Watching India at the Rio Olympics caused more national angst than ever before
India sent 118 athletes, its largest ever delegation, to this year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The return of just two medals has left the nation bemoaning the state of sport in India. To put India’s achievements into context, Michael Phelps has won more Olympic medals (28) in his career than India has won since 1900 (27).
The numbers tell an appalling story of the decades of neglect sports and sportspersons have suffered in India. Other than cricket, Indians are notorious for paying little or no attention to other sports, and almost no infrastructure exists to support and encourage aspiring sportspersons.
Every Olympics a familiar narrative emerges about the lack of cultural will and government support for competitive sports. This time, however, the usual acceptance of India’s Olympic inadequacy has been replaced by a resounding vocalization of angst across Indian media and social feeds. A rallying cry has risen to change the state of affairs.
This angst is rooted in a wider cultural change that has swept over India in the past two decades.
Physical strength over knowledge
In India, for centuries, matters of the mind were given more importance than those of the body. The caste system, around which Indian society has been structured since ancient times, elevated Brahmins, the gatekeepers of the mind and knowledge to the top of the pyramid. The work of protecting society, commerce and other corporeal tasks were the remit of the lower classes. Hence, Brahmanical values of the priestly class such as control over temptations, tolerance and wisdom were the dominant way of life. Sport, with its emphasis on the physical, has long been seen as an activity for the lower classes.
However, the opening up of the economy in the early ’90s led to the emergence of a mindset rooted in the Kshatriya values (warrior class) of victory, glory and action.
This has led to a change in the perception of success – from gaining knowledge (Brahmanical–mind) to acquisition of markers of success (Kshatriya – physical). Increased consumerism and popular narratives around success are the proof of this change. One such narrative is the ‘Tyaari Jeet Ki’ (preparing for success), a communication platform of Bournvita, where the mother does her best to help her child prepare for a successful future. It’s a narrative that increasingly rings true in every aspect of Indian society.
Shift in the idea of performance
Performance is the holy grail of consumerism. Every consumer category in India is sold with the explicit promise of superlative performance. Even Narender Modi, the current Prime Minister of India, came to power with the promise of ‘Acche Din Aayenge’ (good days will come), with the implicit promise of a high performing government. Performance now comes coded with the Kshatriya values of heroism, courage and achievement, and this idea is now deeply ingrained in Indian society. This is a move away from the Brahmanical discourse of good intentions and selfless performance without recognition.
Recognition is aspirational in contemporary Indian society. The profusion of reality shows of all kinds, the rise of the startup hero and pride showcased in the success of Indian expats (Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google) are indicators of this aspiration.
Sports is at the centre of this paradigm shift
The current crop of athletes in India have grown up with the baggage of the Brahmanical value system. Because physical labour was the remit of the lower classes, most athletes in India still belong to economically and socially under-privileged backgrounds. Many have to fend for basic nutrition and they struggle to get sports equipment and training. Most of the current set of Indian Olympic athletes have surmounted tremendous odds to succeed. With such endemic disadvantages to overcome, to perform and win on the Olympic stage requires superhuman effort and determination.
As India transitions to a performance culture there is an intense need for our accomplishments to measure up against those of others countries. For this reason, the measly haul at the Olympics is rankling Indians harder than ever before.
As performance culture percolates through society, Indian athletes are already being accepted as the heroes of this culture. We already see sports in India having wider acceptance. We believe what will follow is a shift to an era where more social classes participate and begin to deliver the Kshatriya values of victory and glory.
Image credit: AFP
- Article by Sriharsh Mallela, Sneha Kapoor and Sneha Chaturvedi