The most electrifying move in tennis entertainment history.

Watching an individual sport like tennis draws your attention to idiosyncrasies of players on court like no other. Every great tennis player I have enjoyed watching as a fan had their iconic move – whether it is Steffi Graf’s booming forehand, Boris Becker’s dive, Roger Federer’s one handed backhand while he’s on his toes. Those idiosyncrasies can define the image you have in your mind of a player; maybe even form the core around which you build your connection to the athlete. But I don’t have a similar equivalent for Rafael Nadal. 

That’s not because he doesn’t play any scintillating strokes (he plays some outrageously brilliant ones, almost as a matter of routine), but because the mental image I have of Nadal is from looking at him after a match ends, specifically one that he wins. There is nothing in the world more electrifying than a Nadal exult after he emerges victorious in a tennis match, his every muscle stretched, every sinew working overtime. It is a magnificent sight because it comes from somewhere deep within the player and the fundamental force that shapes him – the will to keep going. 

Watching a young Nadal pound away with a bruising array of groundstrokes (on all sorts of surfaces, not just clay; his current grand slam finals tally is 23, 13 of them on non clay surfaces), I had always imagined that the toil would take terrible toll on his body. And it did. Nadal, over the last decade, has had layoffs totaling almost 2 years because of injuries, particularly his knees that have required major attention. Imagine having to take 20% of your time off at work because of sick leaves. It would not just take a toll on opportunities but on your own self belief. But while chronic injuries like these may have broken a mere mortal, Nadal’s willpower and sheer tenacity is not that of an ordinary mortal. 

The injuries actually define him. He is a surreal mix of the proclivity of Mr. Glass to injure himself and the superhuman strength of David Dunn in fighting back. Or, as Chumbawamba so elegantly put it – I get knocked down, I get up again. He had said after his win at the 2017 French Open (a scarcely believable 10th title at Roland Garros) that the doubts injuries plant in him become the motivation he uses to climb back up. “I have doubts every day but that’s good as it makes me work hard with more intensity.” 

But being a fighter who never gives up is not an easy defining quality to have. As he puts it:

“You have to be humble and accept that you have to work to improve things. I have doubts today, I had doubts in the last three years, I will have doubts in a few days. Life is never clear. If you have no doubts, then you are very arrogant. I am not an arrogant person.” 

In my early days of watching him on court, I had always thought the intensity and the Rock You Like A Hurricane game he brought to it welled from a deep desire to be the best. It only dawned on me after watching him for about a decade that this is a man who purely and unconditionally loves this sport and is willing to put everything on the line because he loves the competition so much. That journey for him is the destination; the 16 Grand Slams are incidental, although richly deserved. Consider this – despite his injuries he has never fallen out of the World Top 10 since he entered it over 12 years ago. In the brutal world of professional tennis that is a ridiculous statistic, one highlighting staying power that comes from a source more powerful than Adamantium & Vibranium combined. 

So what is Rafael Nadal’s superpower? It is, as all of his fans will point out to you, the tenacity of his mind. Mental strength has been reduced to a cliche in most sports discussions but you need to take only one look at his post match exult to see the physical manifestation of what that means. And that is why, even for me, a card carrying Roger Federer fan, it remains the most electrifying sight on a tennis court. 


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Turning to Cruyff 

The all time greats in football – in any sport, really – are mesmerizing to watch but tend to be completely inarticulate about the essence of their sport or annoyingly garrulous about it. That is why Johan Cruyff, the Dutch legend and football’s greatest thinker (in my opinion), stands apart. His economy of expression when expressing his philosophy of football defined him as a player and then a coach and administrator. 

His signature move – the Cruyff turn – was not a parlour trick invented to amuse fans. 

It was, as he writes in his autobiography, a solution to a practical problem – he was trying to create some space where he had none and his brain spontaneously came up with that move. 

With Cruyff, there was nary a wasted movement or a squandered moment. Both on the pitch as a player and off it as a manager he understood the need for style (in his and his team’s play) and the importance of substance (in terms of results and trophies). To borrow from his words – ‘Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.’ I needed a 100 words to explain that; Cruyff needed exactly 10. This sensational economy of expression is not an accident. 

