A country of a billion people.

Come the Olympics or any other major sporting event, Indians are suddenly reminded of the fact that they are a country of a billion people; a billion people with almost no athletic sporting legacy; a billion people with not a hope in hell.

It is a statement that rankles every sports follower in the country. Some blame the system, some the athletes, some the administrators and some the Indian genes. But at the end of the day, everyone wonders if there is a way to move forward. The Field is kicking off a series of interviews with coaches, administrators, NGOs, foreign consultants, and athletes in a bid to get a clear picture of the way ahead for Indian sports.

We start with Abhinav Bindra, India’s sole individual Olympic gold medallist. In a free-wheeling interview, the now-retired shooter speaks about the way forward, the systems that need to be put in place and how India could probably one day become a sporting superpower.


What do you think is the basic foundation that India would need to become a sporting nation?

First we need to identify what we are looking at. Do we want to become a sporting nation? It may be your idea. It may be my idea. But what does the State want? What are the challenges within our country? We have a lot of issues with various things but we need to clearly define if Olympic sports are a priority. Is it important to us? If, and I am, saying IF, it is important to us, then we need to invest in it. We need to have patience and we need to invest long term. But it all starts by saying that this is crucial to us because it helps portray ourselves as a soft power. First, we need to decide – yes or no. I think there is a huge amount of confusion in the minds of every one in India… primarily because we wake up to Olympic sports once in four years. There is interest from the media. There is interest from the people. Then, we don’t get the results we are required to get. There is disappointment. There is negativity and then, it goes quiet. But first we need to define whether this is important to us. It all starts from there. I think we don’t have clarity. I think as a country we don’t have clarity. I think as a government we don’t have clarity.

If we think that giving people an education, shelter, drinking water and jobs is our priority and sports isn’t something that we are ready for right now… fair enough, it’s okay – and we should be okay with winning one ir two medals in the Olympics, celebrate them and be satisfied with them. But it all starts with clarity of thought. If there is no clarity of thought, there cannot be purpose.

Does the government really do nothing? From an athlete’s perspective, what kind of professionalism do we need to excel in sports?

Firstly, the government is a 95% or 98% or 99% supporter of Olympic sports in India. So I do not say that the government does nothing because the only support that comes thus far is from the government. The extent of support can be talked about but to say that the government does nothing is an incorrect statement.

In terms of professionalism coming in – of course, we need professionalism in the day-to-day running of sport. It has a direct influence on the athlete’s career. I think in India we have several good schemes but they are good only on paper – what need to change in the implementation of all these schemes, these ideas and these thoughts and that is something that needs work on. That will only happen when we start to get professionalism into the game. Once you get a professional in, you can make him accountable. Then, the system starts to work and it has a huge impact on athlete’s career. And that is one of the several parameter’s that need to work. An athlete’s career is like a spine… if one of the vertebrae are out of sync, the rest don’t function as well. It all has to fall in place.

India tends to do well in juniors but by the time, the same athlete comes to the senior levels, performance tapers off…

Indians tend to be very hard-working, we are a hard-working community. Our work ethic is generally very good and I believe that is one of the main reasons we do so well in juniors. But what is not there is a good foundation. The physical and technical foundation is very, very poor in every sport. You can work hard and compensate for all this but it isn’t sustainable. Yes, we have very good results at the junior level but the transition to the elite level where the transition gap is only 5-10% is probably the hardest part. And that is where we lose 90% of our athletes if not more. This can only change if we set some good grassroot-level programmes to ensure a good base for the athletes. That’s why in the West, athletes take longer to come to a higher level but when they do, they can sustain it. And they can do that because they primarily spend a good amount of time cementing a good foundation.

But then do we need to change the way we support the juniors?

It’s not a question of support at the junior level. I think we need to get more people to play first. Pick any sport and you realise that we need a lot more athletes; a lot more depth. And the people taking part at that basic level need to be taught right. I think that is what is important. It is not about picking a few athletes and supporting them. The whole system has to be in such a way that in ensures the right things reach a huge number of people.

Abhinav Bindra with his Olympic gold medal. Image Credit: Desmond Boylan / Reuters

So does that mean when we go about selecting an athlete, we are not really picking from the best available talent?

Yeah, I think for sure. The numbers are low, given the size of the country from what we pick. But then again, we have to see what numbers actually get the support needed to reach a certain level. A billion people but how many play? And how many are actually involved in a serious sporting activity and are willing to dedicate 15 years of their life to find sporting success? I think the number will be very less.

What are the differences between athletes who train in India against someone who trains abroad?

So many things… for starters, you need to look at malnutrition in this country. If you do blood tests, a majority of them will have poor hemoglobin levels, they would be malnutritioned. You need to give them an environment to excel at sports. The basics are weak. The basic starting point of your raw material lacks in certain aspects. You also have to see what socio-economic backgrounds people are coming from and you might find that when it comes to Olympic sports, there are not too many people from urban cities who are putting in the time and energy to succeed. You base will still be from smaller centres where they look at sport as a medium to a better life. They are the ones who will put 20 years in sport.

If money were no object, what kind of facilities would we need to get people to come out and play?

Basic infrastructure is very, very important. You have to have know-how and many other things. For now, we need to make do with what we have and oil that machinery well so that it works smoothly. Right now, we have machinery but it just doesn’t work, it stutters all the time. So that would be a good start for me.

