At the grassroot levels of Indian sports, the ground realities threaten to become a travesty, if it hasn’t already become that. India is running towards a sorry state of affairs as we complete one year since the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

The story of a well-intentioned initiative called the Hockey Village India Foundation, lays bare what Indian sports lack at the grassroots. But to put it in cold print, what is it actually that lacks?

1. Money? Indeed. 2. Effort? Of course. 3. Infrastructure? Definitely. 4. Good intentions? Mostly yes. 5. Understanding its importance? You bet. Yet, even when a well-wisher is willing to put in all that voluntarily, we coup, threaten and thwart.

A clash of cultures

HVI, a registered German association with a sister NGO in India, has been trying to promote “sports & education for a better future” since 2010 in Rajasthan. However, twice now in seven years, HVI – with its founder and former German hockey player and coach Andrea Thumshirn at the helm – has been forced and harassed to start from scratch.

First in the Garh Himmat Singh village of district Dausa and then, eight kilometres away in Jatwara, two of Thumshirn’s projects had to bite the dust. After enrolling more than 100 boys and girls at two schools in these villages, HVI was duped, threatened and finally pushed out by villagers, sweet-talked into conniving against Andrea around accusations of introducing western culture among children.

Former German player and coach Andrea Thumshirn has been trying to promote “sports & education for a better future” since 2010 in Rajasthan. (Image credit: Hockey Village India)

By then, HVI had bought a land in Jatwara and even prepared the foundation to lay an old astro-turf it had exported from Germany. But as fate would have it, Andrea was hoodwinked in a land-purchase deal and then had to seek police intervention to get it registered in their name. Appalled by the ill-intentions of locals and the lack of understanding of the villagers who stopped sending their kids for hockey and also tore the unlaid astro-turf to use as carpets at home, Andrea has now packed her bags and is looking southward to Coorg, Karnataka, that has produced many hockey players.

“I tried to be not angry,” a dismayed Andrea said talking to The Field. “I don’t know if people really understand what they did was wrong. It was a clash of cultures that could not be any bigger.”

Andrea and HVI have already left Rajasthan for Karnataka via road – a three-day truck ride from Jatwara to Theralu in south Coorg, which she has earmarked as her next home. En route, she didn’t miss reminiscing the good things – the exchange programme under which many kids travelled to Germany, 12 girls getting selected for the district team and of course, bringing girls out of their homes to study and play.

“Looking back, I think I managed to do a lot of things despite the hurdles. I never gave up. Probably at a different place (than Dausa), I could have managed more with local support. I knew it was going to be difficult, but the mindset of the people was very narrow,” she said.

(Image credit: Hockey Village India)

Sports culture is still an elite philosophy in India

In terms of situation at the micro level, Andrea hits the nail on the head. Sport as a culture is still an elite philosophy in India. But at every level, it’s actually being confused between playing sports and playing for India. These are two entirely different things.

Where we are mistaken is that we encourage kids to play for India. The objective instead should be to encourage getting out of homes and play. Eventually, the kids will pick up a sport and if they are good at it, they will go up the ranks, and an India call will come. But it should not be the reason to play.

"The objective instead should be to encourage getting out of homes and play".

“I learnt during my research that there is hardly anything happening in India (at the grassroots). If kids are playing, they don’t have proper coaching or infrastructure. I wanted to give all that, generating funds from outside India. Of course, I got Rs 2 lakh aid from Hockey India. I am really thankful to Dr Narinder Batra for that, but the majority of funds were raised out of Germany through people and corporates I know,” the HVI founder said.

India’s inconsistent performance in Olympic sports cannot squarely be blamed on the players unless the supply chain at the bottom deploys the correct means and machinery. That doesn’t mean ramping up the administration, but the actual requirements in terms of educating the coaches, more playing fields and sincere effort.

‘Grassroot level is almost non-existent’

“You need to teach at the right level, which is not mistake of the child but the coach. During my stay here, I have seen coaches sitting and sipping chai, while the kids are just left to play by themselves. In terms of equipment for village kids, I procured second-hand sticks and goalkeeper kits from Germany for my players, but it was still better than any other team in the tournaments they played. The grassroot level is almost non-existent and the kids are selected too late. It has to start at the age of 8 to 10,” opined the HVI founder.

She added, “I think the main focus should be kids and coach should have fun, only then you can be successful. Not everybody will play for India. The first approach should be that sport is an addition to school education. It teaches you values of being together and to be each other’s strength than competition. Education can give you a good career but if combined with sports, it will give you a better and healthy life. That’s what I intended to do in Rajasthan and will hopefully be able to do in Coorg”.

The message HVI and Andrea’s story sends out is loud and clear. While a lot of work may be on to improve grassroot-level sports in India, it needs continued attention, supervision, infrastructure, upgrading and promotion. With this kind of course correction and allowing people with right intentions do the good work, India will eventually produce Olympic winners and not just Olympians.