In India, it has often been said that an athlete succeeds despite the system. It essentially alludes to the fact that almost everything in the Indian system (from officials to coaches) works to bring the athlete down. There are times when things come together for deserving athletes, but mostly that happens more by chance rather than by plan.

It was precisely to help the athletes make the most of the existing system that former India hockey skipper Viren Rasquinha joined Olympic Gold Quest. His goal was to free athletes from having to think about anything other than their sport itself. They were the go-between.

Since 2009, Rasquinha has been CEO of OGQ and he has had a fair degree of success too. In the past two Olympics (London 2012 and Rio 2016), India won eight individual medals. Five of those were won by athletes supported by OGQ: Gagan Narang and Vijay Kumar (shooting), Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu (badminton), and Mary Kom (boxing).

Still, it isn’t enough. In part III of The Field’s series on Indian sport, Rasquinha speaks about the challenges of supporting athletes and why we are still five steps behind the rest of the world.

Part I: Abhinav Bindra on the need to hire experts rather than making one committee after another
Part II: P Gopichand on why we need coaches and not just stadiums

The Gagan Narang Sports Promotion Foundation and Olympic Gold Quest recently launched an ambitious program – Project Leap – to create a robust system that can help them monitor the training of selected shooters across the country. It marks a move from an individual-led strategy to one that process-led.

I think it is a natural progression as we are scaling up. It is a conscious strategy because we want to be support those places where there is an environment that is conducive to excellence and getting the right kind of results. This is also about being able to give these athletes what we never had as players ourselves. Or, we’ll only be depending on outliers or some individual brilliance here or there and our medals will only be single digit, which is what we have been doing anyway. That is why strong processes are the need of the hour.

Talking of processes, what kind of process would help in transition from juniors to seniors?

The phase between 18-23 is the toughest phase. You have to be very careful as they are neither juniors nor are they taken into the seniors. And I think Kidambi Srikanth is the best example. When OGQ started researching him, he was around 16-17 and there was a bunch of players who were very good. And at that time, when we took the decision to support Sai Praneeth and PV Sindhu, Sai was better than Srikanth at that time. In fact, Srikanth was more of a doubles player then. At that point of time, no data showed that Srikanth would be what he is today. But patience pays and today he is one of the top players in the country and close to being one of the top players in the world. This transition is difficult and you can never predict how things will turn out. But if you have the right processes in place, you have a much better chance of producing results.

Is it important to identify certain sports that we want to excel in and give them all the necessary support?

We are already doing it in other sports in a small way. In shooting, we are doing it in a big way – 59 of the 77 athletes we support are shooters. We are supporting seven kids in the Mary Kom academy, six kids in the Sarita Devi academy, nine junior archers, three young boxers in the ASI (Army Sports Institute). At all these places we have got in foreign coaches – Charles Atkinson has already made one visit and is going to make another one soon. We have got in an Archery coach from South Korea for our junior archers, we have got in a wrestling coach who is now at Chhatrasal stadium coaching seven of our junior wrestlers.

Results. Does it all boil down to results at the end of the day?

Now, we have to be patient – we are not going to get results today or even tomorrow. But if you ask me how important results are for OGQ, I think they are very important because my a**e is on the line. If I have one more Olympics like Rio, funding will be extremely tough. It is very easy to say eight years and all that but if we don’t produce results in 2020, will we be able to get funds? I can’t say that for sure. Ideally I’d like 30% of my time with donors and 70% with athletes but frankly, it is the other way round.

Does having a process in place help with raising funds?

Well, having processes in place is fine. But everyone always says, ‘Rio main kya ho gaya?’ [What happened in Rio] It really is a chicken and egg situation. But the funding should not be totally reliant on results. It has to be something deeper.

For an organisation that is looking to assist athletes in making the most of the system, how does the foreign coaches vs Indian coaches argument play out?

One of the most important factors is to not only get the foreign coach but to also get them to train Indian coaches. We have seven foreign coaches for our 77 athletes. I am paying s**t loads of money to these coaches but right now, we don’t have a choice. In a couple of months, OGQ will also be launching a coaching excellence programme.

