Sanjeeva Narayan
8 min readFeb 15, 2023

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INDIA’S SPORTING CULTURE –ALIVE, KICKING AND FLOWERING

1. This blog stems naturally from me being a passionate sports follower and living in a sports crazy household for the better part of my life. In fact, a couple of my blogs in the past have also been sport centric — about Liverpool Football Club, the ultimate glory of sport and the munificent spirituality of sportsmen, focusing on the effort and sacrifices of sportsmen and their underlying passion, and how sport can be and, in fact, is the gender equalizer (look at the recent phenomenal rates at which media rights have been sold and teams lapped up for the Women’s IPL).

2. In this blog, I intend to focus on the space that sport occupies in the Indian mindscape and how it appears that the culture of sport has not only seen a resurgence but is actually alive, kicking and permeating Indian society. The same became more than apparent recently while watching an event, in what is not yet a mass sport in India- “Badminton”. It has been long felt and thought that India is essentially not a sporting country -genetically our bodies are not attuned to intensive physical exercise and we are generally not favourably disposed to physical activity. Resultantly, some kind of success is only fortuitous — of course sustained success at the regional level a pipe dream and at International level definitely a mirage. People backing this hypothesis point out to our somewhat abysmal record at International events in the last century — the sporadic successes and recent wins not statistically justified by the vast population. Efforts have been made in the recent past to stem the tide and the results have been somewhat evident. Of course, given the gap and the magnitude of the problem, phenomenal success will take time to manifest.

3. However, the fact that there has been a sea-change in our attitude and forbearance towards sport became somewhat evident when I happened to watch, in person, the finals of the YONEX SUNRISE India Open — 2023 held in the third week of January 2023 in New Delhi (an HSBC BWF World Tour, Super 750 event). Glitches and the quixotic manner in which distribution of passes was organized apart, the event seemed to have been organized with clinical efficiency and exhibited extraordinary organizational skills backed by extensive planning ( adherence to “method”) with a fair share of glitz, glamour and razmattaz to add to the mix . The presence of almost all the top players in the circuit was by itself emblematic of how high the events rank in the Badminton hierarchy and its significance in the BWF Calendar of events.

4. There was a tinge of disappointment to the entire scenario with none of the top Indian players featuring in the action. The likes of PV Sindhu, Sania Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth, H.S Prannoy, the doubles pairs of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy/Chirag Shetty and Tressa Jolly/Gayatri Gopichand having lost in the earlier rounds. However, the action promised to be entertaining and extraordinary with both the World №1 in Mens’ and Womens’ (Viktor Axelsen and Akane Yamaguchi respectively) in their respective finals.

5. In this background what struck immediately and strikingly was the enthusiasm among the crowds to get in and watch the proceedings, their knowledge of the global happenings in the world of Badminton, the sheer diversity( by any yardstick) of the people looking forward with unbridled enthusiasm to be part of the action and above all the electrifying/infectiously enthusiastic participation of the crowd when the action was in progress. To further delve into the issue, the entire crowd which had come to watch was more than eager to get hold of the passes at the earliest and reach the venue which was a fair distance away but also straddled a wide swathe of the populace and represented people of almost all ages, backgrounds, geographies, gender and the like. In fact, it would not be out of place to state that the variety of display were a microcosm of Indian society — children, teenagers, middle aged students, housewives, retired but evidently not tired senior citizens even old people walking with sticks and the like. It was most gratifying and touching to see senior citizens being gently escorted by their kin to their seats with utmost care — a difficult and delicate task given the crowds, stairs and the maze of wires criss -crossing the floor where the absence of extraordinary care could surely result in a fall by tripping.

6. In the din, one could overhear conversations, excited and animated, which invariably veered around to what to expect in the action — the level of knowledge exhibited was not superficial with most seemingly possessing at least more than a mere working knowledge of even the foreign players in action. One could see excited mothers engaging in animated conversations with their children discussing what to expect and mind you the variety of languages being spoken was fairly wide. Even the loyalties for the players in action seemed to be fairly deep rooted with heated discussions on the strategies of the various players, their strengths, weaknesses and who would be the likely winners. Posters and billboards supporting the various players who straddled diverse nationalities (Denmark + Thailand/Japan/Malysia) had either been brought or were hastily drawn up. All in all an electrifying atmosphere with an unusually participative and enthusiastic audience- in spite of none of the Indian stars being in action in a game which has not yet penetrated the masses and which, mind you, is somewhat expensive to play.

