2018 was a year of many firsts and records in Indian sport. While MC Mary Kom went on to win her sixth world title on home soil, teenagers like Sourabh Choudhary, Manu Bhaker, Anish Bhanwala and others took the shooting world by storm, winning medals at the Commonwealth and Asian Games and also at the ISSF World Cups.
On the cricket field, the Virat Kohli-led Indian side is on the brink of registering their first series win in Australia and the rise of Hima Das on the athletic track has made the world stand up and take notice of the talent that stormed to a World Under-20 Championship gold in what was her first full year on the international circuit.
Not to forget the exploits of Neeraj Chopra in Javelin Throw, success of Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat on the wrestling mat and the consistent performances of PV Sindhu which culminated in her winning the BWF World Tour Finals to sign off the year in style.
And the success of the Indian Table Tennis contingent at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. While India has been winning medals at the Commonwealth Games, the two bronze medals in Jakarta was one of the biggest success stories in Indian sports given the level of competition.
But none of the successes in sports come overnight and the seeds of the results — positive or negative — are always sown in the decisions or incidents that take place in the past.
For example, the rise of Das can be trailed back to two coaches in Assam identifying the raw talent of a girl in the local meets and India’s sprint coach Galina Bukharina making her shift from the 100 and 200 metre events to the 400 after she joined the national camp.
Similarly, the seeds of success for the Indian teenage shooters were sown about three years back when the National Rifle Association of India launched its junior program under Indian coaches Jaspal Rana and Deepali Deshpande and their efforts finally bore fruit in 2018.
Here is a look at a few decisions or incidents which could shape the direction Indian sports could take in the coming years.
Khelo India School Games
Opinions are clearly divided on the need for the Khelo India School Games (KISG) given that the School Games Federation of India (SGFI) and the National Sports Federations have been conducting age group events for years now to identify and nurture talent. The idea behind KISG stems from the Gujarat Government’s Khel Mahakumbh experiment which over the years has managed to broaden the base of children taking up sport and nurturing sporting culture in the state.
The KISG, however, did not follow that model in the strictest sense and made it an event for elite athletes, raising questions about whether spending crores of rupees on yet another inter-school tournament was worth it.
The implementation and approach towards the program can be debated at length but there is no doubt that this is high time, the focus of Indian sports ministry and all stake holders shifted towards grassroot sports and nurturing talent from schools and junior colleges.
This year over 1500 students were selected under the talent identification scheme for support with almost two dozen academies identified for training of these selected athletes. The government also plans to support a few universities to create sports infrastructure in the coming years and hopefully build a robust school and college sports program that can consistently produce talent.
Ask any yesteryear’s sports star about their journey to the top and they would credit the Inter-University tournaments as their stomping ground. But over the years, the All India Universities — the parent body to conduct Inter University tournaments — has been in doldrums and the haphazard ways in which the SGFI and AIU have been conducting their meets, the structure definitely needs a overhaul.
One can only hope that KISG evolves over the years and actually contributes to talent development and nurturing sports culture at the school or college level, failing which a lot of money would just go down the drain.
Strategic partnerships in Shooting and Wrestling
One of the major criticism about the National Sports Federations have been their reluctance to turn professional and over-dependence on the sports ministry for funding. There is a long way to go for this to change and sports federations to be self sufficient, but the NRAI and Wrestling Federation of India have shown the way with their strategic partnerships.
The Wrestling Federation has signed a long term deal with the Tata group while the JSW Group has pledged support to the shooting federation till the 2024 Paris Olympics.
The direct financial support in these deals may not be exponential but the Wrestling Federation has already introduced a Central Contract system on the lines of the Indian Cricket Board while the shooting federation plans to utilise the money to pay the Indian coaches better remuneration, a move that they believe can help end India’s dependency on foreign experts in the next few years.
The Wrestling Federation which has been struggling to convince the Sports Ministry about the need for hiring foreign coaches for over a year now, has decided to hire a few experts on their own thanks to the support from their corporate partners and the players believe that such a move could actually give them and the federation more freedom to choose coaches and support staff of their choice.
Constitution changes in Cricket and Archery
In all the muddle created by infighting between two Committee of Administrators appointed to implement the Lodha Committee reforms, the fact that BCCI’s new constitution has been made and cleared by the Supreme Court has been lost. According to the time line submitted by the CoA to the court, elections under the new constitution have to be held by March 2019 and though many state associations are resisting the change, they will sooner or later have to fall in line and implement the reforms if not in toto.
A similar exercise was undertaken in the Archery Association of India where Administrator S Y Quraishi conducted elections under the new constitution which he has drafted. The new constitution debars public servants from being part of the federation and gives a lot more representation to players.
The Indian Olympic Association and even the federation has decided to oppose the new constitution but if the Court puts its weight behind Quraishi’s draft, then it could change the face of Indian sports administration.
There are many in other federations who are waiting with baited breath to move the courts seeking change and over throw the incumbents, who have run the federations as their fiefdom for decades.
The popular theme in all these proposed reforms is a bigger role for former players in administration. The argument that players are best placed to run sports federations efficiently is flawed given the fact that administration is a completely different ball game and not all players are competent enough to handle the job.
Most of them who are currently in administration have little or no formal education in administration and are basically functioning at the whims and fancies of their political masters or are merely surviving on their stature as elite sportspersons.
Internationally, many sports federations are run by former athletes but almost all of them have gone back to academics at the end of their playing careers to complete management degrees and rise through the ranks. May be, the amended constitutions will inspire more sports persons in India to take that route.
Gourav Mukhi age-fraud controversy
Age fraud has been an open secret in Indian sports but most federation would prefer to bury their head in the sand and pretend that the problem doesn’t exist rather than take the bull by the horns and curb the menace.
Thanks to the sports ministry forcing their hand a few years ago, most of these federations have taken a few cosmetics steps like conducting random age verification tests but the results of which are hardly made public and the federations avoid taking any action against those found over age, hiding behind the argument that the results of the medical tests are not 100% correct.
But the social media outrage over Gourav Mukhi becoming the “youngest goalscorer” in the Indian Super League at 16 and the cognisance taken by the international media and hopefully by the international federations should be enough to wake the federations up from their slumber.
Over the last few years, as India has started performing on the international stage in age group tournaments, the chatter around the over age menace has been on the rise even internationally and the Mukhi controversy should be an indicator that in the age of social media and legally aware parents, they can’t just ignore the problem.
If the Mukhi case actually leads to a proper system of investigating age fraud and curbing the menace, Indian sports would be indebted to the Jamshedpur FC striker, who is difficult to miss with his trademark moustache that belies his registered age with the AIFF.
WADA calls NDTL’s bluff
The Indian anti-doping program came under scrutiny when the World Anti-Doping Agency decided to pick a considerable chunk of samples that were reported “negative” by the National Dope Testing Laboratory and over half a dozen of them came positive in retesting, including those of quartermile Nirmala Sheoran, middle distance runner Sanjivani Jadhav and others.
While the world body has the right to ask for any sample for retesting, what has surprised many is the number of samples WADA took for re-testing to their Montreal lab, clearly indicating lack of faith in the methods employed by the Indian lab.
There is a growing feeling that the National Anti Doping Agency has been far more lenient on top athletes in the past few years as they want to prove that doping incidents have reduced in India and a RTI by the Indian Express shows how the agency hardly tested the big names in the run up to the Asian Games.
But with WADA watching, NDTL runs the risk of losing its accreditation if it doesn’t get its house in order. Hopefully that would be a good enough incentive for NADA to get the anti-doping program back on track and for the federations and Sports Authority of India to educate the medical staff attached with the teams on how to tackle the menace.