Nepal probably is the most fortunate nation today. Its population statistics would make any planner or policy maker gasp with excitement. Our average age is 24, which means we are one of the youngest countries in the world. Presently, with around 95 percent of our population in working age or yet to enter working age, we have a golden opportunity at hand.
But the sad destiny of our youth and our nation was summarized aptly by champion shooter Jitu Rai back in 2014. Asked by Setopati.com what he thought he would be doing if he hadn't joined the Indian Army, Rai had replied bluntly, "I would either be in the Gulf, or tilling my farm in Sankhuwasabha."
Born in Sankhuwasabha, Jitu Rai had joined the Indian Army in 2006. As a recruit, his instructors noticed his excellent pistol shooting skills and he was selected for the 'Young Blood Championship' of the National Rifles Association of India. Rai proved his merit and rose in the game to become a gold medalist in Asiad, Commonwealth Games and the World Cup. In 2014, he was world no 1 in 10-meter pistol shooting category. What Rai did and what he said suggest that given the opportunity Nepali youths can shine in any field. But the Wikipedia page on Jitu Rai proudly declares him as a naturalized citizen of India, which has also awarded him with a Padma Shree.
"Given an opportunity, a Nepali can do anything," is an oft-spoken phrase of our Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. But our politicians, and government officials alike, have become champions in missing golden opportunities and covering it all up with such rhetoric. While addressing a group of sports persons and related stakeholders last month, the prime minister was, as always, in a preachy mood.
"Practice is a must to win. You all must practice and practice hard to win," were the overarching themes of the PM's address. But sports history proves that every achievement is hard-earned. And nothing can be a better proof of leadership, management, teamwork, dedication, hard work, as well as strategic clarity and effective utilization of resources in today's world than the medal tally in sports championships. Our sports achievements are a representation of how we have, as a nation, hopelessly mistreated our talents and wasted opportunities for many years. Examples like Jitu Rai are a living testament that the burden of this failure does not rest on individual players.
If we look deeper, we find stories of unparallel dedication among us. In the national women's under-19 football team that played in Dhaka last year, there were six players from a football club in a small town in Syangja district. Three of the girls were from the marginalized communities: two Dalit and one Muslim. Last 20 years of our country are marked with unprecedented political turmoil. As a result, this has also been an era of policy paralysis in different sectors. Despite that, dedicated sons of the soil like the coach of Waling Football club Dilip Thapa have worked tirelessly. He trained young boys and girls, mostly from marginalized communities and poor families, rigorously almost two times a day. Surprisingly, all of his dedication and service is voluntary.
With such an apathy to developing an institutional support for its citizens' growth, no nation can do justice to its resources. This lack of an institutional result-oriented approach to performance is one big reason behind our collective failures in other fields too.
The prime minister, at the same event, announced that players would be supported according to government capacity—the underlying assumption being that sports aren't a priority, and hence resources will be used only after addressing other greater priority areas. But it is time we learn from success stories across the world.
At the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, Great Britain had ranked thirty-sixth in the medal tally, finishing below countries like Algeria, Belgium and Kazakhstan. The British press had named it a 'national scandal', the country's worst-ever result. But the government intervened swiftly. UK Sport, a dedicated agency, was set up and a vast amount of money was sourced from National Lottery revenues. The funds were utilized for a strict 'no comprise' system that invested in best chances of winning medals, and it set up the English Institute of Sports for providing sports scientists to all the national sports teams.
Four games later, in 2016, at the Rio Games, Great Britain stood second in the medal tally, proudly above China. As João Medeiros writes in a beautiful book, Game Changers, "behind every medal was a closely bound triumvirate: a talented athlete, an astute coach and a methodical sports scientist. And theirs was invariably a story of struggle, guesswork, dedication and conflict."
We as a nation have to do a lot to set up a culture of institutionalized support for dedicated champions in every field. The performance of the likes of Jitu Rai shows that if we build mechanisms to invest in young talents, our youth will do what it takes to win. But time is running out, and we are indifferent as a great window of opportunity is speeding toward a permanent closure.