Cruyff looked at the game and tried to distill it into its essence and no one in the history of football has done it better than him. Like a preternatural rock guitarist of the 1960s belting out unearthly solos with just four chords to work with, Cruyff’s artistry stemmed from a deep, almost zen like understanding of the game. “Everything in football is a function of distance” he writes in My Turn and reminisces of how an early lesson he learnt from his coach (Michels) was that “when you have possession of the ball you have to ensure you have as much space as possible and when you lose the ball you must minimise the space your opponent has.” This might seem obvious and simple but to distill it and incorporate it into your game is where Cruyff’s footballing mind was a marvel. 
I never watched Cruyff play but I was introduced to him by a football mad uncle who adored the Dutch team of the 70s and 80s and I was struck by how, even when I heard second hand accounts or read about him, it was easy to admire his brilliance. The best insight I had into his thinking mind, always looking for perspective (safe to say he never missed the woods for the trees), was relatively recently though. I was reading his autobiography where he describes how he used to play baseball and the lesson he learnt in it – to take a total overview of the field and the game – came to his help when he was playing football professionally. Distilling ideas to an essence of simplicity that makes effortlessly transferable is hallmark of some of the greatest scientific minds on the planet throughout history. 

And on this day as we remember A Beautiful Mind of this beautiful game, it feels unfair that football doesn’t have a Nobel Prize.  

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Anatomy of a masterpiece

It has been 24 hours and I am still emotionally recovering from the Roger Federer v Rafael Nadal final at the Australian Open 2017. The contest in Melbourne went to the Swiss, giving him his 18th Major as he extended his lead on that count over his contemporaries and the greats (Nadal is at 14, Sampras finished with the same number, Djokovic is at 12), after Federer won a thrilling five set match that ended on a dramatic challenge by Nadal. You could cut the tension with a knife at the Rod Laver Arena, witness to many an epic battle (remember this?) but even among those and the epic battles arguably the two greatest tennis players of all time have themselves had between them, this one stood out for the universality of how it was hailed as something spectacular, extraordinary and special. Experts seem to concur that the quality of tennis at their famous 2008 Wimbledon final was better, or Nadal’s counterattacking in the 2009 Australian Open final more thrilling, but still everyone has put this one down as one down for the ages – a memorable and beautiful encounter. 

Unquestionably why the 10th meeting between Federer and Nadal in a Grand Slam had everyone transfixed had a lot to do with their storied rivalry on court (and their exceptional mutual respect off it) and some romanticism and nostalgia (it was a dream run for two players not given much of shot – even by their own selves! – at the tournament) which had a lot to do with the fact that many fans did not ever expect them to be competing in a Grand Slam final against each other and when it did become evident that they will here, most considered it the last chance to catch a glimpse of the peak of tennis perfection. But all of this was *before* even a single serve had been sent down in the final. The final battle itself would leave everyone breathless going beyond their wildest dreams (although, to be fair, Grigor Dimitrov, after being beaten by Nadal in the semi had predicted a ‘freakin amazing match’). 

I thought the final would be good but likely one sided with whoever gets going early snuffing the other out, because that’s how their games seemed to be matching up. Boy, was I wrong and boy, was I delighted. It was not just about witnessing history, not just about the fact that as a Federer fan I finally saw that 18th Major arrive after an agonizing 1,666 day wait since Wimbledon 2012, or not even just about how for the first time in my career of being a card carrying Federer fan my heart beat for Rafa and I lived and died either way with every stroke towards the end. It was, in my opinion, about getting an inner glimpse into how a masterpiece gets made. 

They both brought their biggest strengths on court – Nadal letting those forehands fly and working out astonishing angles, Federer floating like a butterfly before bearing down on the tennis ball for a ground stroke that stung the surface like a bee. But it wasn’t all flawless – in the final set, Federer lost his serve on a terrible down the line error, one that would have made 1998 Federer playing the qualifiers at this very Major blush; in the next game, he hit a volley long on the baseline despite having an open court in front of him, the chair umpire with a higher probability of getting to a ball put in court than Nadal who was at the other corner. Nadal made similar errors and served indiscriminately at times, like he was nervous. But at other times, the tennis was sensational to the point of making every adjective pale in comparison to how good a shot actually was. Nadal reached and managed to convert a precisely placed Federer backhand baseline corner bomb into a cross court winner, the only thing the commentators could blurt out at that moment was that it was like a squash shot. Talk about transcendent tennis. 

