It was disappointing to see so much criticism back home for our athletes in Rio. No one but the athlete knows, and trains for what’s needed to perform at such events. They train all their lives to reach the pinnacle of their respective sports. Everyone else basks in the glory of those few moments, no one sees the decades of hard work behind it.
It’s not correct to belittle the performance of our athletes. Our people need to realise that these are the best we have and they need our encouragement and support, not cynicism. PV Sindhu’s brilliant performance on the badminton court and Sakshi Malik’s incredible story to Rio and then medal glory is testament to the dedication and determination of our athletes.
India came close to winning some more medals — Abhinav Bindra’s near miss, Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna failing in the bronze medal playoff, Dipa Karmakar’s vault that had the whole country watching… We will get there, we just need to keep at it.
There was a point in time when we believed Indians were physically inferior to players from Western countries in contact sports like rugby or football. However, in reflex sports like shooting, table tennis, badminton, we could be equal to anyone in the world. In a sport like tennis, where the use of skill, power and reflex is symbiotic, we’ve proved time and again that we can be world beaters. All one has to do is pick the right sport and train for it.
We always blame the infrastructure. Any loss is equated with poor infrastructure. But we shouldn’t talk of the facilities in the country to an extent that it overburdens us. Take Dipa as an example. The gym she trains in has basic infrastructure. With sheer dedication and the passion to excel, the 23-year-old gave the best gymnasts in the world a run for their money.
In a sport like hockey, India, once world beaters and Olympic champions, lagged behind when other countries shifted to astro turf. When we did finally start playing on the surface, it was accessible only to the top players, not the budding crop. So, the question we must address is how to develop young talent in the country?
The first thing on the road to Olympic glory is long-term planning. India needs to develop something on the lines of an eight-year plan. Let me elucidate. Going into the Rio Games, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) was overly generous with the amount of funds it distributed. However, it was shortsighted as funds were released a year ago. It should have started four years ago, just after India’s best Games’ showing in London.
The vision is usually just a year down the road depending mainly on the athletes’ passion and determination, coupled with short-term support. The basic planning which is needed is for at least two Olympic Games. Taking Rio as a base, the mature and medal hopefuls go for the Games, the second team which has been handpicked should be training for Tokyo 2020 and a third group, who are the youngsters about 15 years onwards, should be targeting the 2024 Games.
Issues to overcome
Foreign coaches do matter and play an important role as proved by Roelant Oltmans in hockey recently, but there is a bigger need to develop Indian coaches. Send Indian coaches abroad for training purposes and once they come back, they can build upon that. In the end, Indian coaches are better suited to our culture and styles. Also, hiring Indian coaches as opposed to foreign ones will be cost effective.
We need to develop our technical staff. Physiotherapists, trainers and masseurs, etc need to be nurtured. We need to develop them to an extent that they can take over and manage national teams instead of us spending to hire foreign technical staff. But one must remember that at the end of the day winning and losing depends on the quality of players the country develops.
One must look at the 10 year-10,000 hour formula. Skills and technique should be developed from ages of 8-12, one would compete nationally from the ages of 14-16, internationally from 16-18 and after that, the player would be in the cauldron of professional sports. To meet this requirement, there should be a large group of players to train in an age-group system. There must be continuity in players, coaches and support staff.
It’s a misconception that the government gives less money to sports. In fact, it spends a lot more on players than many private companies. For example, all hockey training and foreign tours are paid for by the SAI. Along with the government, funding from private companies like Sahara and Hero is a blessing. Corporate Social Responsibility plays a big role in sports. Public sector companies like Coal India, GAIL, Indian Oil and SAIL contribute to various Olympic training programmes. Then, there are private trusts which are also doing a good job.
The government has priority-level funding for most Olympic disciplines and it’s up to federations and national bodies to press upon the need to avail of opportunity like equipment, exposure trips, foreign training, etc.
The process of developing the eight-year cycle must be transparent. There should be regular monitoring of programmes, athletes and technical staff. The government must invest in facilities and training programmes. Financial crunch for athletes when funding isn’t released on time hampers tours, training and trips. The funding must have a 4-8 year cycle and should be available all the time.
The most important aspect of achieving sporting glory is the mindset. The mindset of ‘happy with a bronze’ needs to change. There should be extensive research on the attitude and intent of athletes — are they simply happy qualifying for the Olympics or are they hungry to excel in the Games. We have the talent. Now, we need to tap into our potential with proper planning, funding and training to become world leaders in sports.
(The writer is India’s only seven-time Olympian and bronze medallist in tennis in the 1996 Atlanta Games)