Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore speaks to ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta about how Indian athletes are different from earlier, how the government plans to make India a sporting powerhouse and why he thinks he’s still got the skills to take up shooting.
Shekhar Gupta: Fourteen years after we had a conversation, when he came with a silver medal of his own from Athens, I am once again privileged to have this conversation with Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. Colonel Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, now you’ve got more than one silver medal — you have 26 golds, 66 overall. But the fact is that if you compare apples with apples, then this is the best Commonwealth Games for India.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: It gives the same, or a greater sense of achievement, whether you are playing yourself or your team is playing, it feels the same. I went there for two-three days, and I was sitting and watching them very closely. I was so engrossed. Punch by punch, I was literally there and there is a different sense of attitude among our athletes now. I think each one of them is going there not to win a lot of medals, but gold medals. Not just the media, I think the people – the public – and the young population of the country has a sense of feeling now, that we belong there.
Shekhar Gupta: So what has changed for you between 2004 – your contingent year – your comrades then, and the team now.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: It’s a change of attitude undoubtedly, wherein we have a sense of belonging in the world fraternity. We belong there, it’s like us. Also the fact that, greater emphasis is coming around. There is a greater emphasis on sports, corporates are coming in, in a large way and are going beyond cricket. The attention of fans is now on sports beyond cricket. We cherish everyone who is doing well, be it in any field.
Shekhar Gupta: This was I suspect the most watched Olympic sport event in India?
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: It’s deserving, because it comes in once in four years. I mean if you compare it to cricket, taking nothing away from the hard work of the cricketers. I admire them they are very professional, but they have T20 matches by a dozen or more. If you miss a ball, you have the next ball to play. If you get out in this innings, I have 10 or 20 innings more. These athletes get an opportunity once in four years and they have to make the best of it. So I won’t take away any of the glory and attention, but certainly I would want them to focus on the Asian games.
Shekhar Gupta: You think the confidence levels are much higher than before?
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: Very high, the attitude, the confidence, the focus, the resources. Sports science is now coming in, so we opened our minds to what is required. I remember when I put up my proposal for funding many, many years ago to a very well-known institution, they said it is frivolous. It has frills in it, that was the word.
Shekhar Gupta: Was that for shooting?
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: It was, of course, for shooting, but the frills is something that is an essential part of training today which is psychology, sports science backup and scientific training methods.
Shekhar Gupta: Give me some examples of the science that you use, soft skills or frills as you say, for shooting.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: I’ll cover it with other sports. Let’s say a javelin thrower.
Shekhar Gupta: We have a very good javelin thrower now.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: Chopra, fantastic, absolutely fantastic, young 19-year-old boy. They have a sprint like in the army, a sprint of about 40-50 meters, a short burst. There is an amazing amount of strength coming from the elbows, shoulders, hip. Everything has been put into it, and therefore their life span is very limited. Life span in the sense of, as an athlete, as a performer. They have injuries on a daily basis. Unless they don’t have scientific back-up to ensure they have early recovery and least amounts of injury, they will not be able to perform.
Any setback in your training sets you back in your performance. Boxers, day in and out, are punching a kick bag which is hard, they are hitting each other, they are training hard. Their wrists, elbows, shoulders, face, everything is vulnerable. Shooters, you come into an alien environment, you have to feel at home. Psychologically, you have to be at home absolutely. Even one shot out, and you are out. You have to hold your nerve absolutely in that environment.
Shekhar Gupta: Within the India story, Milkha Singh finished number four, P.T. Usha at LA Olympics missed a medal by a micro second. That’s India’s story. I think 4×400 women relay team also are finishing in the final list but very close to a medal.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: Shekhar, what we need to do is, for every Milkha Singh we need 20 Milkha Singhs waiting to take his place.
Shekhar Gupta: It’s taken so long to break our national record in 1500 meters. This time we got one.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: Anas, he did it brilliantly. We need a big bench strength and now with our Khelo India programme, I’m so happy as a sportsman I’m saying, I’m not speaking as a minister, I’m so happy. And you speak to every single athlete of my era, they all are saying it is something we didn’t have it in our times. This creation of bench strength will happen when you have schoolkids aspiring to play at a very aspirational platform like what we provided at the Khelo India school games, and we can do it every year.
Shekhar Gupta: How young can you go?
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: How young you think we can go
Shekhar Gupta: I don’t know, Chinese are going to 8.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: This year itself we are going down to 8 to 12-year-olds. We’ll have a campaign.
Shekhar Gupta: How to identify them?
