Changing room: Road ahead for Indian athletes  

Express News Service

2008 Beijing Olympics: Like all Olympics, it’s all about fun and romance. The scale is enormous and the emotions are incomparable. For India, usually, the focus on the first few days was shooting especially after the silver in 2004 Athens Games, then boxing and wrestling. Barring archery, badminton and weightlifting, there was hardly any interest in other sports.

Wrestling in Beijing was a sport in which one Sushil Kumar was participating. By the time Sushil finished his repechage round and won bronze, most scribes were scurrying to the wrestling hall. He did not have a masseur or a physio to help him recover. Neither did he talk about the lack of it. It was something that was considered normal. Vijender Singh won a boxing medal but the sport by then had a couple of support staff including a physio. India ended up with the best-ever haul with Abhinav Bindra winning gold in shooting. He had the support of now-defunct Mittal Champions Trust, besides whatever assistance sports ministry had provided.

Things changed after the 2010 Commonwealth Games. There was some substantial investment in sports. London Games in 2012: six medals and India would focus on more than just three sports. Saina Nehwal added badminton to the list. Instead of progressing, Indian sports hit the nadir at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Two medals in the last couple of days surmised the predicament Indian sports was facing.

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Tokyo 2020 in August 2021, India finished with the best-ever medal haul in Olympics — seven medals, including one gold by javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra. The romance of hockey was rekindled. Weightlifting that regressed for more than two decades won silver through Mirabai Chanu. Shuttler PV Sindhu became the second athlete after Sushil Kumar to win two successive medals in Olympics. 
Wrestling progressed through Bajrang Punia and Ravi Dahiya and became the only sport to have won a medal since 2008. Lovlina Borgohain saved boxing from embarrassment.

Though the country was rejoicing, there was deep concern about sports in the country as well. Seven medals somehow did not reflect the number of resources invested in the sports. Shooting was the biggest disappointment. Whether or not seven was enough will always remain debatable. It can safely be termed a modest show, considering the fact that anything less than six would have been a disaster. Despite the bitter-sweet feelings, one thing that stood was the system. Something seemed to be in place.

2003 World championships medallist Anju Bobby George’s husband and coach Robert has seen both the worlds. He still recollects those days when he had to wait for more than a month in Delhi to get his tours sanctioned before the World Championships. He still remembers those days when he had to struggle to raise funds so that Anju could compete in events abroad.

They used to utilise funds from whatever prize money they used to get but then those would come only after one or two years. Now as a coach and mentor of long jumper Shaili Singh, who won junior world championships silver this year, he has found “things easy”. “Earlier we had to wait for sanction for days,” he says. “I remember we had to stay in Delhi for more than a month to get our training and competition tour before the World Championships cleared. For Athens Olympics we had to raise funds.”

There was no concept of personal coaches or physios or masseurs back then. “But now if we need something for recovery we have to make a request and things would get sanctioned,” he says. “For Shaili things are easy. At the same time, athletes should spend responsibly too.”

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Much talked about Target Olympics Podium Scheme (TOPS) of Sports Authority of India was instituted to cut red-tapism. Its primary objective was to sanction whatever the athletes needed without wasting time and was launched in 2014. The idea was novel but implementation was more than ideal then. A year into its formation Beijing gold medallist Bindra resigned.

Javelin ace Neeraj Chopra won a
gold medal during the Tokyo Olympics

In 2018, TOPS tried to reinvent itself. Yet, there were issues raised by federations on criteria set to choose athletes, especially for development schemes. There were murmurs of discontent when a handful of athletes bypassed the national federations to get certain things done. Certain sports like sailing, fencing and equestrian were not part of the TOPS until they qualified. As of Tokyo 2020 Olympics, TOPS has 162 athletes and two hockey teams in the core group.

Smart sports administrators usually rely on Annual Calendar for Training and Competition. Individual athletes, however, approach TOPS through the federation, if they need more than what they have been provided with.

There is another arm of Sports Authority of India that funds training and competition of athletes — ACTC. The payment of foreign coaches is usually part of ACTC and not TOPS. Entering into international competition is done through national federations. Federations like athletics, Hockey India and boxing rely only on ACTC. Take for instance Neeraj. Most of his expenses for training and exposure in the last Olympic cycle have been met through ACTC.

From coach Klaus Bartonietz to his last-minute dash to Lisbon during the pandemic second wave in India so that he could compete in some events before the Olympics were facilitated by SAI and AFI. Even the hockey teams that hired foreign coaches and trainers. In fact, until about March no hockey player was getting the Rs 50,000 stipends from TOPS.

