Perspective serves as an efficacious and differentiating factor in sports as it separates the good from the great.
The Indian contingent returned with 61 medals from the Commonwealth Games 2022. This, despite shooting – a sport where India won 16 medals in the last edition of the games – not being a part of the roster this time around, is certainly a satisfactory outcome.
In comparison with other nations, India did well to finish fourth and was only behind Australia, England, and Canada. Like every sports campaign, Indian athletes and fans experienced a fair share of euphoria and heartbreaks but the former certainly had an upper hand.
There is every reason to celebrate the numerous achievements and tales of glory from Birmingham. Amid the ecstasy, however, the importance of an alternate perspective is paramount – a perspective from which we analyse and plot possible ways of closing the gap to reach the ‘top three.’
The gap in question is not minuscule. Canada won 31 medals more than India while Australia and England are in a league of their own, having bagged 178 and 176 medals, respectively.
If we are to solely analyse the events in which the Indian contingent did well, we would find a few rare underwhelming performances, amid a plethora of achievers. Perhaps being absolutely flawless in events like boxing, weightlifting, and table tennis could take India's medal tally into the seventies, but that too would be a stretch.
To significantly close the gap with the top three, however, attention should be given to the sport that brings in the most number of medals and is still largely overlooked – aquatics. With 12 diving events and as many as 52 swimming events, aquatics offers a total of 192 medals.
At Birmingham, Australia won a staggering 75 of these 192 medals in acquatics, while England and Canada won 47 and 26 medals, respectively. India was at the very opposite end of the spectrum in this regard, with no medals to boast of in acquatics at the Commonwealth Games 2022.
Among the 564 medals that the nation has won in the history of the Commonwealth Games, only one was in aquatics. Thus, swimming has proven to be a chink in India’s armour in many international events.
The figures mentioned above all point toward a simple question – why is India not doing well in swimming? The answer is not as simple and has a few intertwined aspects attached to it.
The Waters of Professional Swimming Hasn't Seeped Into Rural India
We tried to understand the issues and probable solutions from both an organisational and athlete’s vantage points. As for the former, unlike some of India’s athletic fortes like wrestling or weightlifting, swimming lacks popularity in the rural parts of the country, owing to the lack of infrastructure and awareness.
Speaking to The Quint, Swimming Federation of India (SFI) secretary general Monal Chokshi highlighted, “The sports in which India did well at the CWG 2022, besides badminton and table tennis, are popular in rural India. States like Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Bihar are producing many athletes in other sports, but that is not the case in swimming. We lack swimming infrastructure in rural areas – we don’t even have heater pools. The northeast states are also producing athletes in other sports, but the weather works against swimming. Ours is a sport where you need to train at least 300 days in a year, so we simply cannot operate in places where we will need to close everything for four months because of the cold climate.”
“So basically, swimming is a sport for the urban areas, but there’s a problem with the mindset of urban parents. We see many promising swimmers leave the sport during their 10th or 12th standard, with parents prioritising higher education. The mindset among rural parents is different, but as I said, we cannot get swimmers from rural regions because of the lack of infrastructure," Chokshi added, while explaining why many view swimming simply as physical exercise and not a type of sport to pursue professionally.
While this is a reason for the lack of swimming talent at the grassroots level, a case can also be made about those in elevated echelons – such as the participants in Commonwealth Games and Olympics – not particularly living up to expectations.
According to Chokshi, this has to do with the mental side of the sport, and not technicalities. “Our swimmers are right up there with the top performers if we solely consider their swimming technique, but the mental side of things needs to improve. We need proper strength and conditioning to do well in international events. We have been trying to give them foreign exposure so that there is no inferiority complex when they compete against the renowned swimmers from other nations,” he said.
Swimmers Need Technology and Coaching Support
With the sport being unlikely to yield medals, the Indian Olympics Association (IOC) initially decided to allot three places to swimmers in the contingent, before it was eventually increased to four after SFI’s request. One of those fortunate four, who was also perhaps the biggest hope for a medal in swimming, was Sajan Prakash.
The eight-time National Games medallist could not make it to the CWG 2022 finals but did qualify for the semi-finals in two of the three events he participated in. In a conversation with The Quint, Prakash highlighted the lack of support in terms of staff and technological advancements.
“Ours is also a scientific sport. Swimming deserves plenty of experts, but all we have is a coach and swimming pools. We need more support staff at the centres. There is also a lack of awareness in the country regarding what swimming can offer if one chooses to pursue this as a career. For that, we first need to educate the coaches and give them the scientific backing that they require, and then the coaches should take the responsibility of raising awareness," he said.
“Also, it should be noted that the global competition in our sport is very high. If you see some of the sports where we have won many medals, those are not very popular in most of the nations, whereas swimming is popular all across the globe,” he further added.
However, amid the doom and gloom of Indian aquatics, both Chokshi and Prakash see light at the end of the tunnel. The SFI secretary general informed that heater pools have recently been constructed at Almora and Jammu & Kashmir, sparking a nascent interest in swimming in those regions. The infrastructural development in rural regions is also, according to him, a work in progress.
"We need a hero in swimming. Everyone needs a role model that they can look up to. Srihari Nataraj almost clinched a medal in 50m backstroke. I am absolutely certain his achievement will inspire hundreds of young swimmers. We just need to break the glass ceiling," the secretary general said.
Prakash, who once threatened to sell his medals to raise funds for competing in international events, said that the financial situation has improved over the last few years, at least at the higher levels. “I have no doubt that we have the talent and potential to do well. We just need to find our own way to glory in the next eight years of time,” he told The Quint.
Perhaps, it is not the glass ceiling that India needs to break. Perhaps, Indian aquatics is analogous to a person who, albeit submerged in a pool, is completely conscious of the sun’s rays penetrating the water. Indian aquatics needs a collective effort to rise up and break the surface tension of the water before we can expect better results.