In ambitious but medal-poor India, a growing quest for athletic success

The Washington Post's Emily Wax talks about India's quest for Olympic gold and how the country plans on grooming athletes to compete on the world stage.
By Emily Wax
Friday, April 23, 2010

BANGALORE, INDIA -- India is a rising economic power and a world leader in technology and brainpower, but its performance in international sports is as sad as the dingy pool where Sandeep Sejwal, one of the world's top swimmers, trains near a throng of splashing toddlers.

"The pool is crowded these days, but I try to tune everything out when I swim. . . . India needs me," said the curly-haired Sejwal, 21, the best hope for gold in a country that ranks dead last in Olympic medals per capita, behind Niger and Iraq.

The quest for athletic success has become a matter of national pride in this increasingly confident and prosperous country, which has garnered only one individual gold medal in Olympic history. The Indian government is pouring millions into efforts to produce world-class athletes and build state-of-the-art sports complexes.

Athletic achievement has also become a measure by which India finds itself lagging miles behind archrival China. India has a fast-growing economy, nuclear weapons and an ambitious space program, all badges of honor in its intense competition with its regional nemesis. But China has 430 Olympic medals in total -- 100 at the 2008 Beijing Olympics alone -- while India has just 20.

"India has a lot of catching up to do," said G.S. Mander, vice president of the Indian Olympic Association. India has 2,000 swimmers registered with local federations, compared with 650,000 in China.

Abhinav Bindra, 27, who won the individual gold medal in the 10-meter air rifle shooting event at the 2008 Olympics, noted that with about 1.2 billion people, the numbers are on India's side.

"India has an abundance of untapped talent," Bindra said. "What we lack is nurturing of that talent. India needs top coaching, far better facilities and just a feeling that we as a nation should be winning in world sports."

Bindra's gold medal, along with two bronze medals for wrestling and boxing, surprised Indians and raised expectations for Indian athletes in other global sporting events.

But Bindra's path to glory illustrates a fundamental flaw in India's system. He trained for the Beijing Games in an Olympic-size shooting range that his father, a wealthy curry trader, built for him in his back yard.

India's premier Olympic training institute -- the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports in Patiala in Punjab state -- is only an hour away from Bindra's home. But its gym is crumbling and its air conditioning rarely works, despite summer temperatures of 110 degrees or higher. Bindra called the facility "antique and shocking."

In contrast, China systematically grooms athletes in modern sports academies nationwide.

Some analysts said the same problems that keep India's economy lagging behind China's keep Indian athletes from outperforming their Chinese competitors: government corruption, poor infrastructure and a byzantine bureaucracy. Many here say that money earmarked for training young athletes or constructing gyms and pools is too often siphoned off by corrupt officials.

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