By Suheil Tandon:
The Rio Olympics and Paralympics 2016 have come and gone, but despite the hype created in India, the state of Indian sports, especially at the grassroots and the youth level, will continue to languish unless some concrete steps are taken by different stakeholders to rectify the issues at hand. Various sections of the Indian society and a range of stakeholders have given suggestions for the future of Indian sports, not least the Prime Minister of India, who has set up a task force to prepare India for future Olympics. But very few have talked about developing sports from the bottom-up, focusing on the building blocks of creating Olympic champions – youth sport at the grassroots.
It isn’t all doom and gloom – there were some positives to come out of India’s campaign at Rio. There was an increase in the participation of female athletes from India, and their performance at the Games was stellar. Our two medals were both won by females, and it is the manner in which they were won that was so impressive – plenty of fight, grit, motivation and determination – similar attributes noticed in young girls playing sports across the country. The other group to perform brilliantly was the Indian Paralympic contingent. It managed to bag more medals than the Olympic contingent, despite the fact that they were a much smaller contingent and the amount of support and finances provided were comparatively much lower. It is important to note these points and include them in our future plans to create a holistic model of growth for sports in India.
Now that the dust has settled after the wave of emotions during the two-week window of Rio 2016, it is time to let go of such emotions and to rationally think about the practical steps to be implemented to change India’s sporting trajectory. Here are five pressing issues that I think need to be addressed, especially at the grassroots, for Indian sports to move forward.
In a country with more than a billion people, there is no shortage of sporting talent, and I say this as someone who was worked with such talent first hand. But, unless this raw talent, most of which lies in rural India, especially in the tribal belts, is provided an opportunity to participate and practice sports, how will it develop and flourish? Why should we only have the choice of picking talent from metro and Tier-1 cities, when more may lie beyond these?
Youth in rural and remote regions of India need to be provided with sporting infrastructure, dedicated coaches as well as structured and professionally run programs to help them participate and excel in sports. Moreover, this access must be provided to marginalised sections of sporting society in India, including girls, persons with disabilities and SC/ST individuals, who are generally an afterthought in our sporting endeavors. Anantapur Sports Academy in rural Andhra Pradesh is a great example of how to approach this conundrum.
Coaches in India, especially those at the grassroots level, must be given better training and continuing professional development programs, to aid in their knowledge upgradation and delivery techniques. The training and knowledge of many Indian coaches and PE teachers is outdated and not up to the pace of the hugely advanced global coaching and sports teaching fields. Moreover, as grassroots coaches and PE teachers work with children, they require many other skills than just the knowledge of their sports, to be able to deliver age-appropriate and engaging programs.
Sports and physical activity, in the form of Physical Education (PE), must be made a formal part of every schooling system, especially in government schools. PE provides all children with an opportunity to participate in and learn about sports, hence generating further interest. PE is the basic building block of mass participation in sports, without which the pool of sporting talent in India will always be shallow.
We need to focus on building talent development pathways for our athletes, right from a young age to post retirement, starting from a basic PE program all the way to a lifelong involvement and participation in sports, even as a senior citizen. Talent identification is only one part of the puzzle – which also needs to be enhanced drastically – but mapping talent development pathways for different sports ensures that athletes, coaches and other stakeholders are aware of what is expected from them at every level.
Young athletes in India, who dedicate a large chunk of their childhood to sports, must be provided support in the form of quality education (not just enrolling in school or colleges, but providing support such as tutors), mentoring and career counselling as well as soft skill and language development. These are essential as they provide them with skills to pursue other professional fields, if they don’t succeed in sports (which amounts to a large proportion).
Speaking to a junior Indian shooter who had returned from Europe after a world championship, he said that the main difference between Indian and European shooters was in their mindset. For the Europeans, shooting is seen only as a sports, and they have other things to fall back on, in case they fail. However, for the Indian shooters, shooting was their life and they had nothing else to rely on, hence the enormous pressure don’t allow them to perform at their best.
Looking to the future, there are plenty of things that need to be addressed in Indian sports, starting at the top and going right to the bottom. These can only be addressed by a collaborative effort between the corporate, public and social sector, and by a range of stakeholders within these sectors. Most importantly, change can only take place through a sustained effort, and any future recommendations should be made based on a long-term plan – in my view a minimum of 12 years or 3 Olympics away – to see the impact they can bring. Any achievements on the global stage, in the meanwhile ,should be considered a bonus and must becredited to the athlete and their support staff, rather than the system.