All my life I have wanted to be a hero. I've wanted to be the guy that does the right thing when everyone is else doing the wrong thing. Or not doing anything at all. Rescue babies from fires. Tackle terrorist on the plane. Catch children falling from the balconies of medium-rise buildings. Be the one metallurgist in the stadium when the police are trying diffuse the bomb and the last hurdle is a general knowledge question: "What happens when you rapidly cool austenitic steel without giving time for the carbon to diffuse?"
"MARTENSITE! MARTENSITE!" I would scream, bounding down the steps, thus saving everybody in the stadium and subsequently appearing on News Hour.
The closest I've ever come to doing anything remotely heroic is staging a walkout from my class in engineering college. Not because I am Malayali--*laughter*--but because the night before somebody fell off a hostel terrace and died, and the authorities were trying to hush it up by acting as if nothing happened. Oh and I also broke a story on CWG 2010 corruption long before it became cool to do so.
Anyways. I digress. This is a story of a true hero.
But then Norman did something else. “I believe in what you believe. Do you have another one of those for me ?” he asked pointing to the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the others’ chests. “That way I can show my support in your cause.” Smith admitted to being astonished, ruminating: “Who is this white Australian guy? He won his silver medal, can’t he just take it and that be enough!”.
Smith responded that he didn’t, also because he would not be denied his badge. There happened to be a white American rower with them, Paul Hoffman, an activist with the Olympic Project for Human Rights. After hearing everything he thought “if a white Australian is going to ask me for an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, then by God he would have one!” Hoffman didn’t hesitate: “I gave him the only one I had: mine”.
I've read this story many times before in different places. And each time I am moved tremendously.
Hello there. It has been a while. And I have so much to tell you.
1. I am a tireless optimist. I don't really know why. I think I get it from my mother. Her general approach in life was to assume everything will turn out well. Not in a karmic, 'if destiny wills it, you will win a medal in the chariot race Sidin' kind of way. But in a 'take life by the scruff of its neck and waggle it about till something worthwhile pops out' kind of way. This has rubbed off me on copiously. You couldn't wash the smell of neck scruff out of my hands with a thousand hand sanitisers.
But this tends to drive people insane. And it often makes me look like a fool.
Around four years ago you wouldn't have found a bigger believer in the Commonwealth Games 2010 than moi. I truly believed that the event would finally prove to the world that when India--mostly Delhi--puts its mind to something it can get it done. Even when some of the most reasonable people I know warned me that the event was going to be a stinking heap of epic fail. For instance there is the missus's maternal uncle. Uncle is a wonderful man with the demeanour of a gentle saint but the wisdom of a man who has mysterious facial scarring. Uncle was not only convinced that the whole thing was a waste of time, but also a waste of money. He predicted, perfectly, what was going to eventually happen: thieving and douchebaggery.
But I persisted. All that is ok uncle, I said. But at least it could get people in Delhi playing sports, it could upgrade our infrastructure and it could leave a great legacy. He smiled at my naiveté and passed a small plate of Frontier atta biscuits.
He was perfectly right of course. Feel free to Google the state of the velodrome in Delhi, for instance. Utterly heartbreaking.
2. So what did I do four years later when the Olympics was due? Refusing to learn any of life's lessons I bubbled with optimism. The Olympics were going to be awesome!
There is a reason why Monty Python's best known song is "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life". England, and London in particular, is astoundingly pessimistic about things. Especially when the weather is cold and grey and awful. So in the six months or so leading up to the Olympics the papers and TV shows dripped with negativity and cynicism. The Olympics were going to be rubbish, they said. The Underground will fail, the roads will clog, the airports will collapse, the terrorists will blow up things, the weather will be shit and the events will be a shambles.
My desi friends were convinced 100% that this would be the case. Which, of course, is the recommended desi approach to large complicated projects. Where there is less faith in the collective there is more excuse for the individual.
The locals were convinced too. But there is, I feel, a slight difference between the two schools of its-all-going-to-dogs-ery. This is a personal opinion. So please don't quote scripture or something to me prove me wrong. The approach I saw in Delhi in 2009-2010 was "It's all going to be a massive international sham, so what is the point of it all." The approach I saw in London over the last 3-6 months was "It's going to blow up in our face and expose us for the shitty little country we are, but don't let anybody say we didn't try."