7. The point that came out loud and clear from this extraordinary spectacle was how deep rooted and broad based India’s love of sports had now become and how we have now moved from an infatuation/obsession with cricket to other sports, which may or may not have a colonial heritage/linkage. Of course, one could say that we are a nation of watchers/spectators and, perhaps, not active participants but if the multiplier and domino effects of such interest were to proliferate the number of participants, is only bound to exponentially multiply. The process, of course, will be long winded and arduous and success will take its own time to fructify. The process will also be more complex given the diverse social and economic issues that most people struggle with and the infrastructural issues and lack of professional opportunities which a career in sports entails coupled with the ambivalent possibilities of a successful career and uncertain financial results. In spite of all these constraints and mitigating issues, the possibility of sports as a career has entered the broad scope of many impressionable minds with the overt/covert backing of understanding parents and gradual societal acceptance.

8. An enabling environment gradually put in place by the Government with due support of the corporates will only be rapidly embraced by the citizens and gradually embed India’s psyche with a sporting culture. Only the various federations running individual sports, invariably as fiefdoms of selected individuals, sometimes with vested interests need to have a functional and operational overhaul/makeover. Social media in spite of its attendant negativities aided by the power of technology, which has deeply embedded our lives can act as the role of not only a catalyst but also an accelerator to this progress and which power thankfully is now being duly recognized and harnessed. The gradual societal acceptance will, only albeit gradually, put India on the path to having a vibrant sporting and fitness culture — with all its attendant physical, physiological, psychological, mental and emotionally positive fall outs in addition to fostering a culture of sportsmanship, fair play and team-spirit to boot.

9. Talking about sporting cultures, one needs to take a leaf out of countries such as Australia, with its emphasis on emotional happiness, the country seems to live, eat, breathe and think sports — of course — abetted by an environment (both physical and regulatory) which is wholesome/encouraging. Again while one could point out the different social and economic dynamics and relative sizes, the fact remains that taking such examples as a baseline, suitably nuancing their approach and utilizing their experience will definitely be of help. Although India seems to be some distance away — the process evidently has already begun. That apart the encouragement of traditional Indian sports such as Kho-Kho, Kabaddi, Mallakhamb — the list is endless — something which has already begun, albeit with some hiccups, will only hasten the process.

10. Talking about the event, apart it being seamlessly organized, the action was of the highest order, fast-paced and speedy with the players displaying agility, speed, flexibility, coordination — what have you of the highest order. The Doubles with its fast -paced action and the crowd chanting on every smash (the gradual build up somewhat akin to a Mexican wave in cricket) making the atmosphere electric was a delight to watch. The long rallies with their fair share of smashes, drop-shots, lobs and instant strategizing only left the spectators awestruck. The ability of the players, specially when the shuttle is flying at speeds of more than 300 kmph, to recover from near impossible situations and resort to shot — making from rakish angles only left one wonder-struck. The game which required instant mind -body coordination and nano-second decision-making only left an avid-watcher awe-struck as to the amazing level of physical agility and mental strength required. Of course, both the top seeds lost- a poster put up by one of the spectators aptly summed it up — “I will tell my grandchildren that I saw Axelsen Lose” — a rare event given his sheer dominance over the Men’s game in the recent past ala Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in Tennis.

11. For me, the piece de resistance and the ultimate novelty of the event was a facility put up at the entrance wherein anyone could get a simulated photo clicked with any of the players and which after scanning a bar code could be saved on your mobile phone — and that too at no cost. This, for want of a better word contraption, I may confess was certainly a novel experience for me and so it seemed for many others judging by the number of people thronging there. Nevertheless I used it to get a photo (of course simulated) with the amazing treating Indian doubles combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty — fondly and eponymously known as “ Sat -Chi” . The top ranked singled players may get all the attention and hog the limelight, to my mind, this fire and ice combination with their hard work and commitment have attained phenomenal success are inching their way to the top and will hog the limelight soon.

12. All in all, while an amazing experience, India’s sporting culture, seems to be waking up from its demonic slumber and with right minded guidance, sustained support (technological, infrastructural, financial or even moral/social) magnified success will not remain a mirage or pipe dream but become evident and real.

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