A sporadic sports triumph is enough to put us in a self-congratulatory mood. We are told by the ‘people concerned’ that Indian sports is moving in the right direction. The truth is that Indian sports is in a rut and we are way behind even mediocre sporting nations. No matter how critically I analyse the contribution of our sportspersons to creating this dismal situation, there just isn’t enough evidence to blame them. Instead, whatever little we have achieved is largely because of the sheer determination of our sportspersons.
Most sportspersons who have won laurels for the country have slugged it out on their own with little support from sports authorities and controllers by way of infrastructure, training or guidance. I may have been biased in airing such sweeping opinions during my playing days. But my views regarding the ineffectiveness of the system and the helplessness of sportspersons became stronger after I crossed over to the administrative set-up as Director, Sports, in Punjab. I am convinced that the little success we have achieved is largely despite the system, not because of it.
When I dribble in my mind through the cross-section of the Indian sporting system, I find a plethora of problems nibbling at the innards of our sports. Red tape, the insincere, unprofessional and inept approach of sports federations and associations, non-existent research, outdated coaching methods, the lack of world class infrastructure and equipment, financial insecurity... the list goes on. But the root cause of our sporting blues is the grassroots. We don’t have a proper system in place to initiate youngsters into sports and train them well enough in their formative years to become a world-beater.
They grow up in a haphazard system while the competitor they face at the international stage is trained in a systematic manner right from the start. To begin with, an Indian sportsperson is born with a handicap in comparison to his or her counterpart in countries where sports runs in the blood of the people. Sports figures way down in our priorities and a child born in such an environment is naturally not as enthusiastic towards sports as one born in countries where sports are a major activity.
Schools could have helped in countering the natural indifference we acquire towards sports right from our birth by creating a healthy sports environment. Unfortunately, schools — the sports nurseries the world over-— seem hardly interested. All that most schools have in the name of sports is a physical education period, which, too, is increasingly becoming more about theory than about actual play. The physical training lecturers/instructors are pushing the children back into the classrooms.
What is hurting us even more is the complete lack of coordination between the agencies involved in running sports, such as schools, state sports departments, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the associations. These agencies hardly coordinate with each other to chalk out long-term plans for the betterment of sports. All that each agency ends up doing is organise competitions, leading to duplication of competitions. These competitions serve no purpose, as they are organised just for the heck of it without the purpose of identifying talent and grooming it.
The roles of these agencies should be clearly defined to avoid duplication of effort. If I am asked how to run sports at this level, I would divide it into three categories, with schools looking after sports in general, state departments handling specialised sports and the SAI running super specialised centres to train the best talent with the best of facilities in terms of infrastructure, coaching, equipment and scientific aid. The system would see to it that we have a continuous supply of talent as players would graduate from general to specialised zones, with the best making it to the super speciality zone. That would also ensure that our best talent gets the best of facilities during their formative years.
Unfortunately, our sportspersons grow up in an unplanned and dysfunctional environment and are, therefore, not as prepared as their opponents when they arrive on the international scene. To make matters worse, there is official indifference and red tape and the insincere and incompetent approach of our sports federations, run by people without a technical background. Our administrative set-up is replete with never-ending and needless formalities. Even to set right a minor thing, one has to follow a long and cumbersome process. And, quite often, by the time demands are approved, the need for it would have passed.
Our federations have played no less a role in plummeting sports performances. Incompetent and non-technical people run most of the associations on an ad hoc and honorary basis. Clearly, we need to bring in more technical people with open minds and with a commitment to the task at hand. I would go so far as to reserve certain positions for technical people in the federations.
While setting things right at the administrative level and in the sports federations is an absolute must, that alone won’t help. The problem lies at the root and we have to make some revolutionary changes at that level. We need to create a sports-friendly environment wherein children perceive sports as an integral part of their lives. And for that to happen, we need to make sports mandatory in schools and make available the best training and coaching facilities. Unless that happens, Indian sports will continue to be a wasteland of unfulfilled promise.
Pargat Singh is a former captain of the Indian national hockey team