2021 will go down in history as the year India took a small step towards rewriting its Olympic story. Seven medals in the Tokyo Summer Olympics, including an elusive gold (Indias highest tally ever), and 19 in the Paralympics, including five gold.
But this Olympics wasn't about the medals. It was about the renaissance of Indian sports and the resilience of the human spirit. We all know the number of medals the athletes won and the world records they broke. What we don't know are the struggles and the courage that went into making these champions.
Many of them come from humble backgrounds, small-town India, and face immense personal and financial struggles in pursuing their dreams. Gurjit Kaur, who scored the lone goal for the Indian Women's Hockey team against Australia in the Olympics, bore financial difficulties and taunts from neighbours when she was growing up playing hockey in Miadi Kalan village in Amritsar, Punjab. Sumit Antil, who won gold in men's javelin (F64) at the Paralympics, was training to be a wrestler until a bike accident left him amputated in 2015. Having lost his father very young, he took to athletics with the support of his family and friends and trained through multiple challenges to reach his goal.
The journeys of these players, and thousands of others, would be a lot easier if we had in place an equitable sports ecosystem that accords equal opportunities to all children. It would also help revive sports in India and enable us to make a mark internationally.
The bigger reason we need to give every child in India the opportunity to play is to build a healthier, happier future for our children. We need to let them dribble, pass, shoot, refine their footwork, run till they fall, and help them pick themselves up and run again. We also need to train them in matters of physical and emotional fitness, technical skills, nutrition, and facilitate their learning to ensure they reach their maximum potential.
A study by UNICEF showed that participation in sport improves children's educational achievements and helps develop skills such as empowerment, leadership, and self-esteem, enhancing their overall wellbeing and future prospects.
More than anything, we need to develop a keen sense of understanding, empathy, and support for each player on their unique journey. Back in the 19th and 20th centuries, hockey gained in popularity among children and young people in India thanks to the easy availability of land to be used as playing fields and hockey's uncomplicated equipment (a small ball and a stick).
From thereon started India's glorious liaison and domination of the game in international competitions, including the Olympics. But the absence/lack of training on astroturfs eventually impeded India's winning streak, especially at international events.
India has the potential to become a global sporting powerhouse, especially in hockey. To get there, we need to build the requisite infrastructure and empower our children to play sports of their choice by developing an equitable ecosystem to help identify and nurture talent.
However, there is an inherent challenge in developing such a sports ecosystem in a middle-to low-income country like India, where we have more pressing problems to address, such as poverty, malnutrition, and basic healthcare. To overcome this challenge, we need to take a multi-stakeholder approach. All relevant actors - the government, sports federations, corporates, NGOs, philanthropists, parents, coaches, and others - need to come together to invest in an equitable, high-quality sports infrastructure.
As a first step, we need to conduct regular assessments at the block, town, and district level to understand the infrastructure needs at each level. Then, we need to spread awareness among parents and educators to ensure that sports is a part of children's lives and curricula at all levels; it might help to make it mandatory in schools and colleges.
Local administrations and village panchayats also should be roped in to encourage more community events around sports and infrastructure investments at the local level.
At the next level, corporates can come in, first by building a culture of sports among their own employees and then by investing in sports initiatives and collaborating with the government and other actors to help set up academies and stadiums. This will help streamline identification of talent at the grassroots and give children opportunities to play.
To make a real difference to the lives of our children, we also need to reframe the way they see life through the lens of holistic wellbeing. This will help them understand that their success in sports is something more reaching -- something that extends beyond competition and prowess; that embodies not just their physical and emotional wellbeing, but also their financial, social, community, and planetary wellbeing.
Perhaps the biggest reason we need to give every child who wants to play the opportunity to do so is the sheer joy and the zeal of children when they play a sport. And we must always ensure that every child who aims big feels confident that they have a support system to rely on.