Usually, we see the beauty of a creative piece of work – a book, a painting, a movie, a song – only after it is out there in its finished form. We are never really privy to the creative process, like how does that perfect lyric, note or brushstroke come to be. Yesterday at the Rod Laver Arena, watching Federer and Nadal exchange 26 high quality strokes in a rally for the ages was like watching two of your favorite impressionist painters (mine are Van Gogh and Monet, for the record) landing brush strokes upon brush strokes as a part of the painting emerge. Like two rappers free styling with unparalleled intensity, the creative genius emerged one tiny piece at a time. If you are thinking I am getting hyperbolic, remember that watching creativity in action is messy. So for every shot placed, angled or whipped to perfection that we saw there also were the misfires (the “howlers with the howitzers” as the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay described it) but if you have ever written something and scratched it off or rolled the paper into a ball and dumped it into the bin, or used the backspace key, you know it is part of the process; these make the masterpiece as much as the actual things that were left in. In sport the only thing is it all unfolds in real time as Venus Williams so beautifully reminded us earlier in the tournament. 

Nadal v Federer clashes have always been exceptionally creative, maybe because of their contrasting styles, and like how the conflict between Paul McCartney and John Lennon left its unique and immutable creative stamp on so many Beatles songs, their clashes have done the same for tennis. Wimbledon 2008 will remain the pinnacle, like two musicians waked in, and on the fly composed and played note for note a perfect symphony and left. But Australian Open 2017, where they raised their games for each other again, their fallibility allowed us, the audience that extra time to glimpse into the process of how these two cook up such outrageousness on the tennis court evoking beauty and ferocity of the levels of a Borg v McEnroe in their prime (albeit with fewer cuss words and way less screaming at the umpires). 

And while the history, rivalry and the other context will remain in making this final special, why I will cherish it for ever is for being given the opportunity to watch geniuses at work, foibles and all, and being reminded that not all superheroes wear capes – some wear a bandanna and carry a tennis racquet. 

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Two of a kind 

Everything I know about tennis I have learnt from watching the sport since I started [as a wide eyed kid trying to figure out who won the point based on who the camera zoomed on] way back in 1987. Everything I know about life, I have learnt by stumbling along, to quote Prince, ‘this thing called life’. But everything I know about the intersection of tennis and life, I know because of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. 

I have always been a Federer fan, his aesthetics and artistry easy to get used to, his natural talent so blazing bright that the moth of fandom is effortlessly seduced by it. I enjoyed watching him play tennis at ridiculously brilliant levels, almost on a different plane to everyone else as he won almost everything that came his way. It was around then that I got commissioned to write my first ever sports piece for a magazine back in 2006 – a small piece in their year-end issue on the rise and rise of Rafael Nadal, a feisty Spanish teen. He had had a breakthrough year and I had predicted that his tenacity is likely to pay off in terms of finally breaking Federer’s iron grip at Wimbledon. Nadal tried gamely in 2007 and came oh, so close. He couldn’t quite get there, but it was a heck of a fight.

Back then I had written

They faced off at center court and the contrast couldn’t have been starker. Federer, expressionless, composed, calm and at home with the surroundings had the air and smoothness of a Swiss Investment Banker while Nadal, gingerly daring to dream on a surface not quite dear to him had the attitude of a risk taking, adrenalin driven derivatives trader on Wall Street. And amazingly, the risk taking almost worked with Nadal working up confidence after losing his first service game (the only time he was broken till the 5th set!). The strategies were just like that of a trader, smartly hedging his bets of the runs to the net with punishing cross court winners that would have made Federer proud. Nadal showed that he was willing to learn as he gave a dose of his own medicine back to the ‘Federal Express’. The ‘Fed’ meanwhile trudged along with the solidity and conservatism of the ‘Federal Reserve’ chairman and edged himself ahead with two key tie break wins (Federer came in with a 12-3 record in the breaker and Nadal was at 9-6). 