So they tried. And they tried splendidly. "England expects that each man will do his duty but goddamn why do we have to follow Beijing."
Now I am not saying that the British are in way inherently capable of doing things better than Indians or Brazilians or anybody else. People, I suppose, are people. The vast majority of people I meet here just want to be left alone to get on with their lives and cope with the economic malaise. And only a few of them stroll around with walking sticks and pipes, lamenting the eclipse of empire. Exactly like back home in Thrissur.
But what I do see less of here on a day to day basis is bare-faced, inhumane assholery. Less of this than in Mumbai and Delhi, I mean. Over the last two years I've travelled to every major part of the British Isles except Wales. And everywhere, even in the less savoury parts of the country where they double-take on seeing a brown guy, there is a line of behaviour that the general public won't cross. They perhaps want to deport me immediately, in their minds. But it doesn't usually translate into action.
Maybe that is why the Olympics got along fine anyway. Because a lot of private and public people decided not to be assholes about it and pulled together. I mean volunteers were smiling all day, a heinous capital offence for a Londoner.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Olympics. Great fun to watch on TV. Great fun to watch live. When things roll out as pleasantly as it did in London it truly is a celebration of the species.
3. When did I start writing for a living? Let me see. I think it was sometime in early 2006. At the time I remember someone warning me of the repercussions of my career choices. Remember Sidin, they said, you will now play an eternal game of catch-up with your batch mates. They will make more money, see more places, eat better food and live in better homes than you. Can you deal with that?
I said yes at the time. But I really meant "Too late! Damn!"
Well I can tell you with great delight that that person was utterly and completely wrong. About most things.
I don't make a lot of money or anything. But I earn enough to split bills with banker friends when we have dinners on the weekends.
But I have seen the Olympics and the World Badminton Championships. I have interviewed Aakash Chopra, Harsha Bhogle, Michael Phelps, Steve Waugh, Edwin Moses, Boris Becker, Nadia Comaneci and Frankie Fredericks. I have had dinner with Vijay Amritraj and Martin Scorsese. I have once carried 300 carats worth of diamonds in my hand. I have travelled to Malaysia, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Holland, France, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States. I have flown in a modern jet fighter and in a world war 2 trainer aircraft. I have been taken on a guided tour of the Louis Vuitton manufacturing facility. I have been to the Lonar crater in Maharashtra, and listened to Leo Pinto tell me all about winning the Hockey gold medal in 1948.
And I've eaten at 7 restaurants with at least one Michelin star.
I say all this not just so that someone will update my Wikipedia profile. Or to boast. But to just tell you that doing what you want to do in life is not always a compromise of some kind. With some hard graft and some good luck things can turn out fabulously. Don't let people sell you that "life will be rubbish but at least you're doing what you want to" canard. Be optimistic.
4. Of course like everybody else I have a few dozens things that India must do immediately to win gold medals at Rio 2016. Start by bribing the boxing people!
I kid. Just.
Now over the last week or so I've read several articles about in newspapers and on blogs about how/why/why not/when India will/will not win medals at the Olympics. Many of the guys who write these articles probably know sport much better than I do. Most of them feel about this more strongly than I do. So you should almost certainly ignore my thoughts about this.
But since you've come this far.
Why are we overcomplicating this issue of medals with GDP, HDI, per capita and all these other statistics? Can India afford to spend money on Olympic medals? Probably not. Can India afford to spend money on a mission to Mars? Probably not. Can India afford to spend money on cleaning up rivers or preserving our wildlife? Probably not. Will spending money on any of these things improve life in the country? Maybe.
Should India invest in these things? Absolutely. Not just because a nation needs to have something to aspire to, but because we can actually afford to.
Think about it. The mission to Mars is going to cost us Rs450 Crores. Kolkata Knight Riders is believed to have spent approximately Rs.100 crores in 2012. For just four times the cost of running KKR you can send a mission to Mars. In fact throw in a little extra money and you can send the bloody team to Mars, and replace them with Kochi.
But I digress.
