Goal! Inside India’s sports revolution
We're winning more medals than ever; the tally is rising steadily. How did this happen? Liberalisation was a turning point. Corporate funding has birthed NGOs that focus on helping elite athletes win big. SAI is reaching out too, spotting talent early and giving it room to shine.Updated: Oct 28, 2018 10:26 IST
PT Usha did not have a physiotherapist, a masseuse, a strength coach or a nutritionist when she travelled to the US for the 1984 Olympics. Clueless about what to eat in America, she was living on rice porridge and pickle, which failed her in the final burst of the 400-metre race. She lost by 100th of a second.
India won 0 medals at the Los Angeles Olympics. We won 6 in 2012, at the London Olympics, our highest tally; and sent our biggest-ever contingent — 118 Olympians — to the 2016 Rio Games. At the Asian Games, a medal tally that stayed largely in the 20s and the 30s until 2002 has risen to 53, 65, 57 and 69 respectively at the last four editions.
The gap between us and the top 3 this year, China, Japan and South Korea, is still huge. China alone won 289 medals. But it’s unmistakably progress. And a combination of factors is responsible.
Professionally run NGOs are pumping CSR money into Olympic medal missions, the Sports Authority of India is running outreach programmes to identify and groom talent, and offering external support to NGOs so they can pay for world-class coaches, training and equipment. The Army, meanwhile, has been doing its bit to boost the tally, taking on the onus of moulding talent in capital-intensive fields like equestrian sports, rowing and archery, where costs are too high even for the biggest and best-funded NGOs.
“In the mid-1990s, post-liberalisation, SAI hostels and training centres began to come up in cities and small towns, which allowed up-and-coming sportsmen to practice all year round,” says Sports Authority of India (SAI) boxing coach Jagdish Singh.
It was also in 1995 that the SAI finally began working with state governments to provide infrastructure — board and lodging, scientific training, equipment — to junior-level sports people. There are now 56 SAI Training Centres across the country, with a total of 5,394 trainees.
In 2014, the union sports ministry launched the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) to offer financial aid and otherwise help elite athletes focus on their sport.
This scheme covers customised training, sponsorship for participation in international competitions, equipment, support staff, sports psychologists and a monthly allowance of Rs 50,000. TOPS has so far covered 196 athletes across disciplines, including shuttlers and Olympic medallists PV Sindhu (silver; 2016) and Saina Nehwal (bronze; 2012), Asian Games gold medallist Neeraj Chopra (javelin throw; 2018) and sprint runner Hima Das.
Since 2016, amid growing success rates, 20 single-discipline, high-performance residential sports training centres have been opened under a new National Sports Academies Scheme; 16 more are in the works. Their goal: participation and medals in international tournaments and the Olympics.
Singh points out that there is still a long way to go. Existing centres and schemes cover a fraction of the potential sports talent in one of the world’s youngest and most-populous nations.
“That is where organisations like ours come in,” says Viren Rasquinha, CEO of Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), a not-for-profit foundation founded in 2001 that aims to train and groom world-class athletes to up India’s medal tally.
Bodies like OGQ, Lakshya Sports (set up in 2009), Anglian Medal Hunt (2012) and Go Sports (2008) are currently supporting hundreds of elite and emerging athletes. Most are not-for-profit organisations that depend on corporate social responsibility, or CSR, funds from India’s largest companies; some, like Anglian, have evolved for-profit models where they invest in potential Olympians and then manage their endorsements and branding.
“This kind of support gives athletes the confidence to aim for the podium at the highest level and one can see that confidence in the players now,” says author, columnist and sports commentator Novy Kapadia.
Take Swapna Barman, who won a heptathlon gold at this year’s Asian Games. She trained for the meet at the SAI centre in Kolkata but was financially supported by the Rahul Dravid Athlete Mentorship Programme of the Go Sports Foundation, which also provides access to a team of sports scientists, radiologists and physiotherapists.