But Nadal turned the tables once more breaking Federer twice in the 4th set. But that’s where the risk trader’s luck ran out. Federer was in his element in the fifth and finally managed to break Nadal at 3-2 in the final set. The juggernaut rolled from there as the ball did not even cross the net once in Roger’s next service game. Nadal the trader still took a couple of brave bets (running to the net with renewed vigor), but by then Federer had sniffed victory and he sealed it breaking Nadal again. 

The old adage that the more solid investments (in a Warren Buffet or Benjamin Graham sort of way) will outperform the market (or in this case competition) over the long run proved true again! But Nadal, like the cyborg ‘Terminator’ has been picking up skills and adapting himself to the fight as he battles more, and soon enough the trader might strike it rich on the floor. The only thing is that time wasn’t 2007.

You all know what happened next. There has literally been a book about it. But it was in 2007 when I watched Nadal battle with incredible tenacity even as I high fived a fellow Federer fan [a complete stranger at the café] during that final set when Roger broke, that I realized that while my card carrying Federer fan cred will probably endure, Nadal had just carved his own niche in my tennis loving part of the brain. 

Federer had always been classical music, the movements orchestrated to almost a fault, beauty almost a requirement rather than a byproduct of how he played. The contrast Nadal provided with his tennis, so ferociously beautiful that I fondly call it poetry set to punk rock music, was a new experience for a fan who had already been seduced by the aesthetics of Federer. Till then, fandom to me was mostly about dichotomy. Nadal introduced me to the idea of the abundance of ‘and’ rather than the tyranny of ‘or’; that it was ok to have a soft corner for another star even though my wagon remained firmly hitched to the other. That’s probably because how they have carried themselves on and off the court has helped me assimilate their statesmen like understanding of what their legend means for the sport of tennis, which they clearly hold dear above all else. 

Come Sunday, they will take on each other in another Grand Slam final and my mind drifts back to a decade back, when in a café, I was distinctly partisan in cheering Federer. This time again, the fan in me will cheer Federer on, but the wizening time that has elapsed in between will intervene and let me know, that it’s all good and I’ll probably feel just as happy if Nadal wins. That’s not a hedged bet. It is the most important lesson I have learnt about tennis and life from these two – about enjoying and appreciating the beauty of what you have and being in the moment. 

Vamos Rafa! Allez Roger! 

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To not have and to heal…

The purpose of a tragedy as Aristotle had famously remarked, is to evoke a wonder born of pity and fear, the result of which is cathartic. I have personally found that tragedy often throws life in sharp relief, helping us discover compassion and empathy that often gets lost in our habits and patterns that we take for granted. Today’s tragic incident at Medellin where a plane carrying players, staff, coaches, journalists and guests of the Brazilian football team Chapecoense crashed resulting in the deaths of 75 of the 81 on board is another such reminder. There is tragedy all around the world on a daily basis, but when it strikes, whether directly or obliquely, at sport – something that almost universally represents an  escape from life’s worst and sometimes a coping mechanism for those struck by tragedy – it becomes extremely hard to come to terms with.

The scars events such as Capecoense’s leave can be deep and do not heal easily. Because sometimes we cope with our own scars and personal tragedy through sport, but where do we go when sport itself becomes tragic? That was the question that faced Matt Busby in 1958, after 8 of his ‘Busby Babes’, talented young footballers from the sensational Manchester United team of the early 1950s perished in a plane crash in Munich. That was the question that faced the world in Munich again when terrorists struck at the 1972 Olympics. That was the deep turmoil that the town of Marhsall faced when the Thundering Herd of Marhsall University, its football team, a matter of huge pride for the town, was all but wiped out in a fateful plane crash in 1970.


