Sunday, August 24, 2008

A new dawn in Indian sport?

The cynic in me put the question mark in the title. Otherwise, the events of the past two weeks do point to a new dawn in Indian sport. Over the past few days, I've been making this point at our lunch discussions that Indian sport can only improve from here. As in so many fields, we are probably at the take-off point for Olympic sport and while we may never become a sporting power like China or the US (or even South Korea), 2008 might just be the beginning of more consistent Indian performances in the Olympics as well as other avenues.

Wait, we've still won only three medals, compared to the 96-odd won by the other billion+ country. One gold, as opposed to tiny Jamaica that won six. Even countries like Ethiopia and Cuba did better than us. So, where is the ray of hope?

It is in the quality of performances by both the medalists and the ones that missed. Take a look at the history of the past games. Other than the eventual medal winners like Leander or Rathore, few Indian sportspersons made it beyond the first couple of rounds. Never before did an Indian player take advantage of a repechage to claim a bronze as Sushil Kumar did in 2008. Never before did we have three players in the round of 16 in any sport. And never before did we see an Indian ranked No. 1 in a shooting sport (although he didn't participate, deferring to Rathore). Add Saina, Sania and the archers, and round it off with the large number of international and grand masters that have made it in chess, and even the cynic in you will see that we are doing better than ever in sports other than cricket.

There are two ways to get medals in sport. The first is the regimented way, followed by the ex-Soviets and China where the government and the army play the central role in finding talent, grooming it under government privilege, (threatening it with dire consequences at times), in short, making it a national project. Then there is the free-market way of encouraging people to follow their heart, ensuring competition, and sitting back for the medals to pour in. Given the abilities of our government, the free-market route is the only one we can hope to take. And that, I believe will start bringing in the dividends in the near future.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

To hell with you, Apple.

Should you buy the iPhone 3G? Well, a friend of mine gave me a lowdown on the phone's capabilities in India, and the verdict is simple. If you earn your money like I do, the hard way, don't buy the it.
Why, you ask. Why not buy the most desirable piece of hardware designed for your palm? Well, here is a rundown of reasons:
  • 3G is not available in India yet, and you don't know what prices these operators will charge once it does come up
  • The previous point is important because like in the US, the iPhone ties you to one operator. You cannot switch (at least not officially).
  • Your GPS has no driving directions (unlike the Nokia phones) and as a corollary, no audio directions either.
  • The hands-free kit is extra
  • There is no option for bluetooth headphones
  • You cannot increase storage beyond what you're provided.
  • Price: At Rs31,000 for the 8GB version, the phone is not only four times more expensive than the ones available in the US, it still subjects you to the same conditionalities, of being stuck with one operator.

As someone who fell in love with the iPhone the moment I saw it (many a time I would go to my colleague's desk only to try the touch screen), this has been a major disappointment. I am OK with all the other drawbacks (those of GPS and storage, and bluetooth headphones), but I cannot stand thae fact that I'll still be tied to one operator despite paying the full price for the phone. This is shameful and shows the utter lack of regard that Apple has for Indian customers. Just for this reason, I'll say - "Shame on you, Apple".

Monday, August 18, 2008

Gold medalist and Olympic champion, representing India

Six words, uttered in less than 10 seconds. But how long had we we waited to hear these words? For how many years, we had seen or heard Indian sportspeople flattering to deceive, missing medals by milliseconds, losing battles that should've been won, even missing to match their own personal bests. But as you see in this video, those days are finally laid to rest. Even as silver medalist Zhu from China wept in dismay, Abhinav stepped onto the podium, becoming the first Indian to do so in individual capacity. I had a lump in my throat as the flag rose, with the national anthem playing in the background. Twenty-eight years of wasted opportunity, with one final redemption.

We are not out of the woods yet. While we celebrate the single gold won by a billion people, we should pause to think why we didn't win in some proportion to our population.

Still, this medal is a landmark event. It proves the fact that we are not doomed to fail in sport. It proves that with the right kind of support, Indian sportsmen and women can bring glory to the country. And it proves, that unlike dictatorships, the only way to produce sportspeople of high calibre in a democracy is through individual initiative, with a supportive role from the government and from industry.

With badminton's Saina, the boxing Kumars, and the shooting stars showing the way, this may still be a new dawn for Indian sport. But is the government listening? Is our nonagenarian HRD minister willing to pull his head out of the reservation muck for long enough to see the faint rays of the morning sun?

If history is any guide, I'd doubt it. However, democracies thrive on individual initiative, and for the first time in our nation's history, we have companies and individuals with the money and the motivation to drive Indian sport forward. Let's hope they come forward and find for us, India's place in the Olympic sun in 2012.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Sethusamudram debate

What is the problem with the "Sethusamudram" project? The hullabaloo raised by the BJP, the tamil parties and various other groups over the issue has completely negated the possibility of sane, rational debate on the issue. To make matters worse, the Supreme Court has also issued directives to avoid "hurting the feelings of a community to the extent possible", thus making everyone lose sight of the real (read rational) issues that bedevil the project.

Let's first dispose the issue of the bridge being built by Lord Raama. Now, is it important that Lord Raama existed? Or as the veteran legal brain, Fali Nariman insisted on behalf of the government, is it important that he ordered the bridge to be demolished? IMHO, no. It doesn't matter if Lord Raama existed or not - what matter is whether the bridge is man-made or natural. If there is enough evidence to prove that it is man-made, it is a piece of our history and must be preserved, otherwise, it is 'just' a piece of rock and can be dealt with as such, subject to the other points I'll make now.

The two most important objection that has been raised against the project are its economic viability and the environmental cost. No party in the dispute has really focused on this, although there have been brilliant op-ed pieces in the newspapers. I'll let you read them - they are on the Indian Express website. Bottom-line: the experts think that the project is environmentally disastrous and economically unviable.

If that is so, why on earth are we hollering about Lord Raama, and the Dravida right over the channel, setting rational thoughts aside? Because, my dear readers, that is the Indian way. We love symbolism, meaningless gestures, and endless emotional debates.

What we need is to take a value of out Google - that data talks. That the right kind of data, mixed with the right kind of analysis is the way to take decisions.