 11, their parents pulled them out, anxious that it could interfere with their studies.
This has not deterred Adams who says her academy is still hoping to train a new cadre of athletes for the 2012 Olympics in London.
Broadly speaking, India is not a sporting nation. Indians do not take pleasure in pitting themselves against the elements or taking up physically challenging sports activities.
"Our tradition is a spiritual one, of introspection, of reflecting on the soul's journey. It is very different from the western tradition of exploring and being adventurous," says Adams.
"And the weather doesn't help."
All photos by Amit Pasricha
Source: Al Jazeera