All-round excellence built through science is missing in Indian sport | olympics$india-at-rio | Hindustan Times
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All-round excellence built through science is missing in Indian sport

olympics Updated: Sep 11, 2016 11:34 IST
Sukhwant Basra
Sukhwant Basra
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Before one can talk of lofty things like Olympic winners and increased medal counts, there is a need for India to figure out the basics. (Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

We want to count medals but have no time to count playgrounds. Before we talk of lofty things like Olympic winners, let’s figure out the basics: the more the numbers playing sport, the more the chances of excellence. Only if the net is cast far and wide will the catch turn up nuggets that would go on to gleam golden. First, India needs to play, and then we can begin to figure beyond. It all starts from sporting culture. And where does this culture come from? It starts with places to play, places with facilities that are world-class.

A nation that reels under the onslaught of the sun because of its geographical location has barely 35 indoor stadiums for its 1.3 billion people. And that’s just a start.

The right brains

Coaching coaches

Indian medallists from the last three Olympics have had, among other things, a strong support system with expert coaches fine-tuning their game and technique. PV Sindhu has in her corner Pullela Gopichand, one of the best badminton coaches, constantly pushing the envelope. Indian boxers have benefited from Cuban expert BI Fernandez and the wrestlers from Georgian Vladimir Mestvirishvili, who has been here since 2004. Mestvirishvili was instrumental in modernising the approach towards training of Indian wrestlers and the results are evident.

But the reach of these experts are confined to national camps. The key to any long-term programme is establishing a network of trained coaches who can implement the latest training methods from the grassroots level. India needs a pool of coaches who are not just experts in the latest in sports science but capable of learning and reinventing. The coaches education programme needs overhaul. And our fresh coaches should be made to work with our foreign experts. Besides technical knowhow, the best in the world will also be able to infuse a philosophical change in our coaches, to motivate them to keep learning and evolving.      LESLIE XAVIER

Notions, not science, govern the outlook towards sport in India. A vein of research looks to prove that the very concept of talent is uncertain, that it’s actually exposure which develops skill and this, in turn, is interpreted as talent. Genes can prove to be crucial but even they wither when confronted by the blaze of practice. It is science that makes athletes, the rest is secondary. But to understand most of the latest research in sport, one has to read with Internet access on tap. Or else, it all becomes too obtuse.

To expect the majority of our coaches to subscribe to latest journals, and implement the latest training aids, may be challenging their cerebral makeup far beyond breaking point. Therein lies the rub. For peanuts, you get monkeys. Excellence in sport now requires keeping abreast of a host of minutiae that build up to a wholesome athlete over a decade later. And coaching has to be made lucrative enough for even armchair enthusiasts like this writer to back their words with actual action.

Ban the babus

The same excellence required in coaching is even more important in governance. Our Sports Code is flawed in mandating cooloff periods for all administrators after two continuous spells in office. We have so few able ones that we should actually keep the good ones on forever.

What we need to ensure is that sport is not handled by the government through its bureaucrats. Now, these guys are clueless grappling with a field that takes decades to figure. The biggest bane is that bureaucrats take decisions on funding and training that they are inadequately equipped to handle.

The involvement of sportspeople in key decision-making needs to be enhanced and the babus at organisations such as the Sports Authority of India (SAI) asked tough questions. The majority of them should be sacked for they have been remarkably inefficient. But then, such radical accountability is just not the norm here.

Education + Sport

Studies and sports

In the 1970s and even 80s, university competition was top class, and a podium finish often was the route to an India spot. Many big athletes came through the university sports system. Fo rmer India cricket captains, Sunil Gava skar and Ajit Wadekar, hockey skipper Zafar Iqbal and Asian Games sprint champion, R Gnanasekaran, were all stalwarts of university competition. The Association of Indian University contingent was fielded in national competition.

But that’s history. Over the past two decades, standards have dipped to such extent they no longer serve as the feeder line. Focus of university officials is only about winning the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Trophy, the symbol of supremacy in university sports. Officials manipulate results and even field ineligible athletes for glory.

School Games Federation of India (SGFI) should help spot talent and enable budding athletes to excel. Competition is organised in more than 20 disciplines, including track and field. It too is no longer result-oriented. There are widespread allegations of manipulation, doping and impersonation. Quality coaching is an exception now.

India’s double Olympics medalist, Sushil Kumar, being nominated as SGFI president raises hopes he will cleanse the system..      NAVNEET SINGH

The backbone of any sporting culture has to be school and college sport. In India, we have progressively seen the importance of these wither. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) of the US — the body that controls college sport — had 1,018 athletes associated with it participating in Rio. They represented 107 countries. One University — Stanford — won 23 medals at Rio. Oh, and here’s a heads-up for those who drafted the sports code: Walter Byers was NCAA’s first administrator and his term lasted 37 years (1951-88).

