When sprinter Dutee Chand put out a Facebook post expressing the intention to sell her BMW to raise funds for her training expenses for the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics, all hell expectedly broke loose. Social media was abuzz with comments on how the system always fails talented athletes with even some of the current and former players coming out in her support.
Soon after the story went public, the union sports ministry and Odisha government, both of whom have been supporting the athlete, swung into action and spoke to Chand following which she not only deleted the post but also clarified that she was struggling to maintain the car as she had two more vehicles in her garage.
However, the topic refused to die down, with the likes of tennis star Somdev Devvarman and doubles specialist Purav Raja demanding accountability from the government over the way the funds are spent with the latter refusing to believe that Chand had been getting ample support even after she issued a statement clarifying the issue.
Nobody can argue that the Indian sports ecosystem is perfect. In fact, reams have been written about the major systemic problems that exist and how champions have succeeded not because of the system but despite it.
But having worked with players at the grassroot level, one can definitely say that the system has improved exponentially and top athletes can’t really complain about the financial support they receive from the sports ministry.
Yes, every player always believes that they can do wonders with a little more support and there is nothing wrong in asking for more. In Chand’s case, she has been asking for support from the Target Olympic Podium scheme but has been left out by the authorities as she does not fit in the criteria they have laid out. One can always debate whether the criteria is right or wrong but there is a process that is being followed and it has been more or less followed for the selection of all players in TOPs.
But that does not mean that she hasn’t been supported by the sports ministry. The sprinter’s training abroad has been funded through the sports ministry’s Annual Calendar for Training and Competitions like the majority of Indian athletes, and she has additional support from the Odisha government for training in Bhubaneswar.
While the sports ministry has not yet spoken about the money it has spent on Chand, the Odisha sports department issued a statement with details about the money paid over the years, her salary as an employee of Odisha Mining Corporation and other incentives for training and competition.
On his part, sports minister Kiren Rijiju was quick to respond to the news story about the lack of funds by stating that he had spoken to Chand and hinted that the report was inaccurate, something even the athlete implied in her statement when she said that the media misinterpreted her language.
Over the years, many administrators have spoken about how the media jumps on any story about an athlete suffering without verifying the facts. Some of those complaints may have been true but the lack of transparency in the system is a big problem too.
However, the most disturbing issue in the entire Dutee Chand-BMW controversy is not that she wanted to make a point about needing more support or the media lapping up the story, but the statement she made after the Odisha government put out details of the money paid to her over the years.
Chand has not refuted the fact that she was paid the money but has claimed that the Rs 3 crore she got from the state government as prize money for her Asian Games medals cannot be termed as financial assistance.
It is true that the union and state governments came up with the policy of cash prizes to medal winners in major meets as an incentive and the amounts have been substantially increased over the years. Many sportspersons use that money to improve their lifestyle but to say that it should not be considered as part of financial assistance for training isn’t right.
Whoever decides to make a career in sports chooses it as their profession and isn’t being forced into the service of the nation, an argument most top athletes use when they say they are winning medals for the country.
Just like sportspersons, anyone starting a business or opting for any other vocation is contributing to the nation and deserves the profits and adulation for their efforts. But almost all of them will invest a sizeable percentage of those profits back into the system to further their careers and it should be no different for players.
The prize money they receive for their achievements is also an incentive for them to target bigger goals and therefore is a sort of financial assistance for their training.
Chand has said that she had run out of money as she was spending around Rs 5 lakh per month on her training and support staff. If one scrutinises this argument alone, she wouldn’t have spent even half of the prize money she got from the state and the union sports ministry, which pays Rs 20 lakh for an Asian Games silver. And mind you, prize money in the excess of Rs 3 crore is no small amount.
There will be some who will argue that why can’t the union sports ministry fund the training and other expenses of Chand like it does for other athletes. The simple answer is that the 24-year-old has chosen to train on her own in Bhubaneswar and not join the national camp like other athletes. This is the same system that is followed in many Asian countries where the government funds elite athletes. They have to either be at national camps or turn professional and fund themselves.
In Chand’s case, she has the liberty to train on her own while the government continues to fund her training and competitions abroad. Asian Games gold medallist shooter Rahi Sarnobat had been sailing in the same boat for the past few years as she hired exclusive services of Munkhbayar Dorsjuren for almost Rs 4 lakh per month.
The sports ministry made it clear to her that they cannot spend an exorbitant amount on fees of a coach for one shooter and would only pay for her travel expenses and allowances under TOPS when travelling abroad for training and competition. And the system worked perfectly fine with Sarnobat using the Rs 1 crore prize money she got from the Maharashtra government for winning the ISSF World Cup gold in 2013 and her other funds.
If you study sports ecosystems across the world, elite Indian athletes are among the privileged few who get near-complete financial support from the government. One remembers a conversation that took place between a European badminton player and a few Indian shuttlers at the Prakash Padukone Academy in Bangalore when our players started complaining about the lack of support from the government.
The player, who was the highest-ranked shuttler from his country, quickly pointed out that some of the Indian players had government jobs that did not require them to work in those offices but just train and play while he had to find funds to just come and train in India.
Many top athletes in Europe and other countries have had to resort to crowdfunding even for their Olympic training despite being medal hopefuls in the quadrennial events.
No one wants the elite Indian athletes to go through that grind and the state and central government should do everything in their capacity to help these sportspersons achieve glory in major international competitions.
But at the same time, one needs to understand that sports ecosystems across the world run on corporate and community support and with the sportsperson putting everything on the line to make a career.
If we truly want to become a sporting nation one day, it should be the same in India as well.