I think what we should do – we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are lots of people who are good at this, they have the technical expertise to do it. Hire one of the best consultancy firms in the world; get them to draw up a system that works for India (inputs from different stakeholders in the Indian system have to be taken into consideration). They will not come for cheap but you can hire them and tell them to draw up a holistic plan for grassroots or elite levels. I think that is an interesting start rather than making one committee after another to look for answers. Maybe that is the nice way forward.

You were an outlier – you went out of the country trained, got your own coach, succeeded. Are you sometimes surprised that there haven’t been more such outliers?

There are financial implications to it but that is just one aspect to it. I think the person who has the ability to spend a considerable amount of resources will also need to have that deep fire within himself or herself to give 20 years of your life to amateur sport that may not given them anything back in terms of financial gains. Because generally for people who have these resources available, the first question is “what is the ROI?”

There is no ROI in this. So you have to be a little stupid or maybe not stupid… you have to think differently. Your goals in life have to be different. I mean, how many people would you find. Forget everything else, how many people with resources can put 20 years in sport? Money can help clear the way but money can’t buy you the gold medal. You have to do this full-time.

In sport, 90% of the time, you will have a loss, you will lose face… 10% of the time you will have something positive. That is the nature of sport.

So do we need a better system in place for athletes who fail, so that more may take the risk?

The answer cannot be to have a pension scheme for every athletes. Maybe certain oil-rich nations can do that but can India really afford to do that? The Olympic success of the United States is built on their Collegiate system – they have a lot of infrastructure in place and while it is tougher, it still gives them a chance at life after sport.

Do we need to change the athlete-centric approach to a system-centric one?

You have to support the system. The TOPS scheme is not going to be enough, it is just an add-on. It can help some athletes but if you think it is the solution, then there is a problem. If you already have a system and then add the TOPS scheme on top of that, then we have something that works. For example, say six athletes are medal ready for 2020 – surely, we can also support six athletes while focusing on the system. It is also a complex question in that it makes very good sense but how do you implement it.

But then we do have systems in place…

We do but we need a huge amount of will – political as well as financial to make this work. You need to have good coaches, you need to have enough coaches. You need to not have slab for domestic coaches. Why would somebody become a coach if he gets paid Rs 40,000 when a C grade coach from a former Soviet republic can easily get $8000. Why would anyone want the job then? China, for example, hired a lot of top foreign coaches in the 1980s but they hardly hire any now. You have to have a parallel program to train coaches. The big point is that for us to be successful, we have to empower our own people. Yes, foreign coaches are perhaps the need of the hour but if you want your 20 medals in 2028, then we need to look further.

Do we need to plan the career of our athletes better?

I don’t think there is a plan. Who plans? Who nurtures the athlete? Who supports the athlete make a plan? We have a champion junior javelin thrower but has anyone had a sit-down with him and talked about his future plans? Most of time, the athlete has to do it for himself. And that can’t be good.

Are Indian athletes driven enough to succeed in the cut-throat world of sports? Are we mentally ready?

I am not a big fan of this mental bullshit. I was not a competitive person but I somehow managed to succeed. You require a will to succeed. That is the base of everything. You have to have that fire within. Of course, you have to have the mental fortitude but it will always be a combination of your technical skills and if you are not technically strong, you will always fall apart. Physically, if you are weak, you will fall apart. So the mental part is very, very important but it is at the end. If you get everything else together, then it matters. If you go to an Olympic final, everybody is a mental wreck. You think someone looks cool and all but from within they are struggling. And I have spoken to the best athletes across sports. But what gets you together is that strong foundation in technique and physique. The mind can’t compensate those two aspects.

We have had athletes who have gone to the Olympics and succumbed to the pressure…

See, the Olympics require different skills. That’s where your plan really needs to come into play. You need to have a plan about how to be in the top shape at that particular point of time. What you might have done in the past has absolutely no value… zero. It makes no difference. The Olympic Games are always going to be a special competition. When the whole world is watching, it is just a different aura; a different atmosphere and you just have to be the best on that day. To win the World Cups is something different – you have four in the year. But at the Olympics, it’s that one percent which makes all the difference. The chance comes along once every four years. Either you are there just as a tourist to uphold the Olympic values or you want to be somewhat competitive and your fight is that one percent.

How does one peak at the right time though – can a junior athlete learn to do that?

For me, it was different. I only cared about the Olympics. The rest of it didn’t matter. I was always working long-term. For many athletes, it is about going from one tournament to another. For me, that was never the case. When you are trying to improve, your graph will go down first and then slowly pickup and go higher than your previous peak. But for you to allow things to go down, you need to have a certain understanding about yourself. And the system needs to understand that. I don’t blame our athletes because the system doesn’t allow you time off. There is one selection trial after another. So, many times it is not in the hands of the athlete. Many times it also depends on the expertise that you have available and what they are suggesting to you. All our athletes should be working to improve and forget about results for a year. If you improve, it doesn’t translate into performance right away but it will get you results in the long-term. Still, we – as a nation – are stuck in the short-term for now.

Part II: P Gopichand on why we need coaches and not just stadiums
Part III: Viren Rasquinha on the challenges of getting funding for Indian athletes