All-round excellence built through science is missing in Indian sport
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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