With their performance in Tokyo Olympics 2020, fairly unknown Indian athletes turned into national icons overnight, claiming victory and glory in sports forgotten by the country’s youth. The emotions of a grateful nation battered by the Covid pandemic flowed across political, social and economic boundaries. The first medals were won by women coming from states far away from the macho plains of northern India. Even those sportspersons who failed to win medals were patted on their backs and reassured. Sports, for once, united us all.
As the dust of euphoria settles on the historic seven Olympic medals won by India, the ecstatic media spotlights and political attention will move back to the mundane and the grim. And yet, this is the time to not let these times be forgotten.
We need to look beyond the celebrations to the facts and reality, to step back and analyse how these medals were won. Was it sheer good luck for some of our athletes just as ‘it wasn’t their day’ explanation for our shooters and their mysterious collapse? Are we actually on the long path to greater Olympic glory? Or will be sink back to sports oblivion as it happened after the London Olympics 2012 where we won six medals? Of the 86 countries that participated at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, India was ranked 48.
The next Olympics event in Paris is only three years away. We also have the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games next year. Are we ready for these challenges?
After the Rio Olympics 2016, where India had one of its most dismal performances, the government set up an Olympic task force to suggest remedies. This task force recommended that a focused Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) be established for elite athletes to provide them access to the best training, equipment and exposure. This scheme was further revamped in 2018 by the Sports Authority of India. It spearheaded a sharp, data-based programme and for the first time brought all the stakeholders on one platform.
Professional assessment of athletes’ performance was done vis-à-vis their global competitors. Athletes past their prime were dropped and fresh talent inducted. Within two years, the TOPS team identified potential winners as well as earmarked ‘development athletes’ for the 2024 Olympics. Their training and health were monitored carefully as also their injury management. All the medal winners this year are part of the TOPS. We saw many others within striking distance of medals even if they just missed the podium finish.
The Commonwealth and Asian Games in 2018 also saw India’s best ever performance in these Games.
This is an encouraging start. But it is not enough.
Talent and funding are not the issues
What is holding us back? Definitely it is not the lack of talent. India’s youthful demographic profile provides a huge pool of aspirational sportspersons. But we have yet to create a sports culture in our country that goes beyond cricket. Parents do not encourage their children to adopt a career in sports because of a confusion in future prospects. Is there money for a sustainable lifestyle or will our athletes languish in neglect once they are past the medal winning age?
Unless we address these issues holistically, medal winning for India will remain a matter of luck and occasional bursts of spirited performances. Today’s sportspersons are rarely in the game because of choice. It is usually chance and challenging circumstances that bring them into the sports arena. The process of creating champions, the early identification of talent, the ecosystem that nurtures athletes scientifically and offers respectable long-term careers is on shaky ground.
The Olympic charter mandates a primary role for sports federations in the training of sportspersons, their selection and participation in competitions in the country and abroad. Sports federations are elected, autonomous bodies that exist both at the state and national levels. They are subject to the jurisdiction of their respective international federations. Many governments provide funding for the sports federations. However, successful sports federations are able to raise their own funds. An example of this is the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which is one of the richest sports bodies in the world.
Unfortunately, in India today, many sports federations have become personal fiefdoms headed by politicians and businessmen, riddled with factionalism and infighting. Professional and the systematic development of the sport takes a back seat.
The government of India provides substantial funding to sports federations through schemes such as the Annual Calendar of Training and Competitions (ACTC). These are meant to fund sports competitions, training, purchase of equipment, etc. However, better monitoring of expenditure and utilisation of these funds by the government is essential for accountability, adherence to projected plans and transparency in expenditure. Unless federations are sincere and goal-oriented, we will not be able to lay the foundations necessary to bring forth champions.
Steps we need to take
One of the first steps to creating a larger pool of talent is to spot it as early as 11 or 12 years of age. Schools play an important role here. Talent scouts need to be deployed by federations at school events. We will need an army of sports teachers at the school level even in small towns and villages. Many retired coaches are able and willing to be tasked with this. Sports scholarships need to be given appropriately so that talented children continue to pursue their sporting interests.
Professional training is the next step. The government has established and funded a number of training academies through its Khelo India scheme both in the public and private sectors. What is needed is rigorous implementation, regular performance audits, weeding out the youngsters who do not live up to the challenges of training.
