The tast force appointed by the Prime Minister to chalk out a roadmap to improve India’s performance at the Olympics has recommended “significant restructuring” of the Sports Authority of India (SAI), urging that it should primarily be responsible to run “academies of excellence”.
The Olympic Task Force has also suggested that qualified professionals should replace bureaucrats at SAI and the agency given complete financial autonomy. “Instead of deputing government officers to SAI, the new SAI would be fully professionalised and only specialists on contractual basis with clearly defined deliverables, shall be appointed on the board and all functions down the line,” states the report.
“Full financial autonomy needs to be given to SAI. They should be allowed to raise the resources to run their various programs,” it states.
The onus to implement the recommendations will be on the Prime Minister’s Office and the Sports Ministry. Prime Minister Narendra Modi formed the task force last year in the aftermath of India’s disastrous Olympic campaign in Rio de Janeiro. It was mandated to come up with suggestions to improve India’s performance at the 2020, 2024 and 2028 Olympics.
The eight-member committee, which included Olympians Abhinav Bindra, Pullela Gopichand and Viren Rasquinha, submitted its final 144-page report to the government earlier this week. SAI deputy director general Sandip Pradhan is the convener.
Among other things, it has suggested that sportspersons should be considered “active” only till the age of 28. After that, depending on their national ranking, it has been recommended that they be “reskilled” as a coach or referee. The task force has also advocated tax exemptions for various IPL-style leagues for the first five years to make the effort sustainable.
However, one of the biggest changes it has suggested is redefining the role of SAI. Since it was formed after the 1982 Asian Games, SAI has become the nodal organisation vis-a-vis the Olympic programme. It houses most of the Olympians at its hostels, hosts national camps for all sports and conducts coach certification as well as grassroot programmes. A majority of the stadiums, especially in Delhi, come under SAI.
The authority, though, has often been criticised for providing below-par facilities to athletes and being too bureaucratic. At most of its 80-plus centres, there is a severe shortage of qualified coaches and the campers routinely criticise the conditions at the hostels and training venues.
The Olympic Task Force has called for a complete overhaul of the structure. It has suggested that SAI should only be responsible for training and preparation of elite athletes instead of focussing on grassroots, intermediate and elite levels, like it currently does. “From the perspective of long-term athlete development, SAI should now only run the academies of excellence (mainly 17+ players in the train-to-compete and train-to-win stage),” the report states.
To reduce government interference, the committee has urged that the set-up be professionalised by ending the concept of deputing government officers to SAI. As per the current policy, the body is headed by a director general who is a bureaucrat and reports to the sports ministry. All other positions in the organisation, too, are taken up by government employees.
The agency also depends on the sports ministry for funds. At the same time, the task force has called for complete financial autonomy, insisting that 25 per cent of SAI’s budget in running the academies must come from the corporate sector and internal income.
According to the report, a “detailed exercise” on restructuring SAI will be undertaken once the recommendation is accepted.
This isn’t the first time that the need to restructure SAI has been brought up. In 2015, then sports minister Sarbananda Sonowal said it was necessary to “restructure SAI cadre” and in the same year, a Parliamentary Standing Committee came down heavily on SAI for continuing to work in a bureaucratic manner by appointing people without sports background at key positions.
On both occasions, though, there was no follow-up. A task force member said they are hopeful that the Prime Minister’s Office and the sports ministry will accept the report in its entirety. “How much they implement is something we can’t say,” the member said.