Everyone agrees that the Tokyo Olympics shows a way forward for Indian sports. But no one bothers to ask: Which way forward? There are two roads that leave Tokyo. One already has a name: TOPS. Let us call the other one BASE. We must choose which one to take. We cannot leave this choice to experts or administrators. This is a larger civilisational choice. It involves values and vision, policy and politics.
TOPS and BASE
TOPS stands for Target Olympic Podium Scheme, an initiative of the Indian government that can claim some credit for our medal tally in the Tokyo Olympics. The name captures it all: It’s a sarkari scheme with a clear target of winning medals for India at the Olympics. They may not announce it as such, but this is the fulcrum of our current sports policy. It reflects how the business of modern sports has systematically reduced the space of games in human life. One, myriad and open-ended world of infinite variety of games has now been reduced to a few sports with clear-cut rules, institutional regulations and a definite format. Two, sports is not just for the joy of the participants, but mainly for the pleasure of the spectators, mostly TV viewers. Three, each sport now is competitive, with clear winners and losers. Four, victory in sports is directly tied to monetary rewards and national honour. Just as nation-states compete to become military and economic power; they also vie to be sporting powers. No wonder, the Indian government wants to launch a scheme to improve the national tally at the Olympics, the most visible theatre of professional, competitive and spectator sports that we naively continue to call games.
BASE is a name I have coined for an alternative, a Broad-based Approach to Sports for Everyone. Forgive me for this clumsy nomenclature (TOPS is no less clumsy, by the way), but I hope it captures the main difference from the modern business of sports as a battleground of national honour. It seeks to keep sports close to the original spirit of playing games. Games are meant, first of all, to be a source of joy to the participants. Everyone plays, not just a few gifted players. Excellence is nurtured, but not by excluding those who may never join the medal race. Spectators are not detached and distanced; they are involved and invested. Games are not played mainly for external rewards; playing is its own reward. Encouraging a broad-based and inclusive sports culture may yield more medals too, but that cannot be the principal objective.
TOPS is top-down
We need a sports policy that chooses between these two paths or offers a third one. What we have in the name of National Sports Policy is a 20-year old document that packs a lot of angrezi, nods in all directions and says very little.
The first option is obvious. The history of modern sports shows that once you have a decent talent pool, excellence is a function of State support, corporate backing and media visibility. So, this path from Tokyo would involve, first of all, creating spectators or audience for some of these sports following the Indian Premier League (IPL) route. Given the size of India’s media-consuming class, the demand for sport should be able to sustain the business. The supply would be produced by private sector driven sports academies that work for profit or are funded by corporates. The government’s role would be to clean up the mess in most of the sports bodies, fairly implement the existing regulations and offer occasional support to some sports via the public sector companies. If the government can get its act together to do this properly, we can look forward to a steady improvement in our medal tally.
Remember, TOPS involves a top-down approach. Its goal can be achieved efficiently with the help of selective targeting. We may choose sports and events that offer more bang for the buck, prefer individual sport over team sport, select those games that offer a better opening for our players. Given the size of our population and now our economy, all we need are a few islands of sports excellence. Just as a handful of IITs sustain an illusion of excellence in technical education and a tiny slice of our economy, the “middle class”, keeps up the story of India shining, a handful of sports academies in all the metros can produce enough medal prospects. Islands of sports excellence can exist within the ocean of utter neglect; a bunch of world-class professionals can be found within a generation that is turning away from physical games. That would be in line with the character of Indian modernity that tends to split our society into a tiny show-window and a large backyard.
This path can and must be challenged.
Sports, regardless of Olympics
Focusing on BASE involves a bottom-up approach, priority to broad-basing the talent pool of sport and recognising the diversity of games that Indians play.
The first step in that direction would be better sports facilities in our schools. While over 80 per cent of our schools have playground (about 77 per cent in rural schools, just 61 per cent in rural unrecognised schools), these are mostly just physical spaces with no games being played. The ASER report found in 2018 that only one-sixth of rural schools had a dedicated ‘physical education’ teacher. Naturally, on a given day, only 26 per cent rural schools had any supervised games or physical education. Ensuring a modicum of sports facilities in the remaining three-fourth schools must be the top priority. The recent emphasis on Early Childhood Care and Education for children aged 3-5 provides a historic opportunity for introducing games as the principal mode of education.
Creating better sports facilities in the 40,000-odd colleges and 1,000-plus universities should be the next stop in this journey. In addition, the central government must invest in the creation of a well-equipped stadium, including an indoor facility, in each district. State governments can take a cue from the Odisha government that has recently announced setting up of 89 multi-purpose indoor stadia that can double up as disaster shelters.
Finally, we need to focus on different games that are popular in different states and regions of the country, irrespective of its Olympic status or medal prospect. We may be decades away from the podium in world football, but it happens to be one of the most popular games in Bengal, Goa, Kerala, and the northeast. Kabbadi may not be an Olympic game, but it is more popular than wrestling. Different regions can develop special facilities for one game. If Kenya can produce great long-distance runners, there is no reason why Chhattisgarh cannot. Northeast India has contributed two out of our seven medals, it can be promoted as the hub of women’s sport.
Will this secure more medals in Paris 2024? Perhaps yes. Maybe no. But this will surely add joy to the lives of crores of participants, young and not-so-young. This may also secure better health, physical and mental, inculcate team spirit and build character of our youth. Isn’t that why we play games?
Yogendra Yadav is a political activist with Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav.Views are personal.