As Malvika Bansod of Maharashtra squared off against Chattisgarh’s Aakarshi Kashyap in the girls’ final of the Khelo India School Games badminton singles tournament, giant screens with the words ‘Hotstar’ displayed on them, showed the match throughout the arena.

The crowd, filled with mostly volunteers and participants were cheering as both competitors, well-known in the domestic circuit, were engaged in a thrilling first game. Eventually, it was the Nagpur-based Bansod who edged out her opponent from Durg in straight games, winning 21-12 21-10.

Maharashtra vs Chhattisgarh Girls Single Badminton Final. Image Credit. AFP

Bansod won the gold, followed by Maisnam Meiraba Luwang of Manipur, who emerged triumphant in the boys’ section as the first edition of the KISG came to an end. Re-packaged from older schemes, television coverage of the Games added the glam factor, as older sporting legends saluted the initiative, despite the teething troubles.

Better than expected?

Some, like Sydney Games medallist Karnam Malleshwari said she were impressed with the depth of talent available, “When I was young, if you had told me I was going to be on television, I would have worked extra hard. Talent in weightlifting at the junior level is present, and it surpassed my expectations. If these children are given the right opportunities, they will most certainly become champions.”

Renowned boxing coach GS Sandhu spoke about the importance of the platform, “We have a fine pool and now with the likes of Vijender and others becoming idols for youngsters, a platform like Khelo India School games is just what we needed to unearth talent from the early stages. The presence of sport on TV and the benefits that are coming their way, it is not only youngsters but also their parents, who are looking at sport as a great career opportunity.”

The final medal tally

Others like footballers Oinam Bembem Devi and IM Vijayan, hockey player Jagbir Singh, multiple time world champion in weightlifting Kunjarani Devi, basketball players Divya and Prashanti Singh were also present on the occasion as they were sifted into several committees, the two prominent ones being the Screening Committee and the Talent Identification Committee (TIDC).

A member of the TIDC stated that only those with prior coaching experiences were allowed onto the Screening Committee while others with significant playing time at the national and international level were placed on the TIDC.

Of the 1000 athletes to be given the Rs 5 lakh scholarship, 562 will be selected from the Games themselves with 438 to be picked from various centres and sporting hotbeds across the country. Insiders also said the entire amount of the scholarship wouldn’t be transferred to the athlete, with 1.5 lakh being direct transferred with the rest available for reimbursement or expenses on gear, training etc.

The TV star

All competitors who were present at the venues were buoyed by the fact that their efforts would be telecast on television. Participants-turned-spectators kept pointing to TV screens with giddy excitement as the mother of a medallist, herself an ex-badminton player, not wishing to be identified said, “When we were young, it was at best, on DD Sports with their two-camera projection. It’s much better to witness this on a proper channel.”

The tournament’s shifting to February though didn’t help the turnout as many students this time around decided to skip the Games due to the fast-approaching board examinations. But as an insider who was involved with the selections stated, “Only 0.1% of those absent were due to the boards. In some cases, there was a miscommunication between the School Games Federation of India (SGFI) and the national sports federations (NSF) over who to pick.”

While the rule of thumb stated that 50% of the picks would go to the SGFI, and the remaining would be split between the NSF’s and wildcard entries, inconsistency in the selection procedures meant that most events witnessed absentees.

Rajeev Bhatia, general secretary of the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) stated that the NRAI themselves had picked the remaining wildcards while in boxing, same names were present on both the SGFI and NSF lists leading to some empty spots.

With the 42-kg category in boys wrestling witnessing only three entries, the Wrestling Federation of India raised objections, stating that some of their entries had not been taken into account, blaming the SGFI instead.

Long term plans

The shifting of the Games also meant that while some NSF’s prepared a fresh list of eligible candidates, others did not. One of the co-ordinators on the Khelo India committee explained that the change in year did not matter as these were considered the 2017 Games.

Delhi’s pollution had earlier caused these games to be shifted to a more acceptable date and the Sports Ministry may look at alternate locations with a November-December date in mind for the next edition.

The number of sports is also set to go up from 16, while the sports which received eight entries may be set for a bump-up in spots. Earlier, sports minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore had stated that the athletes who missed out may be allowed into the College Games, which seems to be the next Khelo India event on the horizon.

Despite the teething troubles, the aspirational value of a tournament at the School level has never been higher. It remains to be seen though, what the long-term plans for these athletes are and whether those can be successfully implemented.