So clearly you have had time to see the foreign coaches at work. What makes them different from Indian coaches?

At Sushil Kumar’s academy… a 73-year-old Georgian – Vladimer Mestvirishvili (who was with Sports Authority of India earlier and has been in India for 15 years now) – has been contracted by OGQ. I sat through a three-hour training session, every three-four minutes he was demonstrating the grapples and the holds to the wrestlers himself, showing them the exact way of holding. I have sat through wrestling sessions for six years, I have never seen a single Indian coach do the same. What that fellow taught them in three hours, they would have not learnt in the last three years.

I understood the quality difference and really, how do we expect our kids to grow up and be competitive if they are not taught the right technical skills in extremely competitive sports? And right now, raw talent will only get us junior medals. Olympics? No chance. We are talking about the one percent, that sit right at the top.

But don’t we already have coaching certification programmes already in place?

Something is better than nothing but not if it is a National Institute of Sport (NIS) certification. It was a good certification programme 15 years back but it needs to get updated at the right time too. We have upgraded our cars and airplanes but why not the coaching certification too? We have recommended changes as part of the Olympic Task Force report but whether they get implemented or not… is not in our control. But as I said before, you have to have systems in place to select the right people.

The OTF has concentrated a lot on the coaching aspect including incentives, targetting players who have just retired – ensuring they get leave from their PSU jobs, paying them and so on. But at the end of the day, they are just recommendations.

Now, coming to the current system. Do we have the necessary checks and balances in place to ensure that an athlete gets the kind of exposure he needs?

No. There is still a lot to be done in every sport. One of the things is the right kind of competitions. See boxing, wrestling – in a physical sport they have two major championships a year and you can have one athlete take part in each weight category. So, the No 2, 3, 4 don’t even get to take part in an international competition. In this scenario, how are we supposed to monitor progress? Only in training? And in physical sports like boxing, hockey, wrestling – you have to play all year round to stay competitive or you lose your edge. So there are various issues we are grappling with. All we can monitor is training, training, training.

Charles Atkinson says (and I taking away all the abuse)… ‘your system is crap’. There are no tournaments – so how do we judge progress? Or gain confidence? For example, we do a lot of shadow training but training out of the ring and in it are two very different things that require a very different skill set too. So we need to learn all this and there is no one to tell us. There are such challenges in every sport. Today, I go across the length and breadth of the country and I am horrified [in hockey] to see coaches teaching our talented 15-year-olds, the same things that I learnt as a 15-year-old. That was 20 years back and the game has changed in leaps and bounds since then. But then again, what incentive does a coach have to upgrade his skills? They are paid Rs 30,000.

What about our knowledge of sports science? Given how scientifically the other athletes are training, are we even looking in that direction?

[Laughs] We lack in knowledge of supplements, weight control, the timing of losing weight, and all these things. These kids don’t understand all of that. All our gains of the last six months count for nothing because we don’t know how to prepare for the last seven days. At that level, you are talking about the one percenters. We are still a long way from educating our athletes. Right now, we don’t have the basics… we don’t have a physio to treat out injuries which are happening every day… how will we think of sports science or nutrition… we are five steps behind the rest.

And I am saying five steps based on what we saw in Rio. We don’t even know what new thing these top athletes are now using to get better. And that in a nutshell is the problem – by the time we catch up, they have already moved on.

Can we catch up by 2020?

See, it’s something we need to try. We can’t give excuses; we have to try our best.

So do we need to depend on outliers for 2020?

Systems will come in for 2024, 2028 onwards. But for 2020, I don’t think much is going to change. It will still be heavily reliant on exceptional talents. We have not changed anything at all between Rio and now. And it’s already been a year since Rio...

Next up: Director General of Sports Authority of India Injeti Srinivas on why we have a system that just doesn’t work

Also read:

Part I: Abhinav Bindra on the need to hire experts rather than making one committee after another
Part II: P Gopichand on why we need coaches and not just stadiums