Indian sport @75: In a race full of hurdles, sometimes to simply take part is to win

Flagbearers Manpreet Singh and PV Sindhu lead India out during the Opening Ceremony of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games David Ramos/Getty Images)

75 years ago to the day, 'at the stroke of the midnight hour', India 'redeemed her tryst with destiny', and the 'soul of a nation long suppressed found utterance'. Well, somewhat. We are not here, though, to comment on the state of the nation right now - but to merely comment upon a small facet of our lives, and where India finds itself in that field: Sport.

Consider the Commonwealth Games. The first time these Games were held after India's independence was in 1950. And they were called the British Empire Games: a gentle reminder that what we consider history was very much reality back then. India, understandably prioritisng the development of other areas of society, did not participate in those Games, but it did in the next - in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. 24 nations participated, 18 medalled, India did not.

India's first medals at these Games came only in the next edition, in 1958 - golds for Milkha Singh (440 yards sprint) and Lila Ram Sangwan (wrestling) and a silver for Lachmi Kant Pandey (also wrestling).

That we have moved from those 3 medals to 61 (22 of them gold) in the most recent edition that concluded last week, shows how far Indian sport has come. Even more remarkable is that we now consider a tournament that was started as an exhibition of the Empire's might to be just another regular sporting event where the nation's athletes can compete with some of the best in the world. A reminder, one could say, that bridges can always be built over divides once thought unpassable.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Games also did an impressive job in highlighting just how slowly India's utterance in sport has come about.

In certain events at the Games - like athletics and lawn bowls - achievements meant remarkable personal performances, athletes digging deep and beating world-class opposition. In others - like wrestling, weightlifting, and boxing - it was merely an exercise in Indian athletes setting personal markers.

For both sets of competitors, though, the Games mattered a big deal. For it's only in events like this, the Asian Games and the Olympics being the others, that they can occupy centrestage in the Indian mindspace. Even if for a short while.

Some viewers are attracted by the athletic excellence on show, some by the vicarious thrill of seeing the Indian flag hoisted above others on a podium. Whatever the reason, though, every athlete in that Indian contingent valued that attention. They, unlike their cricketing brethren, are starved for it.

Most of these athletes continue to perform and achieve success despite the system, not because of it. If early India's greatest strategic marker was the idea of moving forward in long-term, five-year plans, that's a feature that has skipped most of Indian sport.

There are exceptions, of course, like shooting (where the lack of tangible results at the Olympics has meant due credit has not yet been given to the system), but the vast majority of Indian sport continues to wallow in a pool of administrative malaise.

Take for example, the case of Alex Ambrose. The assistant coach of the national Under-17 women's team was sacked on allegations of sexual misconduct months ago in a shocking scandal that should have rocked Indian sport to its very roots. But a leaf has barely hit the ground.

Instead the All India Football Federation is embroiled in a mess that threatens its own existence - elections not held, a FIFA ban hanging over its neck. Who has time, then, to speak up for those who cannot? There's probably a parallel to be drawn to real life here, but I will leave that to greater minds.

Like the football one, the hockey federation has been suspended by the Supreme Court. The President of the Indian Olympic Association, meanwhile, had to step down in the most ignominious of circumstances. Both are staring at international sanctions. There are many other federations under varying degrees of scrutiny. All of these bodies have looked at the national sports code, and the athletes that are their raison d'etre, like the average Indian motorist has always seen a zebra crossing - a distraction to be thoroughly ignored.

It's in this backdrop that we must now go back and look at that haul of 61 medals at the CWG. Or the seven won at the Tokyo Olympics last year. Or any of the global success the nation's athletes have brought home. Don't let the photo ops fool you. Remember, invariably it's despite, not because. And it's these athletes who we must always focus on. You could ask now why the big fuss, why dedicate so much time and effort to something like sport? Is it really the best possible use of resources for a 75-year-old nation struggling to reconcile its millennia of history with the realities of the present?

That leads us to another question - What is sport, really, in the big picture? A distraction? Entertainment? An escape from the regular-ness of life? To push it to its romantic extreme, a harbinger of hope? A promise of better times?

Maybe it's all of this.

In Sakshi Malik's redemption we see hope. In Sharath Kamal's trophy cabinet, the value of consistent excellence. In the women's lawn bowls team, a reminder that stereotypes that shackle are meant to be shattered. In Neeraj Chopra's chutzpah and PV Sindhu's belligerence and Mirabai Chanu's awesomeness, a banishing of inferiority complexes. In the women's hockey team's success, a promise that hard work and dedication will get you places. In Achinta Sheuli's rise, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, however dark. In Bhavina Patel's triumph, the knowledge that no obstacle is too tough to overcome.

You see, despite all the controversies, despite all the red tape, maybe in India's athletes we see the truth in those words spoken 75 years ago atop the Red Fort - "And so we have to labour and to work, and work hard, to give reality to our dreams"