Any tragedy brings with it the painful prospect of having to get over it and rebuild, and that usually turns out to be the hardest part. The 2006 film We Are Marshall starring Mathew McConaughey captured that aspect rather well, showing how, as everyone deals with those typical stages of grief, ultimately lets the sport, the team and what the whole community experience of sport stands for do the healing. It sounds easy when you see a 2 hour movie, but in reality it is extremely difficult. But it also often brings to the fore the humanity we think we are missing. In the light of the Munich air disaster, Real Madrid dedicated their European Cup win of 1958 to the Busby Babes, and even played friendlies with the team to help raise funds. Liverpool, who were and still remain United’s fiercest rivals, set all that aside and offered five first team players as they rebuilt the team with legendary manager Bill Shankly stating that Liverpool would foot their wage bill. In case of the Brazilian team, who had shown remarkable progress in getting to the top tier of Brazilian football in less than a decade, steadily promoting themselves up from the fourth division, the French giants PSG have already offered financial aid to the tune of 40 million dollars. The material help doesn’t make the tragedy go away, but it does open the door to begin the process of recovery and healing.

Medellin, the Colombian city where the tragedy occurred on 29th November 2016, knows a thing or two about healing. Chapecoense were here to play Atletico Nacional, a team that had among its ranks Andres Escobar, a talented defender who was part of a golden generation of players who helped Colombia storm into the 1994 World Cup, but with complications created by the narco links to football in Colombia at that time with the long shadow of the other Escobar, Pablo, looming large, the campaign ended in disaster with a first round exit. Andres Escobar paid with his life for an own goal that he unfortunately scored in the final league game against the hosts USA. Colombian football faced a death spiral and was slipping off the world map until a new generation unveiled themselves in Brazil in 2014. That the tragedy had to happen in Medellin makes it infinitely more painful to come to terms with, but at the same time it is also perhaps a reminder that, as a friend of mine put it, ‘football has been here before, and football will rise. For these players. Forever Champions.’

Sport, as it always has, will finally help us heal. But until then, Forza Cahapecoense, you are in our thoughts and prayers, because if sport and the emotions it triggers are not universal, it is nothing.

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India’s Rio tryst – Episode IV: Revelation

sindhu reception

Pride from sporting success is a public good, but how should we produce more of it

Is sport a public good? This debate has gathered steam, or at least should gather steam in the aftermath of the Olympic Games where India’s performance [or lack thereof] has generated a lot of soul searching. In the first three parts [links to Part I, Part II and Part III] of this series I looked at why success at the Games is a tough proposition and how we tend to overreact to both success and failure because of a complex dynamic between inflated expectations and the fact that the Games are a quadrennial affair.

In this last part, I will put forward some thoughts on what potential approaches can be taken to generate more success at sport, and before that address an even more fundamental question – do we even want sporting success?

In a superb and introspecting piece that doesn’t mince words, Abhinav Bindra, gold medallist at Beijing in 2008 and the flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony at Rio, laid bare the reasons why we are ‘a two medal nation’. But how he began was most interesting. He writes –

[L]et’s address the basic questions: Do we want to be known as one of the leaders of the sporting world that wins 20, 30, 40 medals every Olympics? Or are we happy being a two-, three-, or five-medal nation? The confusion is a very understandable one. There are so many problems in India, and so many priorities to focus on-poverty, healthcare, water, power, unemployment, social inequality-that sport ends up taking a back seat. If we are happy with keeping sport on the backburner, on not treating it as a priority item in our larger national agenda, fair enough, and so be it. If we decide, as a nation, that we cannot invest in sport and we cannot afford to join the race for medals, let us re-engineer our hopes and set realistic targets. Let us be fine with winning a few medals, if at all, at the Olympics, and be content.

His line of thought posits sports as a ‘good’ that a country or an economy needs to invest in to produce. Bear with me on this tiny economics digression. Classical economic theory usually says that nations or economies should focus on producing what they are best at [comparative advantage theory] and trading for the stuff they cant produce or do not have a comparative advantage in. Unfortunately, if by sport as a good we mean our national performance on international stages such as the Olympics, there is no scope for trade. We can’t trade Michael Phelps’ gold medal for two of ours in hockey in 1948 and 1980. That means we have to produce sporting excellence ourselves. An extreme case of import substitution, if you will. Now to produce more or better goods, an economy can try one of two methods. As the outgoing RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan explained so elegantly in a speech at the IIT Delhi Convocation last year

‘Robert Solow, won the Nobel Prize in Economics for work that showed that the bulk of economic growth did not come from putting more factors of production such as labour and capital to work. Instead, it came from putting those factors of production together more cleverly, that is, from what he called total factor productivity growth. Put differently, new ideas, new methods of production, better logistics – these are what lead to sustained economic growth.’

