Games of Self-Respect to Games of Submission: The Saga of Indian Olympic Sport

The overall performance of Indian contingent in the 2012 Summer Olympics held in London was unsatisfactory. Yet, the Indian masses seem to have let out a deep sigh of relief as the six medals won by the country perhaps meant some respect was salvaged. The history of the Olympics in India can be summarized as the rise and fall of hockey just as the history of sport in India can be summarized as the fall of hockey and the rise of cricket, with track and field performances at international events rarely getting a place in the sun. For decades together, the efforts of most individual athletes were veiled under the shadow of the two giants. However, this is slowly changing with individual athletes increasingly gaining recognition - the medals won by some of them in the last couple of Olympics may be one reason behind this. Though most of these individual achievements are self-driven with the state hardly contributing to enhancing their performance, there is no dearth of the invocation of national pride every time a medal is won. Keeping this in mind, this note is an attempt to look into the trends in the focus of sport in India from team events to individual performances and their links to the political and economic realities of India.

Olympic Sport: An Indian History

The pioneer of systematic Olympic activity in India was Sir Dorabji Tata, an Indian businessman. One of London-educated, Dorabji's earliest initiatives was the Harrish Shield Tournament founded in 1896 which later gifted us great players like Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli. In Pune, he established the Deccan Gymkhana where many youths from working class families made their entry into sports. Dorabji became instrumental in the fusion of national and foreign sports culture in these athletes. Noticing that the performance of these peasant boys in long-distance races almost matched that of many European athletes, Dorabji decided to sent three athletes to Antwerp games in 1920. The Gymkhana supported this effort. A major chunk of the funding was undertaken by Sir Dorabji, while the rest was mobilized from the princes and the government. The failure of these athletes to live up to expectations did not put down the flame. Rather, it culminated in the screening of athletes on a national basis in Delhi for the 1924 Paris Olympics. The funds were raised from across the country, though the amount collected was meager. The rest of the expenses were once again borne by Dorabji. These activities acquired an organizational form with the formation of the All India Olympic Association and then four years later, in 1927, Indian Olympic Association (IOA) under the leadership of Dorabji and A.G. Noehren of the YMCA. This association has continued to be the dominant body in Indian Olympic sports till today. But the journey of IOA was never smooth, especially considering the tumultuous political atmosphere of the pre-independence days.


The resignation of Dorabji and Noehren due to personal reasons left IOA in trouble with various princes engaging in power struggles. Later, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala gained power and made a concerted attempt to send Indian athletes abroad. It was around this time that various conflicts over the regulation and management of Olympic sport in India began, with regionalism (the north-south divide) being the main issue. Amidst these troubles, hockey made its way into the popular imagination with the Indian team winning the gold in 1928 Olympics. If hockey was a sign of ‘self-respect’ during the colonial era, it became a symbol of ‘national pride’ in the post colonial era. This is manifested in the Berlin Olympics, 1932 when Indian contingent refused to salute Hitler and when it took to holding up the tricolour flag after defeating Great Britain in the finals of the 1948 London Olympics. The golden era of Indian hockey continued till 1984.
Another highlight of this era was the overshadowing of track and field items and athletes - though once in a while, heroes such as Milkha Singh, P.T. Usha did emerge . For example, K D Jadhav's first individual Olympic medal for India in the 1952 Helsinki games was acknowledged by the Indian government only after long 49 years in 2001.

Since 1984, the state of hockey in India has seen a considerable decline, with cricket rapidly taking its place. Television played a key role in popularizing the game and led to a national fervor being evoked around it. The decline of hockey was further aggravated by the ongoing power struggle inside IOA - mainly a manifestation of the North-South divide. Television however soon targeted middle-class Indians and triumphed, as hockey slipped from their interest. Even a series of sting operations since the early 2000s saw barely any change to the popularity of cricket in India. There were various attempts to focus once again on hockey but nothing sustainable was achieved. Meanwhile, cricket had already come under corporate influence and had by then become a giant platform for commoditization of sports in a large scale. The ups and downs of cricket in India were also closely scrutinized and celebrated by a pliant corporate media.

Recently it is observed that the individual performances in the track and field items are gaining popularity with Karnam Malleswari, Rajyavardhan Rathore, Abhinav Bindra, Mary Kom etc. being celebrated as heroic figures. At this point, a matter of concern is the impact of political and policy developments on sports as the latter has never been alienated from the former. The reason behind this concern is the entry of corporates into Indian track and field.

Economic Lessons from Olympics

An article on the economics of the London Olympics dated 17th august 2012 argues that medal count can be predicted with great accuracy from key variables like GDP per capita, past performance and host status of the country. The article reinstates the fact that low income countries are most affected due to expensive games. The author even went to argue this as one of the reasons behind the decline of Indian hockey in recent years. Financial Times’ consensus prediction of gold medals tally for London Olympics, which turned out to be correct, followed such an analysis. If the blogger is to be taken seriously, what is clear is that sports is expensive today and the governments of low-income countries are left with only two choices - opt out of the games or let other players take up the scene. The pursuit of self-respect or national pride in these games is not possible amidst an ailing economy. Reports like ‘Corporate India catches Olympic fever’, 'Olympic gold medals do not come cheap’, ‘Linking corporates and sports’ becomes significant at this point. The impact of the entry of corporates into Olympic sports is best manifested in the west. For example US is one country where the entire sports arena is ruled by a multi-billion dollar sports industrial complex. India has also seen the corporate involvement in cricket to a large extent through sponsorships.

It is evident that profit-making and commodification of athletes would help accumulation of capital utilizing the nationalistic sentiment of the masses. Here lies the major difference between the business classes of India before & at the time independence and the business classes of the neo-liberal era.

Amidst neglect, the history of Indian athletics so far has been one of years of sacrifice and hard work by the athletes until they achieve some kind of success - after which they become heroes, for a while. At this point, a few concerns arise as to what will happen as corporates increasingly intervene in individual items now. The commoditization of cricket is almost complete and individual items are the one that are picking up momentum nowadays. There is a possibility that the fate of the latter could be the same as that of cricket. It is evident that profit-making and commodification of athletes would help accumulation of capital utilizing the nationalistic sentiment of the masses. Here lies the major difference between the business classes of India before and at the time independence ( eg. Dorabji) and the business classes of the neo-liberal era (Reliance, Mittal etc). While for the former, sports was a passion and pride, for the latter it is merely another way of capital accumulation.

Often the inefficiency and the corruption on the sports federations and organizations is cited as a reason to privatize the entire sports sector. But what is likely to happen if any kind of privatization takes place? Athletes would be trained and exploited in various ways and would be made branded commodities that help in the assimilation of commercial needs with the social, political and cultural needs of sports. The nation might take pride in these athletes but the responsibility of not being exploited will rest in the hands of athletes themselves who may not have a point of escape. Thus, we can conclude that Olympic sport in India is on a move from the 'games of self-respect' during the colonial period to 'games of self-submission' to corporate imperialism.