India’s campaign at the Tokyo Olympics was a story of two weeks.
Even though weightlifter Mirabai Chanu opened the country’s account with a silver on the very first day of competition, the opening week was largely about the struggles of the fancied shooters to win medals after arriving in Japan as contenders. And the usual question about why a country with over a billion people can’t win medals at the Olympics began to rear its head on various forums.
The second week started with medals from boxer Lovlina Borgohain and shuttler PV Sindhu, then the men’s hockey team won their first medal in 41 years. Soon, wrestlers finished on the podium for the fourth straight Games. Then, Neeraj Chopra provided the icing on the cake with the country’s second individual gold and the first in track and field by hurling the javelin to 87.58m to end India’s campaign on a high. As if by magic, the questions vanished.
Some experts were quick to term the country’s best-ever performance in the Olympic Games as a potential gamechanger that can help build the much-talked about sports culture and lay the foundation for India to produce many more champions in the future.
If only it was as simple as winning a couple of medals to turn the tide.
There is no doubt that a medal, especially like the one won by Chopra, can make many more youngsters take up a sport and aspire to emulate the champion. But building a sports culture and a subsequent legacy of champions requires much more dedication and a change in approach from all stakeholders.
It is common knowledge that the tried and tested system of consistently producing champion athletes begins with broadening the base of the pyramid and building from there. While everyone involved in India’s sports ecosystem keeps talking about it, the majority of their efforts are concentrated only at the top of the pyramid.
It is not to say that the top athletes do not need financial or scientific support to transform from potential talent to medal-winning individuals. But putting all eggs in one basket isn’t really a fool-proof strategy. The way things are in the Indian sports ecosystem, the top players get support from the government, the various Non-Governmental Organisations determined to help the country win medals on the international stage, and even the corporates.
But if you ask any of these players, they will vouch for the fact that the most difficult part for many of them has been the journey from the district to the national/international stage and then unlearning or relearning everything to start making a mark at the level that matters. It is during this journey that their technical and physical foundation is laid and they need valuable support in building a strong base. And the effort needed during this stage is why probably the idiom “it needs a village to raise a champion” was coined.
And this is where India is nowhere near building a culture that promotes sports as a lifestyle and a viable career option.
Just a few months back when an up-and-coming athlete approached one such high profile foundation for support, the player was told that their research team did not find enough performance data on the national and international stage in the last year. The only problem with the argument is that the said player is around 15 years old and there has been no sporting activity for over a year now. For many such organisations, the players’ potential hardly matters. And this is not an isolated incident.
These organisations have their own challenges to deal with. It’s difficult for them to raise money unless they have top players on their roster because the corporate world that funds them is looking for their Return on Investment. Even someone like former All England champion Pullela Gopichand struggled to convince these corporate honchos to fund his dream of building an academy just about a decade ago but now has few of them lining up to sign him or his star players after he has proved a point.
One expected this to change after the tax benefits from money invested under Corporate Social Responsibility were extended for sports initiatives as well. This has definitely helped NGOs looking after top athletes to raise funds. But the grassroot areas are still not getting the benefits.
I have been associated with a few NGOs who have been working diligently in helping young Indian players make it big on the international stage. The players get the required monetary support for tournaments, hiring sports science experts and other facilities.
But these organisations do not consider investing in creating a system around the coach who is nurturing these talented youngsters by teaching them the basics and bringing them to the national level. In fact, most of them don’t even think it’s important to pay these coaches for the services they have rendered or provide the basic necessary equipment to the centre that can help more players than just the ones they are supporting.
Among the top corporates in India, the Tatas were the first to invest at the grassroots level in sports and now Reliance Foundation and JSW have taken further steps in encouraging grassroots sports with the latter even building a state-of-art training centre in Vijayanagar in Karnataka. The Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences in Odisha and the Rural Development Trust in Anantpur have been doing their bit in promoting sports in the region.
Many other NGOs have been using sports as a vehicle for social change in rural India but that is just an add-on to their overall outreach program and not really an attempt to nurture sporting talent.
While what the big corporate and these NGOs are doing is laudable, the centralised system isn’t enough for a country as vast and as diverse as India. If one studies the model of any of the top sporting nations in the world, it is the schools, local clubs and community centres that lay the foundation for proper coaching and support to young players with businesses and philanthropists in the vicinity funding the initiatives.
In India, we want the governments to invest in grassroots and the ambitious Khel India scheme has been launched for the same while the corporate and other stakeholders prefer to jump on the bandwagon once the success stories have already begun. But that is too much to ask. The ideal situation is the government or local bodies build the infrastructure required or provide aid for the same to educational institutions while the local community helps sustain the initiative and build a proper system for training and development.
The one example that comes to mind is that of the coaching centre of reigning national women’s wrestling champion Nandini Salokhe. The company that started giving her stipend as part of their CSR initiative six years ago also hired a strength and conditioning expert and helped build a gymnasium in the Murgud village near Kolhapur. The system helped the coach produce at least half a dozen national-level medallists in the last two years and many more are in the pipeline.
The gym facility in the premises became a boon for Salokhe herself when her Anterior Cruciate Ligament tore during competition in 2019. She could complete her rehab after surgery in her own village instead of making the over 100-kilometre commute every day from Murgud to Kolhapur and back for strength training.
The respective sports federations also need to invest in training the coaches in sports science and psychology as they are the ones hand-holding young kids and teaching them the nuances of the sport.
They are also the first point of contact between a child and a sport, and a proper talent identification process at that level could go a long way in helping talented youngsters win more medals on the international stage.
It is a fact that almost 90-95% of the talent that gets the support of the government or the NGOs currently working in this space is self-driven or plain lucky as there is no real mechanism to identify them at an early age.
There is a need for extensive testing in rural and tribal areas of the country to formulate physical parameters of young children according to Indian standards and then help them pick the right sport to make a career in.
But more importantly to just build a sports culture we need to promote physical literacy and awareness about playing sport with the right technical knowledge without thinking of the rewards in terms of medals and success.
Anyone who has been to European countries that are dominant in the world of sports can attest that the basic standard of play even among recreational players is quite high. Most of them may not go on to make a career in sport but are taught the basics of the sport in the right manner in school or by community elders. In fact, playing and watching sports is part of their social life.
I have come across many parents who complain about their kids being addicted to the screen. But none of them had ever tried to introduce their children to play a sport and the argument most of the time is they aren’t going to make a career out of it, so why bother.
One wonders how do they know? Someone like Chopra came to the athletics ground because his family members felt that he needed some activity to lose weight. It’s a different matter that he is the pride of the nation now.
It’s been a week since curtains were drawn on the Tokyo Olympics. The corporate world has jumped on the bandwagon of publicity to announce prizes to the medal winners or those who were close to winning one.
The euphoria will soon die down and we will probably again oscillate between the emotions mentioned at the start of this article depending on how the results pan out at 2024 Paris Olympics.
And even if our elite athletes manage to improve on their Tokyo showing in Paris three years from now, we can’t boast of a sports culture unless we start at the very bottom and work upwards.
Abhijeet Kulkarni is an author and former Scroll.in journalist who has also worked regularly with NGOs that focus on the grassroots level.