So, in a sporting sense, we have put Solow’s ideas into action. In the history of economics, countries have acquired economic might by broadly employing one of two ways of putting factors of production together – through a free market [capitalist] system or through command and control of central planning [socialism]. There is no definitive evidence even today of a foolproof way to grow an economy and produce better goods and services, though based on popularity, capitalism is in a comfortable lead at the moment; an advantage it has had for some time. To slip in some racing terminology, at this point it may have ‘lapped’ socialism.

Unsurprisingly, countries’ approach to investing money and knowhow in creating sporting success often mirrors how they do the same for the economy at large. China, where the state control of the economy is still strong, has a centralized system where the government funds rigorous training programs that identify and train young talent [resources, in econ speak] and the objective is to produce champions who will bring the country glory in terms of success at an international level. At the other extreme, we have the United States, a traditionally free economy that takes its lassiez faire approach to its Olympic sports as well. The government directly funds none of the sports and the United States Olympic Committee raised funds from the public at large and sponsors and distributes them among various disciplines. Like in a capitalist system, ventures that are likely to be successful attract capital. Thus, the money usually goes to sports where likelihood of success is higher or a sport that has a proven track record of success. South Korea, which was a dictator led economy in the 1970s and 80s had massive government push in certain disciplines back then [facilities, funds for training, pressure on athletes to win] and as it transitioned into a more free market economy, its approach to sport was more of the result oriented mix of public and private expenditure.

And then we have Great Britain, who dominated headlines after Rio because of their stellar performance that pushed China into third place on the medal tally. Britain has more of a mixed approach, where money has been consistently raised through a public lottery and poured into supporting sports that had more likelihood of success. It is similar to the American system with the unique Brit twist that the money is quasi government money. Economic success and might is something countries use to stand out internationally, and sporting success has been a stand in for national pride for a long time too. Sport, whether stated explicitly or not, has been treated as a public good – one that is non-excludable [you can cheer for a Sindhu whether you funded her training or not, or whether you know how to play badminton or not] and nonrivalrous [your cheering for Sindhu does not diminish your ability to cheer for a Sakshi Malik or an MS Dhoni]. In their paper ‘The value of public goods generated by a major league sports team’, published in the Journal of Sports Economics in 2000, Bruce Johnson, Peter Groothuis and John Whitehead argue that sports generates a certain positive externality. A positive externality is a benefit for which you don’t necessarily pay. As the authors write

‘People talk about their team, cheer for its success and celebrate its victories and may do so without buying tickets or making any payment to the team. Perhaps the most spectacular manifestations of such public goods are the raucous street parties…by hundreds of thousands of fans in cities whose teams win league championships.’

Think about how an entire country came together for cheering Dipa Karmakar [a virtual unknown in the public eye till the Games] during her gymnastics final or PV Sindhu during the badminton final or the huge welcomes they received at the airport when they got back.

So, this brings us back to the original question. Do we want more of such moments? Because if we do, then we will need to invest resources – whether public or private in the goods. Since the output is likely to be public goods in nature, the profit motive and the market mechanism might not always solve the problem [the ‘putting together of factors of production more cleverly’ as Dr. Rajan put it].

Naturally, the alternative left is public money and government intervention. But if the sordid history of socialism has taught us anything, it is that intervention seldom leads to sustainable outcomes. Our sporting administration is currently stuck in that mode where the government largely gets to decide resource allocation for athletes and if at all it is thinking of breeding success, it is generally along the lines of ‘a faster horse’ philosophy. What is emerging, as we search for potential solutions, is a mixed form of economy among sports, where public and private funds coexist. Our economy has had a similar ride over the last six decades where we moved from a government controlled system to a more mixed one resulting in economic growth – more and better goods and services that have generally lifted standards of living.

