Tokyo Olympics: The Black Swan of Indian sports

Should India stop competing in international events till the basic population needs are met? Learn from China?

 Indian sports is an ongoing Black Swan, except we can’t see it for what it is, as exemplified by our performance at Tokyo Olympics so far

In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb describes a Black Swan event as rare, of extreme impact, and of retrospective predictability (that feeling, how did we miss it coming?).

In recent times, the Black Swan that blew India apart was demonetisation. Its stated purpose was to suck black money out of an economy when black money was the economy. Incidentally, my lifetime savings went with it as I had invested in an apartment in Noida. (The promoter, for whom demonetisation, like COVID-19 now, was a good excuse to explain his many management failures to 22,000 gypped homeowners, still flies around Delhi in his private chopper.)

An aside: once when we were protesting at a venue of the company’s GBM meeting, placards and slogans and all, the builder flew over the protestors, landed in the backyard, took the GBM, and flew back, while we continued our little if painful agitation against our imminent bankruptcy. The promoter pays hundreds of crores to whichever party is in power. His interests are well looked after and he has not sold his chopper as far as I know, though, in my vengeful dreams, he suffers a crash after writing a will gifting us each a share of his loot.

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Demonetisation was a human-created Black Swan. The Modi dispensation though still thinks it a white swan, the rule, not the exception; a good job that had to be done well.

They believe that’s what they have achieved. If such a huge disaster, many of us its living — and dying — proof of it, can be viewed so in two diametrically opposite ways, how do we know what we are talking about at any given moment? As Raymond Carver said: What We Talk About When We Talk about Love. We have no idea, do we?

India’s sports performance is largely overshadowed by cricket and the false shopping mall patriotism associated with it. For example, Sahara or BYJU’S  blue player jerseys, and how shopping indices jack up on the eve of big matches. All patriotic urges, indeed all group rights campaigns including gender rights, are easily interpreted as consumer products sale strategies, as we now know.

Indian sports is an ongoing Black Swan, except we can’t see it for what it is, as exemplified by our performance at Tokyo Olympics (that last-minute gold notwithstanding). We are just not very good at seeing black from white. Saturday newspaper headlines, for instance, were not just forgiving but nearly celebratory when the women’s team lost the hockey bronze to Britain. Here is one Delhi newspaper looking at it: ‘A BIG LEAP, A NARROW MISS.’ Well, you miss it by an inch, you miss it by four years, no?

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Another paper, a few days ago, when the hockey medal hopes were unaccountably high, turned a front-page lead headline into a mere name-dropping exercise: all the women players’ names were good enough for a headline. Perhaps the media, out of marketing compulsions, were trying to be seen as gender-friendly products? Or they just wanted to score some brownies?

The intensions, as in the case of demonetisation, hardly matter. What matters is the obfuscation of the truth. Which is that Indian sports has been a Black Swan, and we have no idea what to do with it, exactly as we have no idea what to do with a cash-dry and GST-strangled economy.

Our perception that we are doing the right things most of the time is taking us further and further into the Black Swan situation. Could it be that we are colour blind as a race? That we can’t, in fact, tell, black from white?

In Cultural Revolution (a book on the China years, 1962-1976), Frank Dikotter mentions how Mao tried to engineer the Great Leap Forward, to rocket China into the top industrial economies of the world, by substituting labour for capital and turning backyards into factories. Millions died.

But the hardship and discipline it instilled have contributed to a kind of Chinese super genetic pool; a legacy subsequent leaders like Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping cashed in on to turn China into a success factory, at the expense of life’s little pleasures such as ‘chai pe endless charcha’, and misleading headlines.

China marched militantly to its independence somewhat around the time (in 1949) we won ours. As of Friday last, their medal tally at Tokyo was 79 (36 gold), at the top of the table. US total 98, but had just 31 gold. India are in the 66th position with five medals, and no gold.

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Except for boxing, this writer is not interested in sports. I believe a poor country should feed itself well and be assured of basic comforts in life, rather than participate in competitive sports whose underpinning is precisely assurances in life’s raw needs. Who knows, we are perhaps more engineered genetically for speculation and corruption? Or for debating, the ‘chai pe charcha‘ thing? Remember VK Krishna Menon debating in 1957 for two days or so consecutively at the UN before collapsing? Amartya Sen may have actually got it right for a change: the Indian is nothing without the argument, its falsity or correctness notwithstanding. Is it any wonder we are one of the leading consumers of social media platforms? A nation that talks so much can’t run.

Or play hockey. For decades, China stayed away from competitive sports in the international arena. Until they got ready to hit the gold. India should think clearly. Is competitive sports our priority or just basic physical fitness? If we take care of the latter, it means more people get to eat well and live without unreasonable material anxiety. Down the generations that will result in a fitter and a more competitive people. Pass a moratorium on competitive sports until, say, 2050 when we might get our basics correct – with luck. Meanwhile, take a break from painting Black Swans white with headlines.

(CP Surendran’s novel One Love And the Many Lives of Osip B is now available on stands and on Amazon.)

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