What Modi's Olympics task force must do to save Indian sports

It's time we put our money where our mouth is.

 |  6-minute read |   27-08-2016
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India's dismal performance at the Rio Olympics, with just two medals and the 67th rank, has again brought to the fore the pressing need to institute a root-and-branch change in sports in India.

The world's second most populous nation has only won 28 olympics medals so far, and managed to achieve the world's worst record of medals per head (among nations that have won a medal).

Not too long ago, China was where we find ourselves today. It could barely boast of medals and was subjected to much international scorn.

But then its political leadership decided that enough is enough, and embarked on a comprehensive and planned development of sports. The result is for all to see - China is one of the top three in terms of the medal tally at the Olympics and dominates different sports.

Can the PM's announcement of a task force to plan for next three Olympics be India's turnaround moment?

Crucially, what are the things the task force must recommend to herald a new dawn for sports in the country?

1 Widespread quality infrastructure and support system

If India fares so poorly in most sports, the principal culprit is the absence of quality infrastructure and support systems. The problem is two-dimensional.

First, at the grassroots, India simply doesn't have infrastructure for most of the sports. So most of the potential for sporting excellence that exists in India's hinterland gets no platform to develop.

And even thinking of a quality support system - like trainers, physio, dietician,et al is ludicrous when more basic amenities are also unavailable. All this reduces India's talent pool.

Secondly, even the few bigger facilities, for the top level athletes in different sports, are no match for the superior facilities which our rival athletes enjoy. This critically impairs our performance and results in a poor medal haul at international events.

So the task force must recommend that a mission mode programme be instituted, to ensure that every block in every district adheres to acceptable standards, with well-maintained and professionally administered sporting complexes, where various sports facilities and their support staff are made available.

Apart from such corrective measures on the ground, every state must have at least one or two centres of excellence where the top athletes can train in a world-class environment.

2 Developing clusters and focusing on select high yield games

Complementing the above mentioned step, we should develop clusters and focus on certain high-yield sports like swimming, track and field and gymnastics to ensure chances for a greater medal haul.

Different regions of India have different strengths in different sports. For instance, Haryana has a heritage of wrestling or Kerala may perform well at water sports. Such natural advantages must be factored in to institute programs that specifically build on those advantages.

This strategy will also involve consolidating our performance in sports like shooting, archery, badminton, boxing and wrestling, where India has been making a mark.

These sports must be systematically placed at the centre of our sports policy, their medal winners tapped for promoting them as well as constituting training programs. The target should be that in these sports atleast India gets most of the medals and become their dominant force.

Swimming, track and field and gymnastics together account for the bulk of olympic medals. Sadly, they are among the more neglected sports in India. This must change. By investing in them, India will have a decidedly better chance of quickly rising up the medal table.

3 Catch them young

A common aspect of most sporting powers (especially China) is that they train their athletes young. From a very young age, budding athletes are recognised and groomed accordingly. This gives them a distinct advantage when competing against athletes who chanced upon the game later in their life, by when much of their body development has happened with very little room to mould it to suit the needs of the sport.

India too must identify its talented athletes young. This can happen by holding widely publicised and highly remunerative sports competitions for different sports in different age groups. Participation in these events should be made compulsory. This will boost general fitness and at the same time help in the grooming of our athletes from a young age.

4 Ensure economic safety net for athletes

A prominent reason why most Indians avoid sports is- that athletes are economically very vulnerable. Even international athletes unless they garner highlight in olympics, live in pitiable conditions.

Most of India's international athletes are forced to work as class 3 employees in various government departments. Even Sakshi Malik, who won a bronze in the Olympics, is an ordinary railway employee as were two dozen other Rio Olympians.

This must cease. Our athletes must be allowed to devote themselves to pursuing excellence in sports. The government must evolve a scheme where athletes, at various levels, are amply remunerated (unlike the pittance a few get now).

5 Reform sports administration

The Indian sports administration is in shambles. Different federations have become trophies captured by bureaucrats and politicians. Most of them are steeped in malpractices. They are divided into rival camps which fight bitterly, often at the cost of sports.

Take the Indian Boxing federation, which was suspended for manipulation recently. The turmoil in the federation has adversely affected India's performance in a sport where India showed much promise. Similarly, the Archery Association of India was derecognised by the government following the London Olympics for not adhering to norms.

The federations can't remain a law unto themselves. They must be compelled to adopt best practices in transparency, elections and office bearers.

The sports ministry itself needs to be restructured. It must confine to policy issues and bodies like SAI needs to be given genuine autonomy.

6 Attitudinal change

We all remember being told "Padhoge likhoge banoge nawab, Kheloge Kudoge banoge Kharab."

The popular proverb precisely captures our atitude towards sports. Our society doesn't value sports or sportspersons. Our education system makes us inclined against sports.

There is a need for an attitudinal change. Our outlook must change of viewing sports as the poorer adversary of studies must change to seeing them as complementary to education. Also multimedia strategy to change this mindset is a must. Here the PM can lead the initiative just as he did in the Swach Bharat Abhiyan.

7 Raising spending on sports

For most of the above to be executed, a key requirement is enhanced government allocation for sports. Currently, India has among the lowest per capita spending on sports. This was revealed in a new report by a parliamentary committee. It says the Centre (and states collectively) invest just three paise per person, per head, each day for sports. In comparison the figure is Rs 20 for US and even in case of Jamaica, it is 19 paise (six times India's budget).

Getting medals in the Olympics is no mean business. If India is serious about saving face at the international forum in the coming years, we must put our money where our mouth is. The seven measures with ensure the darkness of the present is a precursor to a vibrant sunrise.

Not only will the envisioned changes lead to more medals and glory for India, but also help the country realise its dream of becoming a true sporting nation with a much more productive and healthier population. Surely, that's something worth striving for!

Writer

Apoorva Pathak Apoorva Pathak

The author is alumni, IIT Roorkee and writes on politics, economy, policy.

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