Some of country’s leading athletes including Olympic medallists Sushil Kumar, Gagan Narang and Saina Nehwal, among others, are in a quandary over the sports ministry’s new policy, which will force them to part ways with their existing backers and work solely in collaboration with the government.
A couple of weeks ago, the government sent out contracts to 75 hand-picked athletes under their proposed Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS). However, none of the athletes have signed and returned the document to the sports ministry yet. In fact, it is learnt that some of them have written back to them, seeking more clarity and asking pointed questions over the scheme’s implementation.
Apart from the basic sum they receive from the government at present, most Indian athletes receive financial and technical backing from organisations such as the Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), Anglian Medal Hunt and Jindal Sports. As per the contracts drafted by the government, the athletes will have to forego the assistance they receive from these foundations. The ministry has earmarked around Rs 40 crore for the scheme this year in addition to Rs 100 crore from the National Sports Development Fund (NSDF).
Beijing Olympics gold medallist Abhinav Bindra, who was part of the drafting panel which also included Rahul Dravid, Pullela Gopichand and Mary Kom, among others, said the ‘intention is a positive one.’ “It is an attempt to professionalize matters and be proactive in reaching out to athletes. But timely execution is a must,” Bindra told The Indian Express.
Timely execution is what most athletes are apprehensive about. Over the years, the government has funded athletes through the National Sports Development Fund (NSDF). But to avail its benefits has been a tedious process. Expenses incurred by athletes have rarely been reimbursed in time and in the absence of a professional set-up, had to depend on external agencies for additional support.
“If the ministry wants me to end ties with my existing agency and sign up for them, then I need to be assured that I will continue to receive help in the same professional way. It’s very close to the Olympics and if we have to struggle in getting clearances for small things from the government, then this exercise is pointless,” says an athlete who won a medal at the London Games.
These private organisations have played a notable role in India’s improved performance at the world stage by providing them with timely and effective assistance. For instance, the OGQ played a crucial role in treating boxer Sarita Devi’s injured wrist days ahead of the Commonwealth Games last year. Their physio worked closely with the boxer in getting her fit for the event and Sarita went on to win the gold in Glasgow.
Similarly, Anglian has continued to support sprinter Dutee Chand, who is currently fighting a ban slapped on her by the national and international athletics federations. The now-defunct Mittal Champions Trust sent Yogeshwar Dutt, who was suffering from a major knee injury, to South Africa for treatment. This was much before Yogeshwar became the star wrestler he is today.
Athletes are concerned whether they will receive such prompt and effective assistance from the government as and when they require. Bindra said he had raised this issue during the committee’s last meeting in November. “During the last meeting, which was in November, I had emphasised the need for the scheme to be athlete-friendly and was assured of a professional team. I personally did not have any apprehensions on the contract as I am not supported from other sources,” he said.
The ministry is hoping to launch the scheme officially later this month but there is no clarity over how the system will be operated.
“The idea is to give NSDF a more professional outlook and try utilising the money in an efficient manner. We are trying to bypass the bureaucratic hurdles that athletes face,” said Manisha Malhotra, a member of the panel.