When Fran Lebowitz, who is an American author and one of the most interesting commentator on American life said this, it broke my heart. I discovered Fran through Netflix’s show Pretend it’s a city, produced by Martin Scorsese. Since I heard that first episode I was kind of obsessed with this colourful personality. She is a fantastic speaker and writer. She is honest, brash, courageous, yet emphatic and sensitive. The more I read about her, the more I respected her.
The fifth episode of this series is titled – Department of Sports and Health. I have watched this episode at least ten times, especially because a woman that I respect and admire categorically states, “I hate sports.” The first time I watched the episode, I laughed. My first reaction was, “Oh! She is just being funny!” Nobody really hates sports. I have met people who hate doing physical activity, but they did play sport for one reason or the other. Also to clarify – I work as a development professional in grassroots sports in India. I have only met people who love sports.
The good and bad of Sport
Sport brings pride to the nation and unites its citizens. Sport builds character. Sport builds life-skills like the way very few occupations can. Sport brings money, financial stability and fame. Sport helps us build physical attributes. Sport helps create jobs. Sport can help women break gender stereotypes. While all of them are true, there may be negative narratives around sport as well.
Sport may be used as a political tool by nations to push a narrative of their choice. It may be used by nations to project a strong exterior, only to hide interior repression and conflicts. Sports if not organised and supervised especially in children, there is a danger of creating bullies, cheaters, and insecure humans. The pursuit of sporting excellence may also become a reason for loneliness, anxiety, regret, depression, suicide in the athlete community. Sport can make a Boris Becker rise, and it can also make a Boris Becker fall. Sport is one of the shortest and the toughest professions one can choose and offers no guarantee of a life lived happily ever after (in terms of financial stability especially in India).
While there are both for and against argument in sports, one of the many arguments made by Fran, stayed with me. She says- “You see these people in the streets. They are screaming this, “We won! We won!”. And I am always thinking, “Who’s WE?”. THEY won, while YOU were lying in the sofa drinking beer. Okay?”
To which Spike Lee says, “Thats the beauty of sports. You identify with the team. “
Fran- ” Yes, which is a business. You never see people in the street going, “Yay! Coke won! Coke won. Pepsi lost. How they got you to do this, I did like to know that. The reason sports are so central is because men are in charge of the world. If women were in charge of the world, do you think there would be professional hopscotch?”
The context here is American Sport of course, which is majorly privatised.
Let me try and dissect one of her arguments in the above sentence.
“You see this people in the streets. They are screaming this, “We won! We won!”. And I am always thinking, “Who’s we?”. THEY WON. You lie in the sofa drinking beer. Okay? “
We are about to witness this soon in our country. The Thomas Cup men’s team will be coming home, and the people in the country are already and will be screaming, “We won. We won.” But if I really think about Franc’s argument what has really changed in my life?
Does the impact of an individual achievement at the highest level in sport transcend beyond the athlete and really impact their society in a tangible way?
When the boys won and the Indian flag went up I did experience goosebumps and shed tears. I felt inspired and proud. This feeling will remain with me forever as a fellow athlete. Half an hour later my two year old woke up and I was back to being mother and doing the household chores. On the personal and a very individual level life quite honestly hasn’t changed much for me. I am back to my routine of being a mother, a professional, and a wife. But then I have already been a professional athlete and have been fortunate enough to play for the country and win medals for it.
But this experience may be totally different for someone else.
A 11 year old boy watching the Thomas Cup final in a small village in India must have thought – ‘If they can do it, so can I’ – which is great. He will feel inspired and dream about his own podium finish. But what next? This 11 year old boy will get up the next morning and realise he doesn’t have a badminton court around, the one that he has is 30 kilometres away from his house. He also doesn’t have the shoes or the shuttles to play with, and won’t be able to afford them. He will also not be able to afford the coaching fees to start playing the sport. His parents, who are daily wage labourers, have no clue on how to make their son a Badminton player. So yes, the boy will be inspired for a day and then reality will strike and that exceptional Thomas Cup win will fade in his memory. This, I fear, might be the story for majority of 11 year old’s in India thinking of clinching a gold. But there is precedence in how other countries changed this situation. Indonesia.
How do you go from dreaming to doing?
The Indonesian Model
Indonesia boasts of being a 14 time Thomas Cup champion and has a total of 20 medals in the Olympics in Badminton, amongst many other laurels. When I tried to look at their journey from winning their first Thomas Cup gold medal to their 14th medal, they really seem to have built a robust eco-system around the sport. Just like any country that has made its journey towards excellence in any sport, Indonesia too worked on bringing all the important pillars of their society together. The citizens, private investments, government at every level, national federations each of them played their part well.
Factors that helped Indonesia turn into a Badminton powerhouse-
Role Models– Every sport needs role models to draw inspiration from. Indonesia has many of them, right from Susi Susanti to Anthony Ginting.