Some federations have done exceedingly well in developing a strong base to spot early talent. Among them are the boxing and cycling federations. Today, a young team of cyclists training at the Indira Gandhi Stadium include youngsters from remote areas such as the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Manipur. In August 2019, they won India’s first gold at the UCI Junior Track Cycling World Championships. They have great prospects for winning medals at the next Olympics. Girls from the northeast as young as 11 and 12 years old are training in judo, wrestling and boxing at the JSW Group’s Inspire Institute of Sport academy in Vijayanagar, Karnataka. Hundreds of young budding badminton players come after school to Pullela Gopichand academy in Hyderabad. Tribal girls in Jharkhand carry hockey sticks on their shoulders as they cycle to school and play at every opportunity.
This is young and aspirational India. But it is also unguided India and will lose its way if not trained and given opportunities at the right time.
Sports federations, state and national governments must work together to streamline the current disintegrated scenario. Sports is a state subject and the involvement of state governments, local and district bodies as well as local businesses is critical to popularise sports at the ground level.
Media is another powerful partner. We need a more imaginative and innovative approach to media coverage for sports. Media is the elixir that gives sports its glamour, it makes superstars. It also has the potential to generate revenues for the sport that make these activities sustainable through advertising and sponsorships. There is a plethora of TV and radio channels in India. Streaming platforms in regional languages are available on mobile phones.
This huge network of access to technology must be tapped into through both local advertising and national campaigns. National leagues must be organised for various sports. These can attract advertisers as marketing agencies are always on the lookout for innovative ways to sell their products. Even rural and small-town competitions can garner advertising revenues from FMCG and other industries making inroads in these markets. Smaller businesses too can contribute to the organisation of sports events. Sometimes, all that is needed is a space for them to put up their banners and for the proprietor to be invited as the chief guest.
As we create a groundswell for sports, there will be an increased demand for easy access to sports infrastructure, playgrounds and equipment. The government must ensure that schools create facilities that can be used by students. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) has a number of stadiums all over the country. Schools, colleges and federations getting easy access will energise these languishing spaces.
Non-sport activities organised in a planned manner can generate revenue to sustain and support sports activities. The Sports Hub of Singapore is one such example. A study undertaken by Niti Ayog and Ernst and Young in 2019 highlighted the huge unutilised potential of the five stadia in Delhi under the SAI’s charge and suggested ways to enhance it. If this can be done in the national capital, it will give an impetus to better utilisation of sports facilities in the rest of India.
Sports can create superstars but failure can be cruel and punishing. For every athlete on the podium, there are thousands who do not make the cut and drop out of sports altogether. We need to have a back-up plan for these youngsters, to give them alternate careers and opportunities to rebuild their lives. There are a large number of associated and supporting services linked with sports. Sports medicine, physiotherapy, injury management and mental training are critical to the making of an Olympic champion. Data analysts, media professionals, sports gear and clothing are essential parts of sportspersons’ lives. All these are massive opportunities for entrepreneurs, start-ups, small scale sector as well as the manufacturing industry. India has been the hub for manufacturing certain sports equipment. This base must be expanded to include more sophisticated equipment needed for the sports sector.
Sports can be the new sunrise sector for the youth that will open up new and exciting employment opportunities in both the services and manufacturing sectors. This is where the government must take the lead and bring all stakeholders together to improve governance and administration of sports.
India’s vibrant private sector, too, can contribute. Sports has been included in the CSR activities permitted to the corporate sector for tax exemption. Many of the country’s top business houses are eager to sponsor successful sportspersons but their interest must go beyond using them as brand ambassadors for their own publicity. Sportspersons are invited to glitzy events in five-star hotels, endorse footwear, clothing and energy drinks. At times this is at the cost of their training schedules. The real investment is needed behind the scenes, in training, sports medicine and cutting-edge technologies that give sportspersons the advantage in the global arena.
It takes a village to bring up a sportsperson, a multifaceted team that works with synergy and accountability. We have to think beyond the glory of the medal winners if we are to aspire to the Olympic motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together”. This requires urgent and committed action, a long-term vision, the skills and the integrity to stay the course.
There is no better time to begin than now.
The author is the former and first woman director general of the Sports Authority of India. She tweets @NeelamKapur. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)