This is how it works. According to the sports ministry, “In the case of funds transferred by SAI to NSFs, 75% of the admissible amount is disbursed as advance, while the remaining amount is provided on a reimbursement basis.” In fact, the last couple of years, all stakeholders — SAI, TOPS, NSFs, IOAs and NGOs like JSW and OGQ — worked together. The athletes had no excuse for not performing well. 
For example, the shooting team would spend a considerable amount of money.

Manisha Malhotra, JSW head sports excellence & scouting and a former India international, has seen both the worlds too. While working for Mittal Champions Trust before the 2008 Games she recollects how things were different then. Athletes never used to get funding from SAI and sanctions were sporadic. The Trust had to spend more money than what NGOs do now and take care of the logistics of the athletes too. “Things have changed and sports in India has come a long way,” she says.

“There is no dearth of funds for athletes now. Whatever is required in a coaching system is in place. There is encouragement from the government. But I believe there is a long way to go make sports sustainable in the country.” Here’s what SAI spent in elite sports from 2018-19 until the Olympics this year. This is the budget allocation to NSFGs that had won medals in Tokyo and shooting. Athletics Federation of India: `130.47 crore. Badminton Association of India: Rs 81.52 crore.

Boxing Federation of India: Rs 136.88 crore. Hockey India: Rs 104.02 crore. Wrestling Federation of India: Rs 74.92 crore. Indian Weightlifting Federation: Rs 29.33 crore. National Rifle Association of India: Rs 94.16 crore.

From training, exposure trips to coaches (both foreign and domestic) have been given. Interestingly, the teething issues that emerged from the shooting teams were not due to lack of funds or training but because of infighting among coaches and support staff. In the other side of the spectrum is the hockey team, especially the men’s. The teams got a sponsor — the Odisha government. International matches, including World Cup, were hosted with a willing host Odisha providing the infrastructure. Emphasis was given on fitness. There was stability with coaches. There are astroturfs in all major centres where the players come from. It’s no longer the grass-to-astroturf story. Infrastructure is there in all states where the players come from.

Things have improved but a lot needs to be done. Grassroots programmes are still in a nascent stage. Relying just only on Khelo India schemes, which incidentally has the highest budget allocation in sports, would be a disaster. For scouting one still needs to go to the hinterland. The NSFs’ state and district units as well as the state government must lay more emphasis on nurturing sports from the grass-root. The junior and sub-junior tournaments organised by the NSFs are still the most competitive. Khelo India results are a reflection because most junior athletes doing well in NSF events have won.

Budget allocation for NSFs

Athletics: 2018-19: Rs 42.95 crore; 2019-20 (September): Rs 55 crore; 2020-21 (August) Rs 32.52 crore; TOTAL: Rs 130.47; 2021-22: 12.84 crore TOTAL: Rs 143.31 crore

Boxing: 2018-19: Rs 47 crore; 2019-20: Rs 53.79 crore; 2020-21: 36.09 crore; TOTAL: Rs 136.88 crore; 2021-22 (Nov): 10.87 crore TOTAL: Rs 147.75 crore

Badminton: 2018-19: Rs 21 crore; 2019-20: Rs 33.27 crore; 2020-21: Rs 27.25 crore; TOTAL: Rs 81.52 crore 2021-22: Rs 13.36 crore TOTAL: Rs 94.88

Hockey India : 2018-19: Rs 37.5 crore; 2019-2020: Rs 36.18 crore; 2020-2021: Rs 30.34 crore;

TOTAL: Rs 104.02 crore; 2021-2022: Rs 12.54 crore TOTAL: Rs 116.56 crore

Wrestling : 2018-2019: Rs 23.56 crore; 2019-2020: Rs 34.50 crore; 2020-2021: Rs 16.91 crore; TOTAL: Rs 74.97 crore; 2021-2022: Rs 16.91 crore TOTAL: Rs 81.67 crore

Weightlifting: 2018-2019: Rs 8.14 crore; 2019-2020: Rs 10.96 crore; 2020-2021: Rs 10.23 crore; TOTAL: Rs 29.33 crore; 2021-2022: Rs 5.28 crore TOTAL: Rs 34.61 crore

NRAI: 2018-19: Rs 38.61 crore; 2019-20: Rs 28.40 crore; 2020-21: Rs 27.15 crore; TOTAL: Rs 94.16 crore; 2021-22: Rs 8.25 crore TOTAL: Rs 102.41 crore

(As per Sports Minister Anurag Thakur’s answer in the Lok Sabha)

Full story: newindianexpress.com

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