Kidambi Srikanth won the Indonesian title, making it the second successive Super Series meet where an Indian made the top podium after Sai Praneeth won in Singapore. In the intervening weeks, there were murmurs from sections in the Badminton Association of India (BAI), who were considering rejigging the system, which would put national coach Pullela Gopichand’s powers under scrutiny.
While Gopichand is widely hailed for propping up India’s badminton with back-to-back Olympic medals, and credited for the success of PV Sindhu, the 44-year-old has his share of critics in certain state units and amongst players outside his academy, who accuse him of being dictatorial. Chief amongst the accusations are his concurrent roles as national coach while running his academy in Hyderabad. While BAI distanced itself from murmurs to clip his wings and has deferred plans of announcing changes in the academy and coaching structure till its meeting next month, Gopichand insists it is frustrating to face roadblocks while he is aiming to further chisel the system that’s bringing titles for India.
At stake is the future of 17-year-old Satwik Sairaj Reddy, a talented doubles shuttler, who has been groomed by Gopichand over the last decade when he was accused of ignoring doubles, which remained India’s weak link in team events. Speaking to The Indian Express after Srikanth’s triumph, Gopichand takes on some niggling questions, while stressing that far from being too-powerful, he in fact wields little power as national coach. Going forward, he said he would like to have more say on how things ought to be planned for further success in the sport.
What are your thoughts on suggestions to change the system of coaching and selection in badminton?
I’ll say don’t fix something that’s not broken. Hope the top decision makers use their intelligence to see what’s working and what’s not, and then go about changing things if there’s a need for it.
Do you think you have too much control?
I wish I had more control and authority on things. I have delivered results with whatever players I’ve had. If I was given a chance to work with a larger group of players, the number of winners would have been much more.
The big conflict of interest is that you are the national coach, also run an academy and are an official in Telangana badminton. How do you look at this situation?
Look at badminton for the last 20 years. Prakash (Padukone) sir was the president and he had an academy. (SM) Arif sir was the chief coach and had his own trainees. Vimal (Kumar) had his own academy and was the secretary in Karnataka badminton.
Uday Pawar, Madhumita Bisht, Vikram Bisht all had academies while playing other roles. If you look at the selection committee today also, there are those with a connect with players. Talk about this issue by all means, but don’t make it sound as if I have done something terribly wrong and all players are coming from my academy. They are coming up because we are working hard on them, and they are putting in the effort. A system is working. It’s good that former players are coaching; isn’t it? Why would you stop that?
Your system of coaching is working, but critics resent the concentration of authority, and also murmurs of conflict of interest. Is the issue grey rather than black and white?
I’ll say there’s no substance to the complaints that I’ve done anything wrong. It’s tricky because people who have no connect with the game want to take the biggest decisions in the sport. Those who are involved day-in-day-out and have a passion for badminton should logically be making these decisions. Of course, there should be checks and balances and everyone should be accountable. But there are people who have no passion for the game who want to take the biggest decisions. Shouldn’t the stakeholders be deciding?
Guru saidutt’s addition to the TOPS list was a bone of contention.
For starters, nobody paid extra money to Guru saidutt. I had said this in the TOPS meeting and I’ll say it again — it makes no sense to allot funding for every player separately. I had said the funding that badminton receives should be used up for a group of 4-5 players rather than a single player. If we are availing a physio, a trainer, isn’t it ideal that they take care of and are paid for 2-3 players rather than just 1 athlete.
Guru made the grade on his merit — he had a Commonwealth Games medal in 2014, and was deserving of getting a chance but it’s unfortunate that he was picked on. At the Olympics you can’t have a support staff of 500 travelling with 100 athletes. It doesn’t work like that. Guru was given nothing extra than what Srikanth, Sindhu, Kashyap already had.
But what about somebody outside the academy like Ajay Jayaram?
I was always of the opinion that if Ajay wants to train in Mumbai, it’s fine. Go out and ask him what he needs. Give him a specific number of shuttles every year and a stipend for whatever support staff he needs. He is a good bloke, but the trouble in this precedent is how do you monitor what’s happening at different centres.
What is your idea of how the funding system should be?
I always wanted TOPS to be system-driven, not athlete-driven. If there are 5-6 support staff attached to one athlete — coaches, physios, analysts, and only 2 can travel, what do the others do in that time and how do we monitor their funding? In a system, support staff professionals get utilised properly. Any funding should be system-driven, otherwise you’ll always struggle to monitor.
It is contended that you have too much power resting in you as national coach. Your comments.
When I go to big events like the Olympics or Sudirman, I’m not always in the loop about players’ injuries. I don’t know if my doubles teams are all match-fit. Someday I will be asked what sort of a national coach am I if I don’t know about my players’ fitness status. Are you still saying I am an all-powerful coach? I say, I have absolutely no power as a national coach. If I had more powers, I would deliver more results.