When Indian athletes turned from 'becharas' to authority-challenging superstars
The Indian Athlete 2.0 is not afraid to speak their mind - even if it's against the authorities, powered by an extreme sense of self-belief of being at par with the world's best.
Brave, outrageous and so-called rebellious acts from Indian players are an event that is fairly minimally seen in the gamut of Indian sports, lest they get called out for the aforementioned labels. With matter historically brushed under the carpet and the lid closed, athletes of yesterday would refrain from poking the bear.
Yet along has come a Manika Batra, a NextGen athlete, if you will, who risked the same labels and in turn, received a few more - honest, unafraid, et al when she decided to speak up against the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI)-appointed National Coach for match-fixing ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. Unthinkable, a little - both the scenarios? Not anymore, not after the recent Delhi High Court judgement that found the Coach guilty and upheld Manika Batra's side.
Manika isn't the lone crusader either. Former Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli recently attracted quite the contrasting flak when he decided to lash out and speak, bluntly and honestly about the shoddy communication and lightly hinted at the partisan politics that plays out in the BCCI - following his resignation as Captain of the team. Bold, again, you say? Much-needed transparency, I say!
Welcome to the new breed of woke Indian athletes of today.
Like a fish out of water
Indian athletes have long been categorised as the "becharas" who have to deal with all sorts of issues and have been viewed as this helpless lot who are just happy with the small things in life.
They have been products of a broken system and are at the mercy of the sports administrators who had little to no interest in their well-being. Their success has always been despite the system and not because of it.
On the whole, the Indian athlete has always had a soft spot in the minds of society and they have been like this "protected" species.
Fifteen years ago an Indian athlete in the international realm would have been like a fish out of water, they were just happy that they made it to some tournament and they neither thought nor believed that they could contend with the rest of the field. If you are looking for a word, 'overwhelmed' fit the bill, back then.
There was this inferiority complex that was always at the back of their mind and the lack of proper support did not help. They barely went outside their own country and a big stage really put them out of their comfort zone, intimidating them greatly.
Even from a personal experience, I got to participate at the Sydney Olympic Games and the truth is I was just happy to be there, counting my blessings.
Bechara, who? Not us
None of the above assertions holds true in the case of the present-day elite athlete. They are this young trailblazing lot who not only believe that they belong with the best in the world but a lot of them feel they are better - so save them the 'oh, you poor thing' pity. They are no longer damsels and hapless princes in distress but are rather, woke superstars or ones-in-the-making.
They have this chip on their shoulders and with the advent of social media, they are frequently posting flattering clips about their prowess! The inferiority complex has made way for this new level of confidence which borders on arrogance instead!
I couldn't be prouder to see my fellow athletes blossom into these self-confident, self-aware brood of people but what brought about the change?
The birth of the Indian Athlete 2.0
I began to notice this change before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I was on the bus boarding the flight to Beijing and that had a few members of the Indian contingent on the same flight. The mood in the pre-boarding bus wasn't that of a "deer caught in the headlights" but rather, euphoric.
Saina Nehwal was in her first Olympics as a youngster, all of 18, and I had asked her in passing what she was feeling. Her reply left me flabbergasted, she said "I am going to win a medal, anything less…it would be a disappointing Games." She definitely wasn't one of the so-called "favourites" but nonetheless, that seemed to be the prevalent thought of the Indian contingent.
Then with Abhinav Bindra winning the gold on Day 3 of the Games - it changed the mindset for all upcoming generations, once and for all. The weight of the gold transformed a whole nation's thought!
Adding to this, Sushil Kumar and Vijender Singh also winning medals really resonated with a whole different stratum of the society - like the rural athlete who suddenly thought, "This could be me too".
After Sushil won the bronze, I happened to go with a couple of media friends to the press conference where he was asked "Aapko medal jitne ki umeed thi?" (Did you expect to win a medal?). And his point-blank reply was "Main toh medal jitne hi aaya tha, aap log ko umeed nahin thi." (I had come here to win a medal only, you are the ones who didn't expect it) - if that isn't a mic drop, what is?
The wants of the Indian Athlete 2.0
While several issues still persist, the present-day elite athlete isn't wanting much. Their training is at par with international standards, they travel all over the globe to compete and they do get the best of equipment needed.
Today I feel our problem isn't getting athletes to dream but to be able to channel them in the right direction and keep them motivated to work hard.
The athletes of today, need to be nurtured in a completely different way. We need to teach our kids to think for themselves and analyze their own games.
They need to be given a voice and not be suppressed as they are a completely different kettle of fish than what the administrators (with grey hair or two) are used to.
While they are now quick to voice their opinions, this should be seen as an asset and the authorities shouldn't be constantly trying to suppress and control them.
In that respect, Manika Batra standing up for justice and being in the eye of an ugly storm shouldn't be seen as an anomaly but just how a normal, aware athlete should react to similar situations.
Our kids today have this fire that is burning within them and instead of trying to constantly control the narrative, they should be embraced for their idiosyncrasies.
Instead, the authorities should try and solve the governance conundrum that is ever-present in every facet of the sport. We could be on the precipice of sporting greatness so let's hop on the athletes' backs and enjoy the ride and do what we can to give them the wings to fly.