As 78 universities around the world earned medals at Rio, the importance of creating an education system that’s enmeshed with sport gets all the more important. The success of the US proves that sport needn’t be divorced from learning. Marks for sport and increased importance to the wholesomeness of sportspeople in the job market need to be the norm. Only then will our doctor and engineer-obsessed populace allow its kids to play.

Not just government

Emulate China

China ended the Rio Olympics with 70 medals, 26 of them gold. However, back in China the feeling is that the Asian giants have been below par. After all, didn’t China win 51 gold medals at Beijing and 38 in London, a massive improvement from the five gold it won at the 1988 Seoul Games. This turnaround though begs the question: just how are the Chinese so good? The answer lies in the authoritarian system which puts emphasis on inducting kids as young as five into state-run academies. Most academies, often branded as ‘medal fa ctories’, required children to live there full-time, a regulation which has now been relaxed. The system dictated every aspect of a player’s life. Te nnis ace Li Na could only choose her coach and tournaments she could compete in after quitting the Chinese sports system in 2008.

While there is a lot of criticism of the Chinese method, its emphasis on catching and grooming children from a very young age is something India could look to replicate. Another aspect that has fuelled China’s domination is the focus on specific sports like badminton, gymnastics, table tennis and diving — a strategy India could emulate with wrestling, shooting, boxing and badminton.      AMIT KAMATH

There are schemes that offer incentives to build hotels, free land for schools and hospitals, but no such measure exists for a sportsperson looking to build champions. Would Pullela Gopichand have pulled off his miracle if he had not been allotted land for his academy in Hyderabad? Sport infrastructure in India is controlled by the government and as such under the purview of the same clueless babus.

The Sports Authority of India has 98 facilities across the country. This organisation has proven to be a spectacular failure. The majority of its coaches aren’t good enough, the majority of these centres are nowhere near world-class and it’s one giant bureaucratic behemoth. Its entire role, structure and form of functioning needs to be radically overhauled.

Systematic funding

Set Arjuna criteria

The sports ministry has revised the selection criteria for Arjuna Award twice in the last three years, but ambiguity remains. The basic flaw is the points system to evaluate performance. It isn’t clear what formula was used to allot 40 points for winning gold in world championships, which are held every four years, 30 points for winning at the Asian Games and 25 points for Commonwealth Games gold.

According to the policy, 90 marks would be given on the basis of overall performance in the previous four years. Since 10 marks are given by the panel, it gives an opportunity to influence the members. If two individuals have similar points, the one who is more resourceful would get the award. The policy has many flaws and is being exploited. Take kabaddi for example, where India usually win gold at the Asian Games. If more than one player applies, who would the panel choose?

The ministry should have drawn up a comparative chart of all international events, and not just six. In certain disciplines, including athletics, more international events are held while our national football team hardly makes an impression at Asian level. The government hasn’t made any comparitive study between team events where fewer international events are held. Players from team events like basketball and volleyball are being denied the award.      NAVNEET SINGH

Excellence in sport takes a long time. If there is no system to support athletes as they build towards Olympic standards, most will be forced to give up their pursuit to make a living. Instead of knee-jerk doleouts to those who qualify for major events, we need a national scholarship programme that guarantees a minimum bank balance to every athlete who does well at the national level. This funding needs to be scaled up as athletes begin to compete on the world stage.

Yoga shows the way

Plan long-term

Dipa Karmakar, who finished fourth in Rio after becoming the first Indian to reach a gymnastics event final, got support from the government’s Target Olympic Podium (TOP) scheme in April, soon after she qualified. That’s a mere three months before the Games. The story of many athletes follows the same script. Though TOPs is a good concept, it has its flaws. To start with, funding should be systematic and sustained and it should certainly not come just before the Games. The athlete needs the money when it matters most, when he or she is training, starting from the junior days.

And funding is just one aspect in nurturing a champion. If we want to produce champions, it must begin by spotting the right talent at the right time. He or she should be made part of a system that involves scientific training, and exposure to top competition. And there should be periodic performance analysis with defined parameters (not just medals). The US Olympic programme for athletes who featured in 2012 and 2016 began around 1999!      LESLIE XAVIER

Exercise systems have to be adapted to indigenous cultures, and nutrition needs of potential Olympians must be planned within the ambit of local taste buds. This writer must laud the government’s emphasis on yoga. Having practised it for over a decade of my association with tennis, I can contend that there is nothing else that comes close to being a complete workout in as short a time as 30 minutes of yoga. Now, let’s also focus on our own local nutrition index, genetic mapping and enhancement of the logic that saw special area schemes being implemented in the past.

India has unique problems. A cut-and-paste job by foreign experts won’t work. Instead, we need to create an ecosystem which nurtures sporting solutions for our unique ethos. For seasoned cynics like this writer, all this post-Olympics analysis is nothing new. We will all make a load of noise for a few weeks and soon forget how we ranted at out lamentable performance.

Yes, rant and cant, that’s our response to a problem which actually needs clinical, scientific analysis.