“Should there be a selection trial between Narsingh Yadav and Sushil Kumar?”
With three months to go for the Olympics, it was the obvious first question the then sports minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, was asked. After staring blankly at the reporters, Sonowal would turn to Sports Authority of India (SAI) Director General Injeti Srinivas seated next to him. Their longish discussion would end with Sonowal’s soft answer: “The ministry will not interfere.” The ambiguity over India’s choice of wrestler in the 74-kg freestyle would continue.
That was May, and Sonowal was on a brief visit to the Capital after spending most of 2016 in Assam — first to take stock of the South Asian Games preparations and later spearheading the BJP’s Northeast push ahead of the all-important state elections. His rivals in Assam alleged that sports and politics were getting intertwined as the face of the two big events was the same. Sonowal, also the BJP’s Assam CM candidate, begged to differ.
However, it was clear that when Sonowal was asked the ‘Narsingh or Sushil’ question, sports wasn’t the only thing on his mind.
On hindsight, it was a distracted minister in charge of a ministry with mixed-up priorities which, coupled with bumbling national federation bosses, would see India lose the momentum it had gathered after the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, and that had touched its peak at the London Olympics.
At the Rio Olympians ‘see-off’ function, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken about the budget increase for the Games. “It used to be around Rs 15 crore. However, understanding the gravity of the situation, we have increased the budget to up to Rs 125 crore,” he said.
But in the absence of a proper plan, even this eight-fold fund spike didn’t translate into sporting high.
For starters, India was slow off the blocks in its Olympics run. It was only in February 2015, nine months after Sonowal took charge, that the Sports Ministry, keeping in mind the Olympics, launched its ambitious Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS). It was aimed at streamlining the funding mechanism of elite athletes. But several athletes wanting government aid were tripped by the dreaded ‘red-tape’.
Sources say Sonowal’s office and the SAI were against TOPS initially. This, plus the disagreements over various policy matters, including TOPS, between them, resulted in several delays in implementing the scheme and disbursal of the money.
In the first six months of the scheme, the ministry spent Rs 2.08 crore on 29 elite athletes hand-picked by its committee. The amount rose to approximately Rs 30 crore in the last eight months before the Games. The slow cash flow during 2015 hampered preparations of athletes.
Besides, the government appears to have not been judicious in spotting talent. Out of the 109 athletes the Sports Ministry supported, only 30 qualified for Rio Olympics. Of the 97 athletes funded under TOPS, 66 made the Olympic cut.
The ministry sanctioned roughly Rs 30 lakh for equipment for the national camp where Pullela Gopichand trained eventual silver medallist P V Sindhu. The proposal was approved in June 2015 but the amount was released nearly two months later.
The government also took its time clearing payments for the support team of former world number one pistol shooter Heena Sidhu, including her coach Ronak Pandit as well as Canadian sports psychologist Pierre Beauchamp. Money to purchase equipment also came late. The amount was roughly Rs 14 lakh, but the courier containing her bills was misplaced at the ministry office and was cleared nearly three months late.
In October 2015, owing to the constant complaints, TOPS committee member Abhinav Bindra resigned. The following month, the scheme’s screening committee chairman, Anurag Thakur, too quit. In January, Bindra said, “It is a very well-meaning programme. It’s just that the delivery is sometimes a problem. The government has its own rules and regulations.”
Finally, in April this year, the PMO stepped in and the Mission Olympic Cell was formed, which ensured that there were no further delays in clearing the demands of athletes. By then, just a couple of months were left before the Games.
Now, other hiccups followed. While funds were easily available, federations did not have a water-tight plan for the Olympic year.
The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), for instance, failed to enter the Indian team for two international tournaments as it was preoccupied first with the court case involving Narsingh and Sushil, and later because of the dope saga that eventually led to a four-year ban on Narsingh.
The WFI’s original plan to hold a training camp in Spala, Poland, in June was shelved too, as it could not procure visas in time due to the court case.
Poland was India’s second choice after Belarus refused to host team India, saying their wrestlers were training elsewhere.
The team eventually went for an exposure trip to Bulgaria, and had to make do with junior wrestlers to spar with. Admitting they “erred” there, WFI president Brijbhushan Sharan Singh says,”It affected our wrestlers.”
While the wrestlers missed tournaments, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) conducted its own to ensure maximum athletes qualified for the Rio Olympics. But these tournaments weren’t pre-planned. For example, the AFI wrote to the SAI on June 30 expressing its intent to conduct an Indian Grand Prix on July 10. To meet the minimum standards to make it an Olympic qualifying event, the AFI hurriedly invited the Sri Lankan athletes too, sponsoring their tour.
Less than a month ahead of the Games, the Indian men’s 4×400 relay team made the cut with the second-fastest time in the world at that point, just behind Jamaica. At Rio, however, the team was disqualified in the heats itself.
Other distractions in the run-up to the Games didn’t help. Even as the funding for the Olympic hopefuls was in doldrums, Sonowal decided to host the South Asian Games, which hadn’t been held since 2010, in his home state in February. Ahead of the Assam elections, the Games provided him an opportunity to be seen as an able administrator who could put together a grand show.
It did not matter that the South Asian Games coincided with several important international tournaments, including a couple of Olympic qualifying events.
For three months (December 2015 to February 2016), virtually the entire Sports Ministry and SAI operated out of Guwahati. Rio Olympics was put on the back burner as the ministry ordered the sports federations to ensure that their top players took part to make the inconsequential event a success.
Not surprisingly, the South Asian Games were a resounding success for India, with the hosts winning 188 gold medals, 163 more than second-placed Sri Lanka.
A couple of months later, the BJP swept the Assam elections and Sonowal became CM. And after six months, India returned with its worst Olympic performance since Athens 2004.