There’s a fair amount of hand wringing every time an Olympics rolls around. Why does India, a nation of 1.2 Billion people, prove itself incapable of winning even a single gold medal? If there was a gold medal for not winning gold medals, we might not win even that, it seems. Why do we fare so poorly in the Olympics? Should we blame our sports bodies run by corrupt politicians? Do we blame our athletes? And for what? Here’s my very different take on why Indians have fared poorly in competitive sports.

Differences in mythologies

There is a famous tale in Greek mythology, which features prominently in Homer’s Illiad. It’s the tale of how Achilles, the brooding, flawed and yet the most celebrated of the Greek heros assembled on the shores of Troy to storm its walls, seeks to avenge the death of his friend, Patroclus. Blinded by anger, Achilles destroys the Trojan army and challenges Hector, the crown prince of Troy to combat. In this combat, Hector meets his end at the hands of Achilles. Homer’s description of  Hector’s valiant but vain heroics in this combat is one of the highlights of the Illiad.

Incidentally, this tale has a parallel in our own Mahabharata – when Arjuna swears revenge on Jayadratha, the King of Sindh (“Saindhava”) on hearing about the fall of his son, Abhimanyu, in battle. The anger of Achilles and Arjuna is said to have been so terrible that even “the Gods did not dare cross their paths and stood by.”

There are interesting similarities in the heroics of Arjuna, the son of Kunti, and Achilles, the son of Thetis (a sea goddess). There are distinct differences as well. In fact, there are similarities and differences between the Mahabharatha and the Illiad themselves, both stories of epic battles that defined generations to come.

The difference in the psyche

One of the differences might shed light on why we, Indians, have never really done well on the world stage in sports and athletics, especially in events such as the Olympic Games.

To illustrate this difference, let’s go back to what happens after Achilles and Arjuna satiate their lust for revenge.

That evening, Achilles sits brooding in his tent, unable to come to terms with the death of his dearly beloved Patroclus. The slain corpse of Hector, chained to his chariot, lies outside in the dirt. He slowly comes to his senses at the urging of the ghost of Patroclus, and relinquishes Hector’s body to his father, King Priam of Troy, who comes in the darkness of the night to plead for it. Now somewhat appeased, he decides to mourn his best friend in a manner only the Greeks can. He conducts the grandest of funeral games, which start with an invocation to Zeus, the King of Gods, who resides on Olympus. Warriors compete for the grandest of prizes in these games, which include chariot races, boxing, spear throwing and wrestling. Odysseus, the King of Ithaca, and Aias (“Ajax”), a cousin of Achilles, who are two of the greatest Greek heros, compete in boxing. Homer sings as euphorically of the exploits of the warriors in these games as he does of their heroics on the battlefield. It is said that the Trojans gathered and watched in awe as these great warriors competed.

In contrast, Arjuna, on fulfilling his vow of destroying Jayadratha before sunset, seeks refuge in his tent, where he’s consoled by Krishna, who reminds him of the ephemeral nature of life. The ancient Indians did not conduct games either in celebration or mourning.

We’ve shaped ourselves differently

The ancient Greeks took their games very seriously. To them, it symbolized “dominance.” The ancient Indians viewed soundness of the body as a stepping stone towards an ultimate goal of happiness. They took Yoga shaastra, which extols flexibility of body and mind and connects one with the other, very seriously. The ancient Indians emphasized “flexibility”, not competition. There is not a single (significant) example of a sporting event in the Indian mythology. As a side note, the flexibility of the Indian culture may have allowed it to survive, and the rigidity of the Greeks may have caused its dominance to dissipate.  I’m not being judgmental about either. This is how it seems it was.

The western world, first the Romans and then everyone else who came later, modeled itself after the ancient Greeks. Much as we like to describe them as a “celebration of human spirit”, the modern Olympic games are a reflection of the ancient Greek concept of dominance and physical superiority. We, in India, of course, carried on with the ancient Indian tradition of a “non-competitive, stepping stone” approach to physical fitness.

