For the first time since the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games, the Balewadi stadium in Pune was decked up for a multi-discipline sports event.
The city was lined up with hoardings for the Khelo India Youth Games; Star Sports was broadcasting over eight hours of live action daily from January 9-20 and 6000 athletes across 18 disciplines got a taste of what participating in international competitions can feel like; 27 states and two Union Territories were represented on the medal podium; more than 1000 athletes were scouted and given scholarships for further training so that they can hopefully win medals for the country at the Asian and world stage.
With everyone from the Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore to Olympians like Gagan Narang and MC Mary Kom tweeting and gushing about its success, the impression of how these games could change the Indian sports landscape is very well created.
So far so good.
But see past the larger than life picture and one wonders what the two editions of the Khelo India games have truly achieved.
Is development happening at the grassroots level?
The aim of the Khelo India project as stated on the website is ‘to revive the sports culture in India at the grass-root level by building a strong framework for all sports played in our country and establish India as a great sporting nation.’
For this to be achieved, the program has to look beyond elite athletes who have already been identified by federations and are competing at the national or even the international stage. And after two editions of the Khelo India games, it is clear that this isn’t happening.
For starters, the Khelo India games have been nothing more than a national-level invitational meet for under-17 and under-21 athletes who have already been making a mark for the last couple of years and are just getting a bigger platform in terms of visibility.
For the likes of Manu Bhaker, Mehuli Ghosh (shooting), Muskan Kirar (archery) and many others, who have already represented India and won medals at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, the event has no value.
The real need of the hour is to broadbase the process of identifying athletes by creating a pyramid structure which spots raw talent and then helping them level-up.
But when Sports Authority of India Director General Neelam Kapur was asked during an informal media interaction about the plans to create a mechanism that can produce a supply-line of young talent, she expressed her helplessness by saying that sport was primarily a State subject and it was the responsibility of the respective state governments to invest at the grassroot level.
The SAI Director General’s response, when you read between the lines, makes the Khelo India initiative feel like a public relations exercise. As it stands, it is just another competition along with the national meets organised by School Games Federation of India and the respective sports federations. Indeed, one might even question the extravagant expenditure on the entire exercise.
Focus has to be on school sports
The Sports Authority of India only had to look at the Gujarat model of tournament-based sports development program where competitions begin at the taluka and district levels. The athletes win their way to finally compete in the state meet, which has all the fanfare and glamour required.
And winners are provided financial assistance for training at every level and it increases as they start performing at the national and international level.
For Khelo India to achieve its stated goal, the focus has to shift from being an inter-state invitational competition to a truly inter-school, inter-university competition by merging the School Games Federation of India and All India Universities competitions.
This would also make the schools, colleges and universities equal partners in the program, thereby encouraging them to invest in sports infrastructure and development of players, something the current structure of SGFI and AIU has failed to achieve.
The other area the that Khelo India program needs to look at is grassroot-coaching. According to the current structure of the scholarship offered to around 1500 athletes following the first Khelo India School Games in New Delhi, the selected athletes need to join the Khelo India accredited academies to avail the benefits of the program.
There is little doubt that these finishing schools with better infrastructure and big-name coaches can catapult an athlete from a potential talent to an international medallist. But one must not forget that most of the talent in India is identified and nurtured at the grassroots level by individual coaches with little or no infrastructure support.
These are the men and women who have an eye for talent and lay the foundation of a successful sports career. In top sporting nations likes the United States or Australia, these coaches are the backbone of the system.
However, the current Khelo India system means that these coaches are left in the lurch when their top athletes are sent to train at other academies where they may or may not get the same kind of attention that they were getting at their own centers.
If we look at the career of most top athletes, their connect with their grassroots coach remains strong. And that is why for the Khelo India project to succeed, there has to be a mechanism to rope in these coaches or provide them with better facilities and advanced training.
Failing which, Khelo India will just remain a big-ticket PR exercise which, like many other government schemes focus on star athletes who are already getting benefits of the system, while the real goal of unearthing uncut diamonds goes unfulfilled.