India's fairly good showing in the London Olympic Games has given fresh hope to the country that it has the potential to grow from being a mere footnote in global sports as far as some disciplines are concerned. The six medals India won, and a few other promising efforts, also tell us that the time has come to inject some urgency into our efforts in nurturing sporting talent. But the Sports Authority of India (SAI), the government body responsible for providing infrastructure and overseeing the development of talent, seems to be living in cloud cuckooland.
Recently, this newspaper highlighted the plight of trainees at the SAI's residential centre in Bawana, near the national capital. A large drain runs on one side of the centre and is a health hazard while dirty toilets and rudimentary gymnasium equipment which gathers dust tell a tale of unpardonable official apathy. This is not an isolated story. There have been many complaints about unhygienic kitchens in the SAI centres. The poor quality of food served has reportedly even forced some of our elite sportsmen to bring in personal attendants while they hone their skills for international competitions. Government support to sport is not unique to India. Global sporting giants China, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, the US, provide ultra-modern back-up systems that help athletes stay entirely focused on the job at hand. Funds have not been an issue in India but the top bureaucracy of the SAI - set up in 1984 to provide infrastructure and help nurture excellence - should take much of the blame for not being in synch with the needs of the athletes, and for not taking prompt remedial steps. There is an urgent need to revamp the SAI to make it leaner and more effective. The SAI and national sports federations, which hardly nurture talent or scout for them, are often at loggerheads, delaying decision-making on various fronts to the detriment of the athletes. There have been instances of SAI coaches returning from overseas stints to update themselves on the latest training methods, only to be taken off their field assignments and given entirely different roles, rendering the whole exercise a total waste.
Legacy was the byword during the 2010 Commonwealth Games when stadiums were built or renovated at massive cost. Two years hence, many facilities have fallen into disuse. The air-conditioned velodrome has mostly been shut while a 200-bed residential wing built in the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium still awaits occupants. The same is the case with the weightlifting arena. The US has a well-oiled school and college sports system that produces young champions. China's state support is only too well-known. While India is way behind in infrastructure compared to many other nations, red tape and the lack of professionalism could kill even our modest hopes of success. In many ways, we seem to have ruled ourselves out of the race even before it has begun.