Could our Olympic sports follow a similar trajectory? After decades of apathy and lost potential, could a mixed approach produce more excellence and more of the public goods of sporting success to enjoy? Probably not yet. And that is because we don’t have yet any kind of comparative advantage in these sports, generally speaking. Which means, they might need the support of public money a while longer, like a weak industry being subsidized to survive international competition. Remember, besides everything else, there are opportunity costs for those who get involved in these sports and are training to be the best in the world. The hours of practice come at the cost of education, lost income, and maybe even lost contribution in other areas of the economy [what if that archer who gave up studying medicine were to go on and have contributed to the development for a cure to cancer?]. After their sporting career is over, most of these athletes might find it difficult to land productive work and sources of income. This is not a problem exclusive to an economy like ours but happens in advanced economies too. However, opportunity wise, we still have a long way to go in a country where underemployment of resources is a chronic problem. There is no silver bullet to solve this dilemma.

An AP article explained South Korea’s success at the Rio Games and previous ones thus

[In the 80s] authoritarian government pumped money into programs for athletes who had better chances of winning medals, often in these lesser known sports, rather than building up an overall sports infrastructure for the general public. Those selected athletes trained together at government-run facilities and were awarded benefits such as good pensions and, for the men, exemptions from mandatory military service if they performed well in international competitions like the Olympics.

As athletes in those sports succeeded internationally, the sports got more public attention. More popularity meant more steady civilian and business sponsorships. This meant more money, better training facilities and more young athletes taking up and sticking with the sports.

That system is still largely in place. Hence the success.

That is, there is a virtuous cycle of investment that has been generated because there was government subsidy in the first place. Maybe the Prime Minister’s idea of a task force for the next three Games, and the much criticized but well intentioned TOPS program are what India needs to belt out a better quality of public good in sports.

With a young nation and plentiful ambition, the apocalyptic scenarios are probably a little overplayed. But we better start thinking of the ‘clever’ ways to combine resources fast. And National Sports Day is probably as good a day as any to begin thinking about it.


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India’s Rio tryst – Episode III: Numbers

This is the third part of a four part series I am writing on India at Rio. Part I is here and Part II is here

Now that the dust has settled on the Olympics and the heartbreak that they brought for Indian athletes and sports fans alike, perhaps it is time to take our Piers Morgan bashing glasses off and look at why every Games we are put through the wringer of the same optimism –> hope –> despair –> disappointment cycle. There was a lot of discussion during the Games about how Indian athletes missed out on medals or qualification for medal rounds because of cruelly tiny margins. Dipa Karmakar, the gymnast was just 0.150 points out of a medal place in the Vault apparatus final. Mairaj Khan the skeet shooter missed out on the semifinal in a shootout. Jitu Rai and Gagan Narang had similar fates in their shooting events, and so did the women archers, losing a real close battle to Russia in the team competition quarter finals. But perhaps the most heartbreaking of all was Abhinav Bindra in the 10m Air Rifle where he finished fourth by pretty much a literal whisker. He was a genuine medal hope [after all, he was the gold medallist in Beijing] and it was news that was hard to take for him and his fans alike.

But while many explanations will be bandied about, we have to wrap our heads around one crucial idea about most Olympic sports – luck plays a significant role in who wins medals [especially second and third places, the kinds that are realistic targets for now for Indian athletes].

Let me elaborate.

I made a visual representation of how closely some Indians over the years and at Rio have missed out on either medals or medal round qualifications using the data on the relative margin [in percentage] between the nearest competitor [or qualifying mark] and what the Indian achieved. The tinier the dot, the closer the margin. In almost all cases the margin was less than a fraction of a percent, a variation so small it could have been caused by anything – a small misalignment on PT Usha’s hurdles in 1984, a strong wind in Milkha Singh’s race at Rome in 1960, or the tiniest of imperfections in the groove of the muzzle of a shooter’s gun – that is really outside the control of the athlete.

Bindra  tweeted to a journalist when he mentioned that Gagan Narang had the qualification ‘in the bag’ with ten shots left that

The 5 time Olympian knew what he was talking about. In candid accounts in his superb book A Shot At History [co written with Rohit Brijnath] Bindra offers details of why shooting is so difficult – ‘Shooting is different from tennis and swimming, it is not structured towards repetition, it allows for few brilliant encores.’  There is some solid statistical reasoning behind that statement.

