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Last night the London-based Indian steel-magnate Lakshmi Mittal gave a lavish bash at his Kensington palace for India’s Olympic team. It was in effect a celebration of a larger investment that the billionaire has made in Indian athletics. Since 2005, he has been funding the $10 million Mittal Champions Trust to support 10 Indian athletes with “world beating potential”.  However it’s a risky investment in a historically feeble enterprise. For India, despite its vast population and genetic diversity has had an astonishingly unimpressive record in international athletic achievement.

Mittal started his trust after seeing India win only one medal each year at the 1996 (bronze), 2000 (bronze) and 2004 (silver) games. In Beijing, the Indian team won 3 medals including a gold, but was ranked 50th among all the nations participating, behind tiny states like Belgium, Finland and the Dominican Republic.

Most of India’s 20 Olympic medals have been won for field hockey though in recent years there have also been victories in air pistol shooting and womens weightlifting. (The country’s other strong teams are in events like archery and trap shooting.) The country’s record at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games is similarly poor.

So why is India so bad at games (with the obvious exceptions of cricket and, to a lesser extent squash)?

Although people like to explain it in terms of poor sports infrastructure and the corruption that undoubtedly afflicts sports administration in India, it is much more a matter of culture.

In general India is weak in sports that require high levels of physical fitness. And this reflects traditional caste and class attitudes to physical effort. India is after all a society in which even middle class people will have a servant bring them a glass of water from just a few feet away, and in which for centuries high status has derived in part from not needing to make physical effort, thanks to the presence of many others whose role in life is to make efforts for their superiors.

It is only very recently that elite Indians have started jogging rather than slowly walking in parks like the Lodhi gardens in New Delhi, and this change very much reflects the influence of the American and British universities their children have been attending for the last couple of decades.

If games like squash and hockey seem to be an exception to the rule of sloth, that can be explained by the fact that the country’s  champions in such sports are almost without exception graduates of a handful of elite British style boarding schools like Doon, or have come up through the army —  all institutions that inculcate a Western or British attitude to sporting prowess.

Of course there is yoga, but it rarely translates into sporting prowess. There is also a strong tradition of “Hindu” wrestling (Dand) in some parts of the country, but it has produced only a handful international quality athletes. This is because it is rarely practiced by the ruling classes, and as you can see by India’s cricket team – entirely composed of people from English-speaking and therefore semi-elite backgrounds – those who come from the lower orders have little access to elite sporting training, facilities and selection. It also does not help that half the population suffer from malnutrition with all that entails for physical size and muscle growth.

On the plus side, Bollywood’s marked shift from tubby stars to slim, muscled ones seems to be having a positive effect on attitudes to training. These days there are more and more gyms in Indian cities (though still few by South East Asian, let alone Western standards) and a growing fashion for personal trainers who come to your house. It remains to be seen however if Mittals cash, and the 250 crore rupees the Indian government promised to spend on India’s team, will produce any medals.

 

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