Saina has shown that India can match best

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Saina Nehwal’s splendid victory in the Denmark Open marks her out as perhaps the country’s outstanding sportsperson this year.

Apart from the bronze at the London Olympics, this was her fourth title in 2012 and I can’t recall any India with a similar rich haul in any sport – either this year or in the past.

Mind you, there were five other medallists apart from her at the Olympics including a couple who won silver medals – and not forgetting young Virat Kohli’s rise to eminence in cricket — but Saina’s achievements would get greater weightage according to me because she has emerged as the strongest challenge to the hegemony of the Chinese women in badminton.

This is significant not just in the context of badminton where the Chinese had appeared unbeatable, but also Indian sport where sportspersons are thought to be pusillanimous, and even more so because there is so little encouragement for women.

Through her performances – built on rock solid virtues of dedication, discipline, and focused ambition – Saina has shown that Indian athletes can compete against the best in the world at least in a few select disciplines.

In a wider perspective, Saina’s bronze medal at London and the victory in the Denmark Open should also rivet greater attention to coach Pullela Gopichand’s contention that India can become a powerhouse in badminton provided the sport receives adequate patronage from authority and sponsors.

After Saina had won the bronze, Gopichand had ventured to say that the Chinese juggernaut could be halted – and by India no less – if there was proper long-term vision backed by adequate resources from authority.

There was some muffled pooh-poohing when Gopi argued his case. I reckon this was not so much out of disdain as of disbelief.

Indian sport apart from cricket has been so impoverished for stellar performers that even a cogent argument or plan is quickly tainted by utter skepticism.

How unfounded and utterly negative this attitude is was highlighted by India winning six medals at London. While the number is still meager to bear comparison with Asian giants, what was made clear is the potential for producing champion sportspersons – and across disciplines – does exist in the country.

This would require a two-pronged approach: spreading the message of badminton of course, but more importantly regimentation of resources by creating top-class infrastructure and academies that could help spot and nurture talent.

China’s suzerainty in badminton has come from getting high quality from quantity. While players who show precocity are hand-picked and mentored, the fundamental approach is more egalitarian than elitist.

The idea is to get a pyramid-like structure in place, where huge numbers play the sport, but every higher notch is based on a parameters defined by quality and excellence. At the acme, you obviously have the best players. It is important to remember though that the top-notchers are found – unless it is a fluke — only by the effort put in at the bottom of the pyramid.

While getting quality from quantity seems like a simple enough mission, it involved serious issues of funding and logistics that will have to be addressed far more seriously than has been evident in the past.

Remember Gopichand and before him Prakash Padukone had won the All England title, but badminton in India could not get the fillip that it deserved because of a lack of vision and politics within the national federation.

Saina’s successes – and the promise shown by other youngsters like P V Sindhu – suggest that India’s prowess in the sport is not thin and dependent only on one person.

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