Dear Prime Minister Modiji,
I am writing to you as a woman, an Olympian and as a sports fan who can’t just sit and watch the tamasha. One thing was clear in Rio. Indian athletes brought the country together, helped us bond through sport. The way we prayed, chanted, winced, cried and laughed shows the power of sport.
Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu created history. I want to commend those who didn’t win a medal, but gave it their all while trying. India has a slightly skewed tradition of showering medallists with cash prizes and gifts. While they surely deserve that, it is also important to note that they need that cash help before, to win the medal. We have failed them if they only get help after the event.
I have lived in USA and in Europe and have perspective on cultural and sporting differences between Indians and others. I was the first professional tennis player for India and still have the most wins for India in Fed Cup; I represented the country from 1999-2010. I had to live in Europe as India didn’t even have tournaments for me to play.
No ‘officials’ party
From 1991 to now, sir, one thing has not changed. Officials still believe any international competition is their free ticket abroad. Our sports minister got a stern warning from the Rio authorities when his entourage was expecting undue privileges at the venue. The physio was not even qualified to be there. Officials fly business class leaving athletes to economy. Other state ministers too take entourages there and are caught partying instead of supporting our athletes. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I request you to sign a directive to put a very strict system in place for officials.
The sports minister’s post has mostly been an embarrassing parade of unqualified and uncaring people, barring one or two. We are yet to see a minister who is able to put a proper system in place.
NGOs not enough
There are some NGOs that have really helped many of our athletes, but that only covers so much. It’s important for everyone to work together. We need to make sure all our athletes in the reckoning for Tokyo 2020 get access to facilities and equipment for training immediately. Four years will pass quickly and now is the time to start.The procedure for grants and such is too long and bureaucratic. I played in the 2010 CWG and was supposed to receive travel grants and per diems. The amount of paperwork I had to complete was mind-boggling. Still, I never received any reimbursement.
Whether these amounts were approved or not we will never know due to incompetent officials who either don’t care to inform or must have used the money themselves. Such is the state of affairs in most federations. So, please sir, you need to set up a system so that the money reaches athletes directly.
Please appoint a think tank of former athletes who are passionate and assign them to bring about a sporting revolution. They need to be equipped with financial and decision-making authority, maybe even above the ministry.
Infrastructure: Forget top-of-the-line velodromes or Olympic-level swimming pools, we first need to make sure every school at least has a playground. Funds allocated for sports need to be properly channelled and facilities made available for public.
School involvement: The sports ministry should bring in a curriculum for physical education teachers across the country. Basic knowledge of all sports should be mandatory. Every school must have two weeks each of an Olympic sport that they have to learn throughout the year. In the USA, children have mandatory three days of PE a week.
Feed-in system: The PE teachers need to identify talent from school and have a feed-in system into local associations, who should then start formally training these kids. Based on talent, the state associations should then take charge and move them to a national training facility.
Sports quota: These need to be established on a bigger scale for state and national level athletes even in schools for parents to be able to encourage children to take up sports. Parent support groups, including seminars, are needed to get them to understand the system and their role.
Rural and genetic talent spotting: In the early 1980s, my father wrote to then sports minister, Mrs. Margaret Alva, to identify talent based on genetics. He suggested we train the children of fishing communities for sailing and swimming, milkmen for cycling etc. as these activities are already their way of life. He got a response from the minister saying his points are noted!
David Rudisha, 800m gold medallist at Rio, belongs to the Maasai tribe in Kenya. Its tribesmen hunt lions to prove their worth. Running his way to a gold medal was way simpler.
I hope we can take these Games as an eye-opener and strive for a better medal count in Tokyo. Please intervene and help us start preparing now for 2020. Indian sportsmen and women need you now.
(The writer is India’s first professional woman tennis player)