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: Very interestingly we have called scientists from all across countries to find what are those basic tests that are required to identify the talented at an age of eight to 12? So we are now building up, stacking those few methods of selection which are going to be very simple, require simple means, they are going to be level one selection tests. So let’s say we target about a crore children through the schools, the states, the parents, through everyone, for that first basic test. Once that basic test is done, we will narrow down to say ..
Shekhar Gupta: That’s physical
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: That’s mostly physical. Once we narrow down to say 10,000-20,000, we will do DNA testing there. We will do scientific testing, we’ll do IQ testing, we’ll have hand-eye coordination, everything. So we are comparing your height at that age of 8, 10 or 12, your weight, your flexibility, your explosive muscle strength. We are comparing all that and identifying which sport would you be most inclined towards, by doing an IQ test and DNA testing. And then at the age of 8 or 10, we provide them with Rs 5 lakh for eight years in a row. So that by the time that a young girl or boy is 16-years-old, they would have got everything that is required to train, then they enter our junior program, and then they go on to our senior program.
Shekhar Gupta: How different is this from the east European programmes of the past or say the Chinese programme, for which they has been criticism.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: You see there is a lot of myth around what happens in China, what happened in east Europe.
Shekhar Gupta: Russia was banned for doping…
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: Well in terms of doping, and cheating, our stand is very clear. We feel that there are three most important people in a sport. The sports person, the coach, and the fans. The moment you bring in the fans, you cannot have a sports person who is cheating because then you are cheating the fans. And why are we investing, it’s a very interesting thing, I was thinking about it. We invest in sports because it’s a soft power projection, the Indian flag flying high, national anthem playing, a sense of pride, Indians feel good about it.
If you are a dancer, an actor, a banker or an engineer, you will all be playing sports. So, sport breaks through barriers, caste and everything, and is acceptable to all. So we are investing in people who can be icons for our younger generation, and I do not want any cheat to be an icon. You have to win fair. We would rather have a best loser. When there are high incentives in sports, there will always be people who are tempted to cheat. But we have awareness programs which are telling them, making them aware that this is going to be harmful to your body, not just body it will be harmful to you socially, and you’ll be caught as well.
Shekhar Gupta: So my point was countries that did this institutionally, countries that went after medals institutionally, say Romania in the past, many East European countries, East Germany, Russia now, they have used the thing in an institutional way. So that has not become part of a formula for building national pride to sport.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: Yeah. So we are very sure our philosophy is not about winning at any cost.
Shekhar Gupta: You’ll not pick these children and take them away to some camp from their parents?
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: In fact, we are now in this year itself, this is something very interesting for your listeners. In this year itself we will identify 20 districts, in each of those districts we’ll identify one school which is already good in education and we will invest about Rs 7 to 10 crore in each of the schools just for sports facilities of two to three sports, not more.
So we will create an environment where these young athletes from this surrounding area, don’t have to go far from their parents. We are not taking them away from their parents, parents play a very important role in bringing up a child and therefore we want to keep them in a familiar environment, familiar food habits, but give them the best. This year, we will do 20 schools, hopefully in next three to four years, we’ll do 150 districts.
Shekhar Gupta: Do you have targets of medals now, going ahead?
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: I’m not even thinking of the number of ..
Shekhar Gupta: Asian games coming up in August.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: You see, people asked me the question for Commonwealth Games. And, of course, as a ministry totally involved with our sportspersons, we knew who is likely to get, so we had a number. But I would never identify then, I would never identify now. The point is this is not a time to start counting our medals. Lets prepare for 2024 or 2028, and count the medals then.
Shekhar Gupta: We have seen strength come up in contact sports, boxing, wrestling…My home state, Haryana…Some in games like badminton. Now table tennis, not right at the world level. Manika…
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: Fantastic breakthrough. The most talented countries Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia…
Shekhar Gupta: The good thing is now we have 5 players in the top 100 for the first time in our history, which is a big deal. But athletics, that is the mother of all sports, does look like our athletics have declined…
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: So if you focus on medals, you’ll have to focus on events that have bulk medals. The sports are shooting, boxing, wrestling and we are as it is doing well. The ones that have bulk of medals ahead are athletics, swimming, fencing, gymnastics. Now, we are already setting in motion steps to ensure that these events which have a large bulk of medals, we start doing well. So our agenda is 2024 and 2018, and we are working step-wise from doing the national talent hunt, which is going to be from 8-12 years. We will do it this year, this will be the first year, but we’ll ensure that it’s a success but we’ll do it every year. And we provide those 1000 athletes, who are getting those Rs 5 lakh rupees for 8 years in a row , we’ll start providing them at that age, so that they come up to the school games. The school games will again be an area where without the pressure of jobs, the kids will aspire to be heroes at the national level. So they stay in four star hotels, they travel in good second class AC coaches, and stuff like that.
