It was spring in Northern China. A Sunday between the official itineraries in Beijing was like gold dust. For the explorer within, nothing else mattered than a glimpse of the Great Wall of China. Early in the morning, we hopped into a taxi, for what was supposed to be a ninety minute drive, and were swiftly guided through the city’s outskirts towards the Badaling segment of the Wall. My colleague, who had shifted only a few months before to Shanghai had already picked up enviable vocabulary in mandarin, and was engaged in an animated conversation with the driver. Looking out of the car windows, one couldn’t help notice the many sports complexes on either side. Hosting an Olympics may have helped the country but still, a play ground or sports complex around every street corner is too glaring to miss. It was no serendipity that China topped the medals tally in the 2008 Olympics. The fact remains that sporting excellence is a good indicator of a nation’s health or vice versa. But then, where does India stand?
What it takes?
The search for answers yielded some interesting insights. In their best seller ‘Soccernomics,’ the authors highlight some key determinants for becoming a football superpower. According to them, the key factors which could launch a country to the pinnacle of sports are wealth and health along with infrastructure and experience. Their observations are focused on the ‘beautiful game,’ but we could extrapolate it to other sports as well. A billion plus population of India has many segments and challenges, and the road is long when it comes to policy making and delivery. However, let us for a moment focus on the glass which is half-full (or a bit lesser, as some may claim) that could be the catalyst for catapulting us in to a sporting power.
The money ball
It’s often believed that being poor is a ticket to sporting greatness and this probably stems from the fact that many football and American basket ball players have humble origins. Analysis of evidence proves that it is the poorer immigrants in rich countries who excel, while poor countries are worse off when it comes to sports. In a recent analysis, journalist Sajith Pai elaborated the three different Indias from a Per Capita Income perspective: The ‘Affluent, Aspiring and Destitute’ – India (PCI means income/population). Interestingly, the 110 mn ‘Affluent India’ with a PCI of about $8800 is incidentally as large as Russia or Mexico. Even the ‘Aspiring India’ is of similar strength (~104 mn) has a PCI of about $3000. Studies have shown that when a country's PCI reaches $2,500, people realize the importance of physical fitness. When it reaches $5,000, the demand for sports and fitness equipment rises remarkably. And when the same crosses $8,000, physical fitness tends to become a pillar industry of the economy. In 2018 world cup, India is one of the top ten countries in terms of paying spectators in Russia. But we seem to be poised for the transition from being a nation of payers to players.
As per the legendary Indian coach SA Rahim, football is a game of 2L and 2H; he was referring to the different body parts - Legs, Lungs, Heart and Head. Likewise, for a better sporting performance, there are various aspects of the health system that may need to be stepped up. Expert opinions point to both good healthcare and clean air as critical success factors. According to scientists at FIFA’s medical centre of excellence, ‘Nutrition' is often overlooked when it comes to success in football. Lack of nutrition and basic health care also leads to diseases which further arrests growth of the young. Like wealth, the health indices also exhibit gross variance across India, but certain emerging positives are worth highlighting. A recent report released by the NITI Aayog shows that Kerala continues to top the health index among large states in terms of overall health performance; closely followed by Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. These states have some amazing health indicators, many being at par with developed countries like the US and UK. From a policy perspective, there have been initiatives that put emphasis not just on food but looks at convergence of multiple aspects like water, sanitation, immunization and behavior change; the National Nutrition Mission is a case in point.
Awareness and participation levels in India for sports activities are witnessing an unprecedented surge. In another positive development, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has formulated new guidelines for its schools. Termed ‘Health and Physical Education’ (HPE), this mandates schools to have a daily sports period during which students will have to go the playground but will be free to perform any physical activity listed in the manual and will be graded on the same. With the objective of establishing India as a great sporting nation, the Khelo India programme is another step in the right direction to revive sports culture at grass-root level. The sports minister’s social media challenge, #HumFitTohIndiaFit was a great success and a first of its kind engagement activity towards bringing awareness.
Another testament to the growing clout of sports is the fresh phase of monetization. On the lines of IPL-Cricket, professional leagues are active in other sports like Soccer, Kabaddi, Badminton, Basket ball and Table Tennis. This immensely contributes to our infrastructure and exposure. Ever since hosting the FIFA U-17 world cup in 2017, football continues to grow in India and is the second most viewed sport in the country after cricket. India’s ranking at FIFA which was at 163 in June 2016, has galloped to 97 now. Not many realize that after Ronaldo and Messi, it’s the Indian striker Sunil Chhetri who is placed third in the leading active international goal scorers list.
Crossing the wall
The broadcaster of 2018 world cup had launched a campaign titled #MeriDoosriCountry that draws Indian fans to root for their favorite countries, which temporarily become their ‘Doosri’ Country. But cheering for another country is not an option when it comes to health and wealth. In his book ‘Barefoot to Boots’ that chronicles Indian football, renowned journalist Novy Kapadia reminisces that, due to the supremacy exhibited in the continent during the 1960s, India was then called the ‘Brazil of Asia.’ The news of India overtaking France to become world's sixth largest economy has just trickled in. But on the soccer fields, the ‘Blue Tigers’ still have some ground to catch-up. While Qatar 2022 looks too close, will the Americas in 2026 witness the goal of a billion dreams?
The author is Co-founder & Director @ BioQuest Solutions Pvt. Ltd, a Bangalore based MNC that has been partnering with clients across the life-sciences knowledge value chain since 2005.