Later in the book, he opens up about his failure at London.

‘I was incredibly close in London but impossibly far. Of the three 9s I shot in my last 10 shots two were 9.9s. They were close to a 10 but counted only as 9. They were in fact 0.1mm away from a 10. You know how tiny .1mm is – it is less than the dot that precedes the 1.’ He compares how things unravelled in 2012 as compared to 2008, ‘In Beijing with the rifle put in a vice the grouping of 10 pellets was 5.4mm. Now it was 6mm. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a shooter’s everyday irritation.’

That everyday irritation he describes is what in stats lingo would be called regression to mean. Any ‘normal process’ [an archer shooting an arrow, a shooter at the range aiming at a target 10 meters away, a gymnast trying to stick a landing after a vault, a golfer shooting a round of golf] usually has variations which are grouped around its true average or mean.  The variation happens because of two reasons – factors under the control of who is in charge of the process [in this case, the athlete] and factors that are random, i.e. not under the athlete’s control. With practice, an elite athlete can try and eliminate the first cause but there’s really nothing they can do about the second.  Thus despite their best efforts, there will be times where they will fall agonizingly short.

Explaining how a ski jumper has two jumps and they tend to do well on their second jump if they had a poor jump and vice versa, Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking Fast And Slow’ writes – ‘The point to remember is that the change from the first to the second jump does not need a causal explanation’, like the ones sports commentators tend to give. He says it is ‘a mathematically inevitable consequence of the fact that luck played a role in the outcome of the first jump’.

We witnessed this with Aditi Ashok, the 18 year old golfer who shot two great rounds to be in medal contention but could not keep up – regressed to the her mean essentially – in the last two rounds and finished 41st, a commendable achievement still because she was up against the world’s best. But she did not ‘blow a chance to win a medal’ because she really punched above her weight. To truly contend she’ll be the first to tell you that she needs to get better. And given that she is barely 18, she certainly will. There is still a lot of work she needs to do on the ‘variability’ due to the factors under her control – her shot making, putting etc.

Looking at the heartbreak chart again you could say some of the misfortune that our athletes suffered [for which many an unkind word were said to them too] was that ‘mathematically inevitable consequence…of luck’ Another factor that exacerbates this is the fact that with time in short supply Olympics events tend to have very short and sharp formats [eliminations, knockouts etc are the norm].

Close but no cigar

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR – Olympics heartbreak, mapped. 

This effectively means that while skill is important, luck becomes an important factor too. The athletes at the very top will always have enough of a margin above the rest to allow for such variations and maybe still win gold, but like I mentioned, it is a closer and more chance dependent scene lower down the table where athletes of similar calibre are bunched together in a format that does not allow for the full skill advantage to play out.

In his book Moneyball, Michael Lewis explains how in baseball playoff season where teams win or lose based on short 5 or 7 game series rather than a long 162 game season is a ‘giant crapshoot’. He cites Pete Palmer, a sabermetrician who wrote the book The Hidden Game Of Baseball, and his calculation of the role of chance. Palmer calculated that the average difference due to skill between teams is about one run per game, while the average difference due to luck is about four runs a game. The simple translation, as Lewis puts it, is that ‘Baseball science may still give a team a slight edge but that edge is overwhelmed by chance.’ He calls it the ‘sample size problem’.

In most Olympic sports too that is the case. Now the question you might logically have is why, then, do only we [India] seem to have this rotten luck? The short answer to that is that our athletes in general are not sharp or trained enough to have their average levels of performances higher than most elite ones competing in their discipline. A Bindra’s loss is truly heartbreaking because he is an exception but if we had more competing at the level he does, even in the crapshoot of short Olympic formats the dice would have rolled our way at times. Sadly, it does not.

This is something that we have to keep in mind as we watch these sports, which unlike team sports or sports whose formats are different [leagues etc] will keep throwing up such frustrations all the time. The fact that we really pay attention only once in four years or so makes the situation worse. So, how can we battle this demon of regression to the mean that seems hell bent on denying us Olympic glory and keeps feeding troll bait to the likes of Piers Morgan? A few ideas on the next, and last, post in this series – Revelations.


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