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ESPN's 8 for 80: India's next stars have the nous, need the nurture

Neeraj Chopra is recognised as a prodigy already and his achievements in the next decade will define his legacy. PTI/Shirish Shete

A sporting nation never ages: it morphs, evolves, mutates. It is forever responding to its surrounding world, tapping in and drawing energies from the history, politics and economics surging around it. Sport is buffeted by these dominating currents - the weight of history, the polemic of politics, the power of money.

India's sporting soul at 70 is sprightly, ambitious, dreams big and wants bigger stages. Our athletes are turning up in numbers, bursting with ability and desire and the urge to own their ground.

It is where the Eight For Eighty generation - those who we feel will carry the torch for the next decade - comes from, but where they belong to is tomorrow.

They are destiny's children, some achievers already, but still searching for their finest hour. Some among them are recognised as prodigies, others are slowly finding their feet, making surprising, unexpected runs towards their goal. They want to burnish their craft, pursue perfection and become captains of their fate. The decade that lies in wait, independent India's eighth, will define them, and their achievements could become our sport's historic markers.

These are tumultuous times and Indian sport must shut out the noise around it and find answers to the questions raised by the decades gone by. Why does Indian sport reside in a halfway house, between amateur dreaming and an ecosystem of professionalism? Why is establishing unbreakable links between the two so hard? Why do the demands put forward by talent - a multitude of talents - meet with a short supply of required expertise?

At the highest reaches of competitive sport, we know that no achievement is a surprise to those involved in getting there. The road to "overnight" success is long, monotonous, calibrated and repetitive. Indian sport - particularly many Olympic disciplines - is far from making that route easily available or accessible. Far too often, the raison d'ĂȘtre for our sporting organisations is not their sport in itself.

After the extraordinary success of Dipa Karmakar in Rio in 2016, we find that rival bodies are still fighting to take control of the national gymnastics federation. After Dattu Bhokanal's breakthrough Olympic performance, the rowing federation continues to remain at loggerheads with the army's own rowing programme.

The archery federation is now run by a court-appointed administrator in the form of a former election commissioner. After the first staging of a league of its own, in Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT), the table tennis federation (TTFI) president was pleased but did have a peeve that the TTFI "did not gets its due" during the UTT and "felt ignored." A rival kabaddi federation is currently taking up arms to protest against the last federation elections.

This seventh decade - with its up and down Olympic performances - has shown Indian sport much. Not all athletes are valiant or noble or clean, but the majority of them are. Not all sporting officials seek untrammelled power and glory and control, but the majority of them do.

There are two unshakeable fundamentals though. India's sport is nothing without its athletes, whose individual talents are not as dispensable as they have been made out to be. And two, our sports bodies are vital engines that energise and rejuvenate their sport but the individuals that run them are even more replaceable than we realise. Indian sport at 70 hovers between balancing these two truths.

The Eight For Eighty are a reminder that it is the individual athlete and his hungry ability that will keep Indian sport moving ahead. Whether that is an inch at a time, or by leaps and bounds, depends on how Indian sport responds to currents swirling around it today.