Gymnast Dipa Karmakar (above) credits Go Sports with providing sports medicine guidance since 2014. Wrestler Bajrang Punia, who won gold at the Asian Games, has a Georgian coach, Emzarios Bentinidis, a three-time Olympian. His salary is paid by the OGQ.
“When wrestler Vinesh Phogat had a knee ligament trouble in 2016, OGQ ensured a high quality treatment in Mumbai. She is now back in form.”
The support has started a virtuous cycle. “The rewards and recognition have made a lot of youth see a possible career in a wide range of sports. There are prizes of over Rs 1 crore awarded by state governments for winning in international events, which can ensure financial security for a lifetime, unlike before when elite athletes were tied down with jobs. This is seen post liberalisation as the government’s also had more money to spend on sports,” says sports writer and commentator Ayaz Memon.
Independent institutes have been helping bridge the last-mile gap that has traditionally plagued sports talent identification and early grooming in India.
Among the most significant of these have been PT Usha’s Usha School of Athletics in Kozhikode, set up in 2003 to create women athletes to win for India the medals she missed; the Bhiwani Boxing Club in Haryana set up in 2003 for men and women; the Prakash Padukone Academy in Bengaluru; and the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad, set up in 2008 and since responsible for training both Sindhu and Nehwal.
The Usha school has produced two Olympians, Jisna Mathew and Tintu Lukka and six other international athletes. In 2008, four players from the Bhiwani club — Akhil Kumar, Vijender Singh, Jitender Kumar and Dinesh Kumar — made it to the Olympics, sending ripples of excitement across the country and spawning new academies and a generation of aspiring boxers.
“We had been playing and practicing for years, but there was little attention on us. Boxing was hardly discussed as a sporting event. But after Vijender’s bout in the Olympics, I stepped out of the club and heard a few boys in the neighbourhood discuss the points threadbare. In that moment, I knew something had changed,” says SAI coach Jagdish Singh, who set up the club for aspirants who could not qualify for the SAI Bhiwani centre.
Singh plans to focus on the club after he retires from the SAI, in 2019. But already, in Haryana’s Bhiwani district alone, there are about 10 boxing clubs now.
“Step out in the mornings and you will see young boys and girls running and training. Boxing is seen as the way to a decent life and livelihood. And there is a belief that if Vijender could do it they can do it too,” he says.
Efforts have begun filtering down to the school level. In Kerala, the backbone of grassroots sports is the school-level meet. “Such is the popularity of the state school championship that it is also called the School Olympics,” says PI Babu, secretary of the Kerala State Athletics Association. “In the last decade, the popularity has increased immensely with intense media coverage and support from individual schools and colleges. Sometimes, it is hard to convince the players to miss the state meet for nationals.”
Jinson Johnson, who won gold medal in the 1,500-metre race at the Asian Games, was first spotted at a leg of these games in his hometown of Chakkittapara in Kozhikode district. In 2009, he joined the Indian Army and was inducted into the Army Sports Institute.
“School sports is one of the biggest events in the state and any athlete who performs well at the meet gets a lot of recognition,” he says.
In 2017, SAI launched its grassroot-level talent identification programme, the Khelo India School Games. Last year, 4,500 children participated across the country, of which 1,200 possible future talents were identified. Under the scheme, the government allocates Rs 5 lakh per child per year, for a period of eight years.
Weightlifter Jeremy Lalrinnunga who won gold at the recent Youth Olympics was a Khelo India find, supported by the Go Sports Foundation.
“It has only been over a decade since we truly started taking Olympic sports seriously, with corporates funding roped in too,” says commentator Novy Kapadia. “A realistic immediate aim would be to first cross the double digits in Olympic medals.”
Our incentives for sports have been recent and coincide with the opening up of the markets, adds Ayaz Memon. “We got to know the world, the way they play and the way they prepare and there was also more money to spend on sports.”
Social media has helped the nation celebrate individual achievements in sports like athletics. “The important thing is that we are celebrating Asian Games medals and the winners are now household names,” Memon says. “We are finally moving in the right direction.”
(With inputs from Ramesh Babu in Thiruvananthapuram)
First Published: Oct 27, 2018 20:43 IST