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Don’t blame it on Rio

Instead of waiting for talent to appear, we must create a national sports culture.

Written by Mani Shankar Aiyar |
Updated: August 19, 2016 7:58:51 am
rio, sakshi malik, sindhu, pv sindhu, rio olympics, rio 2016, rio Olympics 2016, rio news, rio olympics india, india rio olympics, india news, sports news, Vijay Goel, Vijay Goel rio olympics Indian contingent at the Rio Olympics opening ceremony at the Maracana stadium (Source: Reuters)

Even as the Union sports minister, Vijay Goel, and his unruly cohort bring disgrace upon the nation by bullying their way into prohibited spaces at Rio, our sportspersons have brought us little glory. Although hope lies undying within the human breast, it is highly unlikely that we will match our tally of the last Olympics.

I hasten to add that this is not in the least the fault of our sportspersons. It is the inevitable consequence of our never having had a comprehensive sports policy aimed at developing a sporting culture to make ours a sporting nation. Indeed, sports policy, such as it is, has been wholly concentrated on funding sports bodies and administrators who are intent on living in style while hoping that Lady Luck will produce some athlete or team that will compensate for our being the worst performing large country in the world of sport. If we do happen upon a Milkha Singh or a Dutee Chand, it is more chance than an earnest search for catching them young and then assiduously nurturing them to a world-class showing at the Olympics.

Indeed, what our sports administrators wish to concentrate on is hosting mega-sporting events on which government, for reasons of false prestige, goes out of its way to shower its largesse. We saw this with devastating consequences at the Commonwealth Games, 2010, that did more to sully our good name the world over than any failure in field and track.

The worst job I have ever held was as Union sports minister, 2006-08. CWG ‘10 was under preparation and everyone expected me to be a complaisant team player although I discovered within a few days of taking the assignment that what it meant was that I ask the government for more and more money while keeping prescribed financial procedures at bay as far as possible. I repeatedly protested my unwillingness to be part of these shenanigans and was eventually sacked — to my intense relief.

But before I was shown the door, I was instructed to prepare a “comprehensive sports policy” to replace the few pages of clichés prepared by the previous government. I got my 72-page document ready within weeks but the Indian Olympics Committee got all sports bodies to boycott the effort. I, therefore, submitted the paper as it was. A discussion on it in cabinet was scheduled but, with a day or two to go for the discussion, I was eased out and my successor’s first task was to withdraw the paper. When the new government was formed in 2014, the new BJP minister (who has since been elevated to chief minister, Assam) requested me for a copy. I sent it to him. I was then asked for another copy by Vijay Malhotra of the IOA, who, as the longest-serving sports administrator in the country, has been responsible for more sporting disasters than several of his colleagues combined. However, I complied post-haste with his request. That is the last I have heard of it.

The gravamen of my paper, based on constitutional provisions relating to sports, numerous expert committee reports since Independence, repeated parliamentary standing committee recommendations, the Olympics Charter and a host of UN declarations on education and sports to which we have subscribed, and recent and earlier policy statements at the level of PM and below, was that we cannot win medals before first becoming a sporting nation. Instead of waiting for talent to appear out of the blue, we must create a national sports culture, fostering a nation-wide sports consciousness and building a reservoir of sporting talent by providing universal access to sports, as other comparable countries have done.

The paper drew on 2000 data (this now needs updating) to show that China had created 6,20,000 sports facilities with 3,50,00 popular sports instructors and another 1,00,000 part-time trainers, working through some 40,000 grassroots sports associations, to involve an estimated 37 per cent of its population in physical education and sports activities stretching across all age groups. India, on the other hand, was estimated to have provided access to sports to no more than 5 crore out of its 77 crore population of youth and children. In consequence, where China had won a total of 379 medals in recent Olympic and Asian Games put together, India’s tally stood at a meagre 55.

The paper pointed also to little Cuba’s astonishing score, in the Olympics and Pan-American Games put together, of 179 medals, amounting to an average of 157.2 medals for every 10 million of its population as against India’s 0.5 medals for every 10 million of our population. It was stressed that out of some 11.5 million people, Cuba had 2 million “recognised athletes”, of whom 23,000 were in the “high performance” category spread over 38 sporting disciplines, trained by 1,20,000 retired sportspersons and 48,000 professionals, leading to this tiny island inhabited by fewer people than are to be found between the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and the Yamuna Sports Complex at Surajmal Vihar, New Delhi, becoming one of the best performing countries in the Olympics.

Drawing from the experience of China and Cuba, the paper laid out a strategy for adopting their methodology to the Indian reality. The Action Plan comprised nearly a hundred steps to be taken, and is too detailed to be summarised in this article. It broadly aimed at securing “sports for all” through promoting universal access to sports. Besides schools from the primary level upwards, the three-tier Panchayati Raj system was to be involved through the already-launched Panchayat Yuva Khel aur Krida Abhiyan and the 2.5 lakh clubs of the Nehru Yuva Kendras (since abandoned by the BJP ministers). Scientific talent-spotting was to be encouraged through district and sub-district sporting competitions, followed by an elaborate system of specialist sports training with suitable nutrition at special education institutions that combined normal school and college education with overwhelming emphasis on sports for selected sportspersons of exceptional talent. Promotion of indigenous sports and the preparation of a sports grid and sports mapping to monitor what disciplines of excellence were emerging in which parts of the country was emphasised. That, not squandering tens of thousands of crores on hosting mega-sports events, is the way forward to medals and to national glory.

The writer, a senior Congress leader, was Union sports minister, 2006-08

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