Can we afford an Olympic program?
In the 15 years since Atlanta, when Team GB bombed, the British government began a series of focussed targeted investments on winning medals. Not on developing sports mind you. There was a separate budget for that. But just on winning medals. Pure and simple. They spent £740 million over 15 years. Let us do some rough math. Team GB had 554 athletes at the 2012 Olympics. Let us assume that the targeted medals program dealt with many more athletes. India trained 58 boxers to finally get 8 berths at London. A yield of approximately 1:7. So let us assume that Team GB dealt with 5 times as many, i.e. 2800 athletes
This means on average they spent around £17,700 per athlete per year. This includes everything: performance centres, coaches, support staff, supplies, overseas training. The lot. This amounts to approximately Rs15 lakhs per sportsperson per year. (Yes I am mixing capex and opex. Piss off!) In the 12 months leading up to the Olympics India spent Rs.3.57 crores on training 58 boxers. An average of Rs. 6.2 lakhs per boxer for a period of 12 months. Not bad eh?
Some points need noting. First most of the athletes who won medals for Team GB started very young. Some only picked up their sport four years ago. But let us assume that that at any given time around 2800 athletes were in the program. Also it is highly likely that the athletes had access to public sports facilities before they were identified in schools for high performance programs. And often later. However these facilities may not have been very good. As two-thirds of the medalists, when I last checked, did not go to posh public schools. Also we haven't accounted for purchasing power parity between India and the UK. Which could change things a fair bit.
What I am trying to say is that while an Olympics program is expensive, it is by no mean unaffordable. Considering that a BCCI Grade C player already gets an annual salary of Rs25 lakhs, before other match-based fees, there are funds. There are funds aplenty.
And there is infrastructure. Delhi is brimming with facilities after the CWG. Plenty to train an elite squad of medal potentials. (Though many are almost unusable now.) The problem is not that we are poor or can't afford it. Far, far from it. And anyone who tells you Olympics medals are only for rich countries are truly blowing smoke up your repechage.
The problem is that the system is infested with assholes with massive conflicts of interests who feed off it like leeches. From school to national level they ensure a rigid septic structure. And then conveniently use poverty and lack of funds to cover up their malice or incompetence. In fact the situation is reflective of our politics. Good people won't join. Bad people won't die or leave.
Unlike government, thankfully, sports does offer private initiatives.
5. Many people have told me good things about Olympic Gold Quest over the last few weeks. Not least Ayaz Memon and some other Indian journalists. Two days ago I had an idea. And had a quick chat with Viren Rasquinha and his team at OGQ.
On Monday I completed the first draft of my third and final Dork novel. Called "Who Let The Dork Out?", the book touches upon the goings on at a tiny little Ministry in Delhi, during a certain multinational sporting event, that is in a shambles. And who swoops in to help it but Robin 'Einstein' Varghese! The manuscript is being edited right now and should be out in stores by the end of this year.
But I began wondering. Given how much I tweet about the Olympics and Indian sport and bug poor Ajay Maken online, maybe I should put my money where my mouth is.
So 20% of all my proceeds from Dork 3 go to Olympic Gold Quest. Viren and team were happy to accept my small contribution. This isn't a lot of money of course. Otherwise I would be owning Rolexes and not reviewing them. But it makes me feel nice, and hopefully it will inspire more able people with deeper pockets to chip in.
6. Why does India need a medal at all?
Because we love winners. We love successful people and forgive all their faults if they do it for the country. This is why while we know plenty about the medal possibilities at the Olympics we know nearly nothing about the also-rans who participated for India. Where do they come from? Did they have tough upbringings? Are they…gasp…from the north-east? Who is Tintu? Who is Karmakar?
We are not cricket fans. We are cricket victory fans.
So we need winners. We need people with medals who will give our young people something to aspire to. And our parents a source of some relief when the kids come back with broken limbs and loose teeth and a C grade in biology. We need medals of all shapes and colours so that we can rise from this tendency to wallow in our misery and look up. And all the money and infrastructure in the world is nothing if nobody wants to win anything.
My point is, not a single person in the country will be worse off if you create those winners. Not one.
But then I am an optimist.