This may just be a clue to answering the question, “Why does a nation of 1.2 billion people struggle to win a medal in the Olympics?” The answer may lie in the way we’ve shaped ourselves from thousands of years back. We’ve never been competitive in sports. None of our mythologies bear any testimony to sporting feats. Why should it be any different in 2012? Why should it be different because we now have over a billion people?

Should we change?

Should we, like China, find a way to overcome our historical bias against competitive sports, and build sports factories which produce soul-less athletes? When it comes right down to it, what should the Olympic Games stand for? Should it continue to be an exercise in which one tribe or nation demonstrates its superiority over another? Or should it simply reflect the extraordinary human spirit?

If it is truly the latter, is there really a difference between an Indian winning a bronze in boxing, and a Botswanan winning a gold in 800m? Both exemplify human spirit, and should give us equal joy.

One of the fun moments I’ve had in recent times happened when driving through a Greek village in the Peloponnese. We stopped to ask for directions. As we conversed, the old Greek gentleman, with his ten day old white stubble and crooked teeth, smiled and said, “Aren’t you Indian? We Greeks and Indians are old friends.” Yes, sir, we are old friends with great traditions, I thought. And, we respect each other. But, we’ve shaped ourselves very differently.

I, for one, do not mourn our lack of medals in the Olympics. I, like a Trojan, prefer to watch in awe as the great warriors compete, even if they are Greeks. We Indians have a tradition in embracing greatness and truth wherever it is to be found. Let’s not lose sight of that in our angst to produce more “winners.”

It’s not hard to understand why Rahul Dravid is celebrated as a hero. There are obvious and undeniable reasons. Yet at some level it is hard to fathom how such a persona – one who was so unwilling to seek public attention and uncompromisingly focused inwardly – came to be a hero in these modern times.

In India, it’s hard not to be popular if you’re a cricketer who has scored the second highest number of runs in (Indian) Test history. We love ranks and hierarchy out here in this lovely land of ours. We are easily impressed by words like “first”, “most” and “highest”, when it comes to individual accomplishments. Dravid scaled the summit of fans’ expectations with the skill of a practiced mountaineer. He checked all the stats boxes and ensured that all flattering adjectives applied.  He “left no stone unturned” (in his own words) in the quest to scale peaks. Dravid was like the studious kid in school, whose single minded pursuit of the goal leaves peers, teachers and observers in awe. He was the ultimate geek of Indian cricket’s high school years. Usually, geeks evoke grudging admiration. Very few become celebrated heroes.

Dravid managed to slip through the cordon that enforces the rules of celebrity stardom in modern times and get noticed. And, as always, destiny had a hand in it. The Dravid-Laxman heroics in Kolkatta in 2001 rejuvenated a nation disillusioned by cricket shenanigans and hungry for evidence that it still had the mojo. Beating the nemesis after being truly down and out – Dravid demonstrated that practiced determination and patience had a role to play in winning. That it wasn’t only about hurried displays of extraordinary genius on a given day. He showed us that sweetest of triumphs come from systematic application of fundamental principles, and that the purist still had a role to play in the scheme of things. Fate handed him the opportunities to make his case. And he made it all so well. And thus he got our attention and became our accidental hero.

What if destiny had not conspired. Would we still celebrate Dravid with the passion that we do? The tale of Dravid is not about the 13,288 runs and 36 hundreds in Tests at an average of 52.31. It’s about the gentleman who elevated himself above the din of shirt swirling, chest thumping and fist pumping heroics that have come to define the modern cricket celebrity. The story is of a an ordinarily reticent man, who overcame astounding odds to capture the imagination of an easily distracted public through unwavering devotion to the sublimely beautiful aspects of the game. It is the tale of a man who was not beaten twice on consecutive balls.

I’d like to think that Dravid would have still walked away with ‘sadness and pride’ even if he had scored half the runs and centuries and not pulled off every heroic rescue that he did. But I wonder if he would still have been our hero.

For us fogeys at Laughing Gas, there is unlikely to be a moment rivaling the euphoria on this day in 1983, when Kapil’s Devils won the Prudential World Cup, in one of the greatest team efforts in Indian sports history. Scorecard: India won by 43 runs. India: 183 (54.4 overs). West Indies: 140 (52 overs). Man of the Match: Mohinder Amarnath. Chak de India!