Sports consultant Steven Roush, former chief of sport performance for the United States Olympic Committee, is the man people call when they want to set their systems in order.

On Roush’s watch – he was with the USOC from 2003 to 2009 – the United States won 102 medals in Athens (2004), 25 in Turin (a record for an American team in a Winter Olympics not held on home turf) and 110 in Beijing (2008). He played a crucial role in keeping them ahead of the curve. For the three years before that, he worked as sports partnership director. Before coming to the USOC, Roush was also a top executive at USA Swimming for six years.

Roush was widely considered one of the most active advocates of athletes in the American Olympic movement. In the six years leading to the Beijing Olympics, he made more than two dozen trips to China to ensure optimal conditions – everything from living quarters, to the food they ate, to their training facilities. He did the same thing for the athletes when they trained at home.

When Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Brazil (ahead of Rio) and other countries wanted to get better, they called Roush. They called him because they wanted someone to give them a low-down of where they really stand. And that is something Roush is good at doing.

Roush, who now works for TSE consulting, has visited India a few times and had the opportunity to look at and evaluate the facilities. In part V of our series on Indian sport, The Field caught up with him to understand how the world views India.

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
Part III: Viren Rasquinha on the challenges of getting funding for Indian athletes
Part IV: Director General of Sports Authority of India Injeti Srinivas on why we have a system that just doesn’t work


To a person on the outside, what does India represent?

I think my sense of India is that it is a diamond in the rough. There is so much untapped potential that if they can find a way to polish it, they will go far. They have a massive population and if they can improve their systems, they will get the results. If they can’t, they will keep depending on outliers and that isn’t the way to get consistent success. But if they can, India is ripe to be the next country to make a huge impact in the Olympics.

But how do you put a system in place for a country as large and diverse as India?

I think a three-pronged approach is the need of the hour.

1. Give an additional level of assistance to sports that are already above the others. These are sports that India is already doing well in and help them develop at an elite level. These are the sports that will get you the medals. These are the sports that will build interest.

2. Look at sports that have a strong interest in India and pump in money and facilities at the grassroots and junior level. The idea being to increase the number of athletes you have in the pipeline. You want to encourage youngsters to come through and give them the means to.

3. Finally, the third aspect of this approach would be to emphasise participation. This is not limited to any particular sport. The whole idea is to get people to come out and play.

Given that you have worked with a number of countries, how easy or difficult is it to implement such a system?

The key is commitment from the government and the Sports Authority of India. Development is not a short-term process. In India, you have to make it a priority if you want to get results. It has to be on the front-burner. You cannot take the foot off the pedal. There is no other way.

Everyone we have spoken to has talked about the need of professionalism. Now, what does that mean?

I agree with the assessment. It is absolutely critical to put a professional, transparent system in place. That is the only way the systems that are put in place will have long-term sustainability. You have to put people in charge; people who will be directly responsible to ensure that the system works. But you need to professionalise not just the administration, the management and the coaches but also the athletes. Professionalism has to come in at every level and everyone needs to keep their end of the deal.

Does a revolution like this come cheap? Rather, how expensive would this be?

In my experience, it is not cheap. But then again, it is not like India isn’t spending already. I have been around India and I have seen that a lot of resources are being spent but they are not being spent impactfully. In that sense, they are a bit of a waste. But you need to invest to put systems in place. China did that too, as did Britain. India would not be alone in that sense. You have to be thinking of what the ultimate goal is and whether you really want that glory.

But in India, it is perhaps difficult to prioritise sport over education or water or even electricity. It is a difficult decision given that the government already puts in around 85-90% of the funds.

That is another reason why you need to be professional and have systems in place. Once you do that it becomes easier to attract sponsors and donors. They will now be able to know what exactly they are getting for their money. It means that you will perhaps in time be generating your own revenue. Associations need to go out and find their sponsors but no one is going to come on board unless they know what they are getting into. You have to figure how to sell your sport. You have to figure out how to sell the athlete.

If the associations can do that then they would be free to implement various programmes without being over-reliant on the government and that places the fate of each sport in it’s own hands. Just ‘running’ a sport is not good enough.

Since you have been around India and the world, what is the difference in the way sport is pursued in India and other countries such as the US, Russia and Singapore?

A little bit of what I see is that I don’t see people being passionate about sport in India. In other countries, you will see the stands full even when the event isn’t of national or international quality. People turn up to watch even school sports. Here, we see empty stadiums and that is sad at times. There have been some initiatives like Khelo India but it needs to be pushed and kick started to life in a very real way. They need programs all over India. You need to give people the opportunity to play. You have to give them access to facilities because the attrition-rate in sports in very high. If everyone will take to sport, it will mean more people in the pipeline. More people in the pipeline will translate to better quality among the athletes who make it through.

The other difference is that at a very young age, people in the US are not asked to choose between life, school and sport. There is a balance. Schools help out. Colleges help out. You don’t have to pick between the two. It is not a choice you have to make. Sport has to be as respected as academia.

Then again, what works for the US – may not work for India.

I have clients who come to me and ask me to do for them what I did for the US and I say that it won’t work. It is a recipe for disaster. Each country is unique and has it’s unique challenges. These are things that need to be taken into account. But, not doing anything won’t help either. In the next two to three years, India needs to change everything. They need to show a sense of urgency. It is long-term but the plans have to be put in place now.

What does long-term really mean? Are we talking 5 years or 10 years or 20 years?

As I said, the challenges for each country are unique. When Singapore decided to focus on sport, they came up with a Vision 2030 – it was their sports master plan and it’s mandate goes beyond winning medals. Sport Singapore uses sport to create greater sporting opportunities and access, more inclusivity and integration as well as broader development of capabilities. This is about having a long-term legacy... about giving something back to the nation.

Finally, is there a need to market our athletes better?

Athletes are the key. When Joseph Schooling won the 100m Butterfly at the 2016 Rio Olympics [beating Michael Phelps], he became an instant hero. All of Singapore took pride in his achievement. Similarly, when Abhinav Bindra won the gold in Beijing, did you not feel immense pride? Do you still not feel proud? India should have gone all guns blazing in their efforts to showcase the qualities that helped him become champion. You talk about his will to win. You talk about his dedication. You talk about the mindset. All of this with a simple goal in mind: to inspire more people to take up shooting. By now, you should have had a lot more shooters and many more champions.

Perhaps, India needs to reinvent the wheel. They need to look at parts of the system and see what is working and what isn’t working. And then discard whatever isn’t. In that, they need to take white board approach.

Catch the first four part of The Field’s interview series here:

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
Part III: Viren Rasquinha on the challenges of getting funding for Indian athletes
Part IV: Director General of Sports Authority of India Injeti Srinivas on why we have a system that just doesn’t work

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