When the case of a Commonwealth Games gold medallist shooter came up for discussion for Target Olympic Podium scheme support at the Mission Olympic Cell meeting a few months earlier, there were a few heated arguments for and against the player’s inclusion before numbers came to everyone’s rescue.
The research team put forth extensive data on the past performances of the shooter, including the best performances of the past six years and how the standard needs to be raised slightly higher to even make it to the final at Tokyo Olympics. It was then decided to put the shooter in the watchlist and convey the details to the player as well.
“The idea behind the data analysis and setting standards is to ensure that there is no ambiguity in the selection process of athletes for the TOPS scheme,” explains Commander Rajesh Rajagopalan, Chief Executive Officer Target Olympic Podium Scheme.
“I come from a research background and we have built our own system of data crunching and analysis which we are sharing with the federations and the players,” he said adding that the right way forward was to pick talent not just on intuition but with proper data analysis.
Rajagopalan, who first joined Sports Authority of India as a consultant on management of elite athletes, has now built a team of researchers and athlete managers who not only generate and monitor the data but also stay in touch with the players to set short and long term goals.
“I am happy that federations and even the players are buying into our analysis and have been requesting us to share the same with their coaches,” he said, adding the idea is to move from quantitative to qualitative data analysis over the next few years.
The current system follows the mechanism of analysing performance data of Indian players against the world’s top eight performances in the last seven years to map the average standard, high performance age in particular disciplines and then setting a bench mark for selecting players under the scheme after taking qualitative feedback from coaches and federations.
The MOC has pointed at this data to keep out even the likes of former Olympic medallists Gagan Narang and wrestler Sushil Kumar among others.
The same procedure is followed for players picked for developmental group with their performance standards tabulated against the standards of top performances at every age-group stage and athletes with 3-5% deviation from the top performers are picked for additional support.
It is this data that has prompted the MOC to pick a few young swimmers and cyclists in the developmental group despite the two sports not really been considered as medal prospects in global competitions. “We want to take them in our fold now so that they can get all the support their international competitors are getting,” said Rajagopalan.
But given allegations of rampant age fudging in age-group sports in India, how authentic can this performance data be? “We understand that problem. And that is why age verification is being taken up very seriously under the Khelo India programme,” he said, adding they are also looking at the project to provide them with India centric normative data that can be used for future references.
As things stands now, there are 72 players, including 18 para-athletes, in the core group for 2020 Olympics and 22 in developmental squad and the Sports Authority of India has allocated a budget of approximately Rs 100 crore till 2020 Olympics.
It is not that the whole exercise is without its detractors. Most of them insist that the analysis isn’t foolproof but no one can deny that it is providing a foundation that Indian sports can build on.