Shekhar Gupta: They don’t require complexes…
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: They don’t require complexes, they get used to competing at the world-class arena. So we have a program, which is called Target Olympic Podium, and I can’t thank the Prime minister enough for setting up for the first time an Olympic Task Force. So experts sat down together for months and came up with a plan as to how do you prepare for the Olympics ahead, and so we have special officers who are only dealing with the elite athletes. And we have cut off all the bureaucracy, the red-tapism, there is direct contact with the athletes.
Shekhar Gupta: Does the state of hockey worry you? Both teams flattered to deceive this time.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: Yeah, I felt that their ability to convert close into the D was lacking somewhere in between. I was watching one the matches with New Zealand, that was a very crucial match. I felt that as soon as we had this cloud over us, we saw a feeling that they gave up for a certain number of minutes, and that was crucial.
Shekhar Gupta: But that was not the way Indian hockey was coming up. In fact it had become very combative. Now have they seen a sequence change of coaches.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: We can always comment on what happened. And you’ll always find lacunae and faults with performers, that’s the point about performance that you will always be able to pick up faults where you could have done better. But we have to trust people who have been put in charge, and believe that the method they are following is a method in the right direction.
Shekhar Gupta: I have to admit as a hockey fan that Narinder Batra has done a great job with Indian hockey, men’s and women’s. But this off with his head Alice in Wonderland…I mean our coach the other day was Pakistan’s coach, and I think was primarily responsible for the draw the Pakistanis managed to play against us.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: We’ll continue to have faith in the experts who are responsible for it and that stands true for most of the federations that are performing.
Shekhar Gupta: Your view on what’s been happening with cricket? The Supreme Court is now running cricket and Supreme Court’s committee has run it for more than a year now.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: See undoubtedly there is a lot to learn from cricket. In the sense of revenue generation and investing their revenue into the right places, I think they have done a good job. While doing that and while the nation’s attention and the love was on cricket, there perhaps would have been certain steps that may have gone wrong. Overall I do feel that the steps for improving governance, are very critical steps. And I would ensure that good governance comes in all federations. See, whenever you wear India, and you play for the flag, no one can say this is my property.
Shekhar Gupta: Would you prefer that elections are held in a proper body?
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: Frankly Shekhar, I don’t really follow cricket so much so I don’t know the politics of cricket. But like I’ve mentioned and I’ll reiterate: good governance is very essential. Anything which can bring in transparency, efficiency in governance where your sports and the sportsman are our priority, I’m with it.
Shekhar Gupta: You are quite young and for your sport, you are young. You will now go to Asian Games, do you feel like picking up?
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: I was talking to my fiends the other day and I said, when you are watching that’s when you realise are a sportsman. When you are watching any sport, you just want to jump in actually. I’ve boxed in academy, I’m a medalist in boxing in the military academy, which is of a fairly decent standard. I also passed out as the best sportperson of my military course, so I play all sports including horse polo, water polo, all sports. So when I watch any sport…
Shekhar Gupta: Does the finger itch sometimes?
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: Absolutely
Shekhar Gupta: You should shoot
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: Well now there is very little opportunity, but within a week I think I can get back to my standards.
Shekhar Gupta: You divide your time between I&B and sports?
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: That’s tricky question, you’re asking that in your role as now the chief of the Editors Guild?
Shekhar Gupta: No, no, no. I’m not, I’m not.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: No, that’s not the point. I learnt a lot in I&B and I can’t be grateful enough to the Prime Minister that he gave me that role, which perhaps I was weak in. But I learned a lot. Now I’m still there as an MoS, but we have a full minister there and she is totally in charge of that. I think she is very passionate about it as well and therefore we share this equation where she takes care of it. She is fully hands-on there and I take care of this ministry. But whenever required, I’m always available to her.
Shekhar Gupta: Well I think the good thing about sports ministry is, given you’re a sportsman, is that no matter what happens the media would love you…at least sports fans like us
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: That was very kind of you, and I think…
Shekhar Gupta: Because we don’t see you as a politician, we see you as a sportsman.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: I don’t see myself as a politician a lot of times, and I think that is the best part.
Shekhar Gupta: So as always, wonderful to have a conversation with you.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore: Wonderful, second talk with you. Thank you very much.
Find the interview on ThePrint’s YouTube channel.