Badminton culture– Badminton is part of schools, colleges, community gatherings, backyards. It is everywhere. Indonesians even living in the remotest part of the country make their own rackets and shuttles tie a rope and play. They play the sport anywhere, without waiting for an indoor court.
Schools– Every school in Indonesia has a Badminton court (even if it means its an outdoor court). In every province in Indonesia the Indonesia Badminton Association (PBSI) conducts Badminton technical training for the physical education teachers. The teachers then hold the potential of becoming coaches at the clubs in the country.
Clubs– Indonesia has about 3500 Badminton clubs in the country. Each of this club has to register with PBSI to avail benefits. There are close to 1 million people registered with these clubs.
The role of the Federation– From raising funds from the private, the public and government to running coaches training programs across schools and clubs PBSI, has a huge role to play in the success of Badminton in the country. The Talent Identification is done through the following steps-
1) formation of regional badminton clubs
2) holds regular championships / tournaments each year for young athletes especially early childhood to adolescents
3) through clubs- PBSI member club, PBSI program’s each club has to accept early childhood students with free training fees, where the cost of training early childhood at the club is borne by PBSI.
PBSI is as focused on recreational Badminton as it is on professional Badminton. its funding and schemes are divided into these two different verticals. They were quick to recognise the importance of organised recreational sport as an incentive to create potential athletes. The more adults play for fun, more children are likely to accompany them and get interested in the sport.
The role of government and private sector– The government and the private sector has invested in the sport through PBSI. The government has incentivised building infrastructure in Badminton, and also gives many incentives to the athletes playing at various levels- through sports schools, pension schemes , a monthly stipend, and jobs. All the clubs in Indonesia are run and funded by a huge share of private investment. Athletes at provincial levels and national level receive a lot of endorsement and financial help.
The role of society– Nothing really works if the citizens of a country don’t play an integral role in bringing a sport to the forefront. Right from a club match at a province to the Indonesian Super series, there is no argument to the fact that Indonesia has the best audience. All the world athletes in Badminton absolutely love to play in this country. They also participate as active members by playing the sport in their backyards and make the sport a religion. They also actively make donations towards clubs in their provinces to help them flourish. Without the citizen playing an active role nothing really succeeds.
Where is India right now?
India in Badminton has many role models today. Over the last decade we had 3 Olympic medals, 12 world championships medals, 2 Uber Cup bronze and now the Thomas Cup gold, amongst other feats. We have two excellent academies -Gopichand Academy and the Prakash Padukone Academy- that have over the years given us the best talent the country has ever seen. The Government is slowly and steadily increasing our sports budget over the years, and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports is playing a very active role in developing sports in the country. The private investment in the country in sports is also increasing every year. Non-profit organisations like Go Sports and Olympic Gold Quest have worked tremendously hard for the last decade to raise money for a whole lot of Badminton players and athletes from other sports. India is slowly finding it’s feet in various other sports as a podium contender besides cricket., thanks to all of these efforts.
And yet, Rohit, a 11 year old boy from a village in India has a slim chance of becoming a world champion. Badminton cannot be dependent on only two academies for creating world champions . We need to focus on creating awareness about sports and incentives that exist amongst rural and urban parents and our government school system. In the last few years if you look at the the numbers in terms of participation in district, state level, national level tournaments the numbers have gone up by a 50%. Saying this we need an equal number of coaches and sports scientists growing in the country at the same rate. For the longest of time India has relied on foreign coaches. I believe that it is a mistake. We need more investment and incentives to build world-class coaches in the country. We need to invest in creating cohorts of hundreds of coaches and sports scientists in the country. For this we need the infrastructure, funds and the academic expertise to be pulled in for both coaching and sports science. For the past few years most of the money spent by all the major players in the country has been majorly invested in athlete development, we need to make an equal or more investment in developing the eco-system as a whole, which will invariably help the athlete too.
India needs to develop rural sports infrastructure, coaches, sports scientists , build community sports models that can be self-sufficient. We need to incentivise the club culture, develop district, state, national level leagues in the sport. The Badminton Association of India, the private sector, the government, the athletes, the coaches all will have to play a major role in this. Manipur is a great example of how a state with the least public or private investment has been the most successful state in sports in the country. Finally we as a people need to show up in the stadiums cheering our athletes at every level of competition, and pick up a racket and just play.
We have done so well to get where we are today in Badminton. But we need to make the journey from here to becoming the next powerhouse (or even better) than Indonesia and China in the sport. Until we build the right eco-system for the sport to flourish in India, most of our sporting achievements will remain a selfish endeavour, limited to impact the individual. To go from ‘They Won’ to ‘We won’ it will take a massive vision, resolve, political will, partnerships, funding, patience and persistence. I am sure we can do this, our Thomas Cup team has showed what we are capable of if we really work as a team.
My life’s mission is to prove Fran wrong.
Because unlike Fran, “I love sports.”