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National Agenda : Populous India No Contender When It Comes to Sports : The huge country must overcome hurdles of poverty, bureaucracy and politics to compete effectively, critics say.


PUNE, India — The 20,000-seat stadium was brand new, the weather dry and sunny, picture perfect for the National Games. On the eight-lane polyurethane track, India's fastest men pushed their feet against the blocks. "Take your marks, get set . . . ," the starter barked.

Then--nothing but a dry click.

Half a dozen times, officials lined the perspiring and increasingly frustrated runners up for the 100-meter race, and just as often, the starter's pistol refused to fire. While harried stewards searched for a new gun, longer-distance events were set off with a whistle.

When another pistol was found, it was wide-striding Rajeev Balakrishnan, 22, who finished first, his finger triumphantly pointing at the sky. But the time clocked by the electrical engineering student from Iowa State University, 10.78 seconds, was almost a half-second over the national record for the 100 set 21 years earlier.

Is any more evidence needed that something is seriously the matter with Indian sports? "Why we have fallen so low is a basic question that every Indian is asking," said Narotam Puri, a celebrated New Delhi sports commentator and physician. "Everyone is crying himself hoarse, because . . . we have fallen on hard times."

These days sports are much more than physical recreation or strenuous entertainment. They are a widely accepted indicator of a country's development and state of public health, as well as an often manipulated vehicle for international and domestic political prestige.

No wonder, then, that reviewing the overall record is enough to make an Indian patriot or sports-addicted couch potato want to change the subject. At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, China, the world's most populous country, grabbed 54 medals. India, the world's second-most populous country, won exactly--none.

India's humbling experiences when it competes with the best and brightest in amateur athletics have been endless. In the past three Olympiads--Barcelona, Seoul in 1988 and Los Angeles in 1984--individual Indian athletes didn't snare a single gold, silver or bronze. In fact, since Indian independence in 1947, only one Indian has won a medal in an individual event (welterweight freestyle wrestler Khabasha Jadhav took the bronze in 1952).

All other medals have come in the national sport, field hockey, and India's fortunes there have collapsed since the introduction of artificial turf made speed and brawn more important than stickhandling. India's last Olympic medal in field hockey, a gold, came in 1980 at the boycott-depleted Moscow Games.

Indians are wont to compare their performance in everything from economics to high-tech weapons production with China, and so atrocious was Indian performance in the 1990 Asian games in Beijing that shamed Indian reporters took to turning their press credentials around to conceal their country. Indians won a solitary gold.

The ego-crushing nadir may have come this winter, when, at the South Asian Games, pipsqueak Nepal beat India in soccer--a sport in which India once finished fourth at the Olympics.

Thoughtful Indians see in their country's generalized debacle on the playing fields a reflection of many things they think are wrong or questionable in their society.

First, glory in sport has been supposed to serve the leadership, making it an affair of state. At the 1982 New Delhi Asian games, Chand Ram won the 20-kilometer walking race. Before he could take a victory lap, he was frog-marched to the box of Rajiv Gandhi, then general secretary of the ruling Congress Party, and made to touch Gandhi's feet in obeisance.


Even today "what is being done is being done to please the politicians," tartly summarized the usually cheery Milkha Singh, 63, the "Flying Sikh" whose 3-decade-old national records for the 200 and 400 meters have never been bested.

"Indian officials are sitting between two stools" in sports, Puri said. "They didn't know whether to follow the socialist model where the state tried to control athletics, or the Western market system." The hybrid result has proven ineffective.

Since India is a democracy, it could not, like China, take children away from their families to hone their talents. But since sports is considered an affair of government, worthy of its own ministry, bureaucrats inexorably came to head India's sporting federations.

"The bureaucracy has killed sports in this country," Shekhar Gupta, senior editor of India Today and a lifelong sports buff, complained. "All the budget gets eaten up by the Indian Sports Authority. It's run by IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officers who know as little about sports as I do about semiconductors."

For Gupta, it's people like the courtly Kanti Chodhary, 75, a member of the elite IAS, who epitomize the problem. The elderly civil servant has been chosen to head the Fencing Assn. of India, but acknowledges that the only blade he knows how to wield is a razor.

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