Let The Games Begin...
|Courtesy - http://www.london2012.com|
I am quite tired of reading and hearing the lines ‘1.2 Bn and we can’t produce medals’. Really. Every newspaper has comments of this nature. And I bet most of it is from people who are not fit enough to walk even 1 km without wheezing.
So let me start this blog by standing up and applauding each and every athlete of the Indian Olympic contingent. I don’t care if they’ve ‘crashed’ out of qualification rounds, or came last in the races. Compare them to their counterparts from around the world. It does not take a trained eye to see that our team is at a disadvantage when it comes to world-class training facilities, healthcare, access to sports science and technology, continuous training – and not to mention the non-existent social support, either from the media or from the general public. And despite such disadvantages, the fact that they are STILL able to stand in the middle of world stage by sheer dint of personal passion, determination and mental strength – well, surely, they deserve respect instead of derision.
Take for example Irfan Kolothum Thodi. In the Men’s 20 km Race Walk, he stood 10th. But look at the parameters closely. His timing was 1:20 :21. The winner – Ding Chen (China) set an Olympic record at 1:18:46. The world record stands at 1:17:16. By the way, Irfan set a new national record with his time – and I am not sure how many mainstream newspapers devoted at least a feature to him. In the world of athletics, yes, even seconds matter and a time difference of 2 minutes seems significant. But let also not forget that it means his training is going in the right direction and he is in touching distance of equalling the Olympic record in the near future.
Another example is Sudha Singh – our 3000m steeplechase athlete. Sudha stood 13th with a time of 9:48:86. The winning time was 9:24:91. The difference is a blink-of-an-eye 23:95 seconds. And yet, between Sudha and the winner Gesa, there were 12 others packed in this interval! Any true athlete will tell you that shaving off seconds from your best time takes tremendous changes in strategy, diet, fitness, regimen and relentless hours of training. Also consider the age factor. Sudha is 26 years. Gesa is 20 years. And at the end of the day – we are not just talking about running, we are talking about running AND clearing obstacles for a 3 km stretch. Look me in the eye and tell me you want to make fun of this national record holder because of her 13th place.
There are many who keep citing China’s medal factory as an example. Well, there is no polite way to say this...just shut up. The sacrifice that goes behind every Chinese medal is not just blood and tears – but entire childhoods. The sacrifice that the State demands is mindboggling. Depending on the potential, athletes are picked up young...as young as 7 - 10 years and put into almost military-style sports schools. The training schedule is relentless and punishing – not to mention the children are allowed extremely limited contact with family members lest they get distracted. There is something very unnerving when the State literally owns an individual and dictates the person’s life. So just stop taking China as an example.
But there are other things we have to learn from China. Their focus on sports, and the way they have turned sports into a soft-power Chinese brand is formidable. They know their strengths and weaknesses. They know they cannot scale up in athletics – competing with the Kenyans, Ethiopians and Jamaicans has become a near impossible task. But their strength lies in their innate sense of precision and grace. They are superb when it comes to aquatics and gymnastics and that’s where they’ve had their gold rush.
More than anything, it was interesting to see that ALL coaches in the Chinese team were ...well, Chinese. At least so far, I’ve not spotted any foreigner. This gives us a glimpse of the Chinese sporting machinery. Clearly, their investment into sports has been significant. From ensuring their coaches are world-class, to the cutting edge training facilities – and eventually their investment into research and development is paying rich dividends. Above all, the State seems to hold an iron-grip on every aspect. This means the accountability of a win or a loss is high – someone has to answer for the results.
But in India, on paper every possible provision has been made to ensure we develop best-in-class athletes. But red-tape, politics, lack of accountability and corruption effectively prevents our athletes from realizing their full potential. Moreover, at the governance level, matters of national pride, prestige and image are non-negotiable in China. In India – the less said, the better.
Unlike China, we have an autonomous system of developing athletes. While the Sports Authority of India is responsible for the governance aspects; it is really the independent National Sports Federation setups that take care of the operational aspects – the coaching of athletes, hiring good coaches, drawing up training and competition schedules and so on. In this setup, autonomy if applied well can produce stellar results; but it also means reduced accountability. Not to mention, it gives rise to power politics. The focus on the athlete is lost.
There are a total of 62 sports federations in India, and each of them run on their own budget – grants given by the government, and perhaps private sponsors. So to answer the question ‘Why we have limited medal winners’ – you must read the document ‘Scheme for Preparation of Indian Team for Commonwealth Games 2010’. This was drafted in 2009.
The existing problems of Indian athletes illustrated in this document are tragically fundamental in nature. For example –
• No continuous training available; so athletes cannot benchmark and improve on their personal bests.
• Lack of dietary supplements – this is so essential!
• Lack of skilled coaches
• ...and many other extremely basic necessities required to enable an athlete are not in place.
So you can imagine...even as recently as 2010, we are talking about fundamental requirements to be put into place. Is it lack of funds? Not at all. For example, in order to encourage potential athletes at grass-root level, the Government has a scheme called Panchayat Yuva Kreeda aur Khel Abhiyan (PYKKA). Under this scheme, as the name suggests, every recognised village panchayat and block panchayat is given sports infrastructure grants. This is disbursed through the state governments. Take a look at the funds -
2011-2012 – Rs.165 crores.
2010-2011 – Rs.260 crores
2009-2010 – Rs.105 crores
2008-2009 – Rs.84 crores
So between 2008 and 2012, i.e in 4 years the funds released towards infrastructure grants at the village level is Rs.614 crores. Considering the fact that government schools in many villages don’t even have basic facilities such as furniture, toilets, libraries – it is anybody’s guess how much of this money is actually going towards building playgrounds or sports complexes for young athletes. In fact, what percentage of this money is reaching the intended hands will remain a mystery.
In 2008-2009, the budget allotted to Sports was Rs.3315.67 crores, and in 2009-2010, thanks to CWG, the budget allocation was Rs.3670.13 crores. In 2010-2011, the budget allocation was Rs.1121 crores. So in a matter of 4 years, a sum of Rs 8106 crores has been set aside only for Sports and related departments. So funds are not an issue.
But where is all this money going? Even if we assume some percentage is being diverted to personal wallets, I believe a significant amount is just stuck - because of bureaucracy, because of projects never taking off and above all because of an inefficient, lazy babudom that couldn’t care less.
But to give the Government credit – possibly encouraged by a surprise shower of medals in Beijing, a sum of around Rs. 10-11 crores was set aside for the training of potential medal winners, in preparation for London Olympics. In the past one year, most of them have indeed travelled abroad and received training under international experts. But in my opinion, while this is great, it is a case of too little too late. The training these athletes have received in this past one year should continue more as a routine, than as a ‘top-up’ afterthought. Also, this haphazard releasing of funds is not a good strategy. If we need to look at a good medal haul for 2016 and 2020 Olympics, we have to start training potential performers as young as 10-11 starting now.
Above all, the government can only do so much. In order to become a world class athlete, one has to sacrifice normal life and start young. Many international athletes who are groomed young do not undergo traditional schooling. Their schedules are gruelling to say the least. Moreover athletic career is short-lived; although the glory is great. We need to ask ourselves if we are willing to make that choice for our children. How many parents will give up the BE, MBBS, IAS, MBA dream and allow their child to focus only on a sport that is not even remotely connected to cricket? The answer is very, very, very few.
So let’s just put our hands together for those who chose differently, boldly. And stop whining.
© Sumana Khan - 2012