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Anil Kumar, Managing Director, Great Sports Infra, tries to explore the avenues India can follow to help the country reach its true sporting potential. India has failed to claim enough medals every four years at the Olympic Games since it first participated in 1900. Despite the multi-faceted and increasing number of athletes´ contingent sent to the apex platform of sports, the results have not been commensurate in terms of results.
Why are we unable to match China (another populous country like us) in all-round athletic prowess on the field?
First of all, less than 5 per cent of Indians have access to even reasonable quality sports infrastructure and coaching. Even among that, there is a drop off the cliff in the number of sportspersons pursuing it seriously, once they reach the 11th and 12th standards in school. While there are certain initiatives like marks for sports achievements, certain admissions reserved for sportspersons and some jobs in the govt/PSUs, the funnel has already narrowed due to limited viable prospects in pursuing sports professionally.
In many developed economies, the allocation of budgets is hundreds of times more than what is currently earmarked in India. This includes not only infrastructure, but also scientific selection of suitability (even genetically) to a sport, modern training and equipment, international exposure.
The Union government has opened the doors for private sector participation through annual corporate social responsibility (CSR). What has been the impact of this initiative over the last year?
Leveraging CSR funds for sports infrastructure is a very positive move, along with the recent categorisation of Sports as an ´Industry´. Along with CSR spend, this will bring in the much-needed private sector boost to sports. It is still too early to have discernible impact, but along with many new technologies that can make sports infrastructure financially viable, there are already private and PPP players who are investing significantly.
In a cricket-obsessed nation, all other sports tend to get relegated to second and third tiers of public interest and consequently, government indulgence as well. Is this mindset changing now?
Yes, finally there is life outside cricket! This is one of the most significant sports developments in the last many decades. Already, more youth today follow football than even cricket... for the first time ever in India. Proliferation of Internet and TV, access to professional training programmes, videos of coaching and fitness are all breaking down barriers and unearthing talent. There are many new sports that are becoming mainstream and financially viable. Viewer interest is reflecting this change and supporting it. The very fact that we are more consistently producing champions in badminton, wrestling, hockey and many other sports is a sign of great things ahead for India.
India´s working age population (read youth) is set to drive the economy ahead for the next 20 years. How should we leverage this youth for sports?
It is indeed a blessing that India has such an overwhelming majority of people aged less than 25. And they are coming into an environment of more respectability for sports, becoming a paying profession and other related services around it. The youth of today, unlike ever in the past, have access to improved sports facilities - even if at a reasonable standard - in schools and apartment complexes. There is access to tennis, BB, badminton, swimming and many other court sports in the last decade than ever in the past. This will spawn a generation of youth who learn to play at a very young age, many of whom will go on to play at the highest level, and who will encourage the next generation to pursue sports. There is finally a ´sports culture´ that is growing in India... from just watching sports to actually playing and enjoying them and a family participation. We will see far more sporting successes just with these grass-root changes than just depending on the government alone.
The last international event hosted by India - the Commonwealth Games (CWG) - was preceded by infrastructure construction dogged by corruption and nepotism. A lot of frill staff accompanied the Indian contingent to the recently concluded Olympic Games. Do we have a holistic plan to bolster the international sporting efforts of our country now?
This is something that a sports administrator would be better positioned to answer with facts.. though we can only speculate. And of course we provide various suggestions in appropriate forums to address fundamental problems. Some issues have continued to persist over many decades. Many times sports persons have achieved success in spite of the government and not because of it. However, lately there are coaching support programmes, budgets for international participation, foreign coaches, sports medicine etc. While the government at the highest levels seems to have a broad objective of doing well in sports, down the line the execution of the plans or the sufficiency of the budgets seems to be a challenge. Some reforms are also welcome in the administration to bring in fresh ideas. The government is identifying specific sports where they will invest and focus from an international performance and win standpoint. There are private bodies that have also stepped in with some of the legends of the sports contributing their experience, identifying talent at a young age, providing scientific coaching, diet, equipment and overall nurturing these special talents to bloom. Many of the recent successes are from such academies, trusts and support organisations.
With your domain expertise how long do you think it will take for quality infrastructure facilities becoming available for talent across the country?
The time is right now for the government to act.
As I mentioned earlier, less than 5 per cent of the population has access to even minimal standards of sports infrastructure. We are barely scratching the talent of some pockets of urban areas. We at GSI are promoting the theme of ´Taking Sport to the People´, wherein, we have created models of how - at a fraction of the cost of constructing a stadium ´ you can provide dozens of acceptable standard sports facilities in the districts, mandals and rural areas. These facilities are designed to provide access to multiple sports, are maintenance-free, unearth talent across the nation and last decades.
A crucial aspect that most Indian athletes miss out on is the limited international exposure. If Indian sports infrastructure were to reach international quality benchmarking, there would be more international games being played here itself allowing Indian athletes to compete regularly with international players. By when do you think India will boast of world-class sports facilities?
To be fair, India has world-class facilities. But they are really very few and sometimes degrade due to poor upkeep. Only athletes who have achieved a certain level of performance tend to get access to them. In many cases it is too late to then unlearn and relearn their craft on different surfaces, for e.g., with synthetic turf for hockey. However, it is not difficult or enormously expensive to provide close to world class facilities in hundreds of more centres across India. The focus should be to create the actual playing surfaces and not invest the largest chunk into constructing large stadiums with galleries that are rarely used. The government should laser focus the investment into what will provide access to sports persons, talent spotting, coaching and create champions for elite training later.
Is the incubate-and-vitalise sporting talent concept being fostered in Indian sports circles in order to harness best available talent at the formative years to create sports professionals of an international class?
Again this is not my forte, but to my knowledge, the efforts by the government in this are limited, with due respect. The physical directors in some schools, the sports culture in schools, the outsourced PE services with trained instructors are probably a better source of identifying and unearthing talent.