The rigour starts with the approach road. True to the army’s reputation of never taking the easy way out. Twists and turns mark the route to the Army Sports Institute’s centre of excellence and first-time visitors have to often stop to get directions.
But enter the sprawling 68-acre complex and you realise that the Olympic dream chased by the army and the 500-odd trainees is not exactly a distant fantasy.
Established in 2001 with the motto ‘To Win Olympic Medals for India and We Will’, ASI is part of Indian army’s ‘Mission Olympics’ project with focus on 11 disciplines. The current complex, inaugurated in September 2005, hosts training facilities for archery, athletics, boxing, diving, fencing, weightlifting and wrestling. Rowing (CME, Pune), sailing (Mumbai), equestrian (Meerut) and shooting (Mhow) utilise existing facilities elsewhere.
“There was no doubt about whether we can produce Olympic medallists. What we want to do is create a system that can churn out champions regularly," says ASI Commandant Colonel RS Bishnoi.
Boys Sports Company
Catching them really young was the first real move towards creating that system. The formation of Boys Sports Company (BSC) was a step in that direction. The first batch of about 150 youngsters was enrolled on January 1, 2006.
Through this, the army is looking to tap talent as young as nine years.
“It takes about 8-10 years to groom a champion and the peak age of any athlete is around 20-25. But more importantly if we get a child at the age of 9 or 10 we can take care of his grooming and nutrition , which is still a big problem in India," says Col Abhay Java, who has been monitoring the selection process at the ASI.
“Apart from sending our scouts to the sub-junior and junior nationals and also picking talent from within the army, we are now holding special recruitment drives in various states which are traditional bases for certain sports,” he adds.
The search for the perfect champions doesn’t stop there. Every selected boy undergoes physiological and psychological profiling before being inducted in the BSC. “The child’s schooling and other needs are taken care of once he is inducted. Not only that, a job in the army is also assured. If they are national level players they are enrolled as havaldars and if they are international players they get a JCO posting,” Java adds.
The trainees proved their worth at the inaugural Youth Olympics in Singapore where Durgesh Kumar Pal (400m hurdles) and Vikas Thapa (boxing) won silver medals for the country. Both were picked by ASI scouts from their respective state championships in 2005. Durgesh switched from middle distance to 400m hurdles and the results have started coming.
While 250 teenagers currently train in Pune, the army has also opened BSC centres in different regiments to widen the net.
Jumps and sprints coach Prasad Reddy says they need to attract youngsters in big numbers and regional centres help achieve that. “When we started we had real trouble convincing parents to send their kids here. First of all, sport was not their priority and secondly the ‘army’ tag did not help. But things are changing now and parents and athletes are approaching us to get enrolled,” adds the former international sprinter, whose own career kick-started after he joined the Services.
State of the art facilities
The ASI has invested heavily in state-of-the-art training facilities for its elite athletes. Its sports science centre is much sought after even by sportspersons from outside.
“There is a waiting period for athletes coming from outside to get their physiological mapping done,” says Lt Col VK Malhotra, in-charge of the facility. “We conduct these tests on all our elite athletes on a quarterly basis. Add to that the injuries and other needs and we have a packed schedule now.”
The centre recently added a Hypoxic Simulation Chamber to optimise the performance of long distance runners. The chamber, which can host six athletes at a time, works on the principle of reducing oxygen pressure in the room to help athletes increase lung capacity.
“In China, they have facilities that can host around 3,000 athletes at a time. Their athletes stay in these chambers for months before going for competition,” says Bishnoi.
The centre would also get a specialised sports psychologist from the United States next month, taking the number of foreign professionals, including coaches, employed with ASI to 15. “We are going the full hog to achieve our dream," says Bishnoi.
As India finished one Olympics after another in humiliation, the chorus within the country was that the army should take over sports administration.
This initiative may well provide the answer in the near future.
Basics are right
That India’s raw sporting talent comes from rural areas is a well-known fact. The Maharashtra government's ‘Krida Prabodhini’ scheme was launched to tap that talent which had absolutely no scope for exposure to sports. Residential academies were set up in Kolhapur, Pune, Thane and Amravati and four other districts.
The government later also allowed local ‘day-scholars’ to enroll to widen the net and has even teamed up with private academies in places where the government lacks training facilities. The trainees even have access to international standard facilities at Pune’s Balewadi Sports Complex, venue of the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2008.
Bureaucratic hiccups and funding problems have plagued the government initiative at regular intervals but Probodhini still is attracting a large number of students in the state. The shooting centre in Kolhapur has already produced two world champions — one junior and one senior — and a battery of shooters from Kolhapur, Pune and Nashik have been regularly representing India at the international stage.