Why you should care
Because the story of a nation’s rise to athletic prominence has all the juiciness of a Disney movie.
While most nations around the world are preparing for the 2016 Olympic Games by pumping up their star athletes poised to win medals, India is celebrating something else: Its mere presence at the games. For anyone who’s ever received a participation trophy in youth sports, the situation may arouse pity.
But take a closer look, and you find cause for optimism. India’s never been famous for phenomenal athletes, with the exception of a few standout cricketers. These days, though, some see an opportunity for a breakthrough in track and field. Which makes sense, since running is among the most democratic of sports. Athletes don’t need fancy equipment; they need space, and some true drive. This year, 120 Indians will represent in Rio, the largest number ever, and the 36 competitors in “Athletics” — the category that includes running, jumping and discus throw, among other sports — is the biggest contingent; the balance will compete in sports including wrestling, golf, shooting, even table tennis. Few people predict India will bring home medals this year, but that may change by the 2020 Tokyo Games — and certainly in a decade, “the athletics level in India will be very, very different,” says Hugo Van den Broek, who coaches Olympians in Kenya and in 2014 began training Indian runners to reach Olympic-medal status.
Speaking of Kenya: It’s the perfect illustration of running’s democratic nature. Classified by the World Bank as a lower-middle-income nation, Kenya nonetheless has a culture in which “running is not seen as a luxury,” Van den Broek says. That long-held notion — of exercise as an upper-class pastime — is slowly changing in India, says Adille J. Sumariwalla, president of the Athletics Federation of India. “Everybody wants to look fit now,” he says. “There’s a mindset change in the country, and that’s for the good of track and field.” Such cultural shifts may reflect the rise of the liberalized Indian economy, which this year became the fastest-growing on the planet. Economic booms have correlated with Olympic breakthroughs before — in 2008, China emerged from relative obscurity to win the second-highest number of medals, nearly eclipsing the U.S. (Van den Broek also points to Uganda, which “had no one” for years but recently saw a runner medal at the World Championships.)
As more Indians tune in on televisions and track results on smartphones, they may find inspiration in seeing competitors who look like them on the playing fields.
India’s government seems to smell change in the wind: It allocated $7 million more to the 2016-2017 sports budget than it did the previous year. And compared to China, where athletes often need state permission to compete or travel abroad, the Indian situation is downright rosy. Anand Menezes, who competed in the 2000 and 2004 Games, says, “Frankly, India is one of the best countries of the world” when it comes to supporting athletes. He cites new training facilities being built, and the fact that successful athletes are often rewarded with government jobs after their careers flame out.
Those same rewards, however, may ironically hinder the advancement of promising athletes, says Van den Broek. After taking a cushy job at the railway ministry, training ends. And there are, of course, troubles that the Indian government can’t solve — like the hot, oppressive climate or the dearth of training space in sprawling cities. Harsh Mhatre, a 20-year-old Mumbai-raised runner who’s aiming to qualify in 2020, retreated to the northern area of Bhopal to train. “In a city like Mumbai, it’s tough,” he says. Mhatre, who excels at the 1,500- and 5,000-meter runs (with an eye toward marathons as well), may be all right thanks to government-constructed tracks, but long-distance runners also need trails and clear land. And then there’s the flip side of running’s accessibility: If anyone can do it, there’s more competition, Sumariwalla says. And, he adds, the country lacks homegrown sports scientists and medical expertise, relying instead on expensive imported foreigners.
But as more Indians tune in on televisions and track results on smartphones, they may find inspiration in seeing competitors who look like them on the playing fields. “They need some hero, some example to show that Indians can make it,” Van den Broek says. This year, that symbol may come in the form of Dutee Chand, a 100-meter sprinter who’s gained international attention — but not for her times. Rather, she set a precedent for women with high testosterone levels — known as hyperandrogenism — being allowed to compete in the games. (She didn’t reply to requests for comment.) Van den Broek doesn’t think she’ll medal, but “if she can make it up to the finals, I’m sure that will make many young kids in India start running,” he says.
Mhatre began running eight years ago and today clocks the 5,000-meter dash at 14:43 seconds — roughly two seconds shy of the world record, and a second short of this year’s qualifying time. Van den Broek, who’s trained Mhatre, says he’s a promising candidate for 2020. This year, Mhatre will watch the Indian delegation — including some of his training buddies — from Bhopal. He’s gunning for their success, but soon enough, his may arrive.