Six round tables are spread across a hall, decorated by placards with names of young athletes on them. Those athletes start pouring into the room and make their way to their designated seats. A trio – two shooters and a fencer – decide to swap a few nameplates around so they can sit together. A few minutes later, Anjali Bhagwat takes to the front of the room and shuffles around everybody’s seats. “Do not sit with a person from the same sport,” she calls.
This was no team bonding exercise the three-time Olympian was conducting with upcoming athletes. It was part of a new initiative, the Athlete 365 Career+, that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has devised to prepare young sportspersons for what they have not been trained for till date – life after sport.
“The IOC has done its research and come to the conclusion that at least 50-60 per cent athletes face the problem of depression because they don’t know what to do post-retirement,” Bhagwat says. “Athletes are not prepared or cannot digest the idea that they no longer exist in the sporting world anymore. They’re used to the fame, the sport, the life, the practice, the competition… suddenly it all stops. So for that particular situation, you have to prepare yourself right now, from the youth level.
“This is where you choose what you want to pursue after your sporting career. Then accordingly you can choose your institution, where you want to study, be it Bachelors or Masters. So once you have that knowledge you can prepare for your second career.”
This was the second such programme Bhagwat – the only IOC-approved instructor for the course in India – has held after conducting a seminar in New Delhi last year, where the likes of Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhury attended. In Mumbai on Saturday, youngsters from the sports of shooting, fencing, rowing, sailing, rugby, athletics and swimming attended.
The programme involves an aptitude test to give youngsters an inkling of what their strengths are.
“There’s no conscious preparation for the second life – which can be in the labour market or in your own profession and education (coaching),” Bhagwat says. “The IOC wants to educate the youth so they don’t face that problem, so that they’re prepared for it.”
Post-Olympic, and even post-retirement depression has been a severe problem for athletes. The likes of Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe and 10-time Olympic medallist Allison Schmitt have openly spoken about the depression that fills the void left behind after a major competition. And it is something no athlete is trained for. Earlier this year, 2016 Rio Olympics silver medallist cyclist Kelly Catlin committed suicide months after suffering a concussion.
“When you are an athlete, you are focused on the now, the goal, the thing you are trying to achieve. You are dealing with everything in real time,” Australia’s three-time Olympic gold medallist Stephanie Rice told The Indian Express last month. “As an athlete, you don’t focus on post-sport depression, but on ‘the now’ and how do I perform at the top level at one moment in four years, when you get to do what you need to do.”
That’s where the IOC has stepped in, to promote the idea to athletes that there is life beyond sport, and that they have to prepare for that as well. And Bhagwat asserts that this is the right time to start addressing the problem.
“There are so many more people trying to pursue a career in sport now than ever before,” she says. “But the life of an athlete is very short. Most athletes across sports will retire at, maybe, 35. In sports like gymnastics, it’s probably much earlier. But you’re still so young, you have your entire life ahead. What do you do then? All you know is that you are good at sport. We want them to know where else opportunities lie for them.”
During the seminar, former Commonwealth Games gold medallist Ronak Pandit was also present, and will be taking his observations from the seminar to the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI). “This is something important that has not really been touched upon enough in sport. But it needs to happen more,” he says.
Incidentally, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) is planning for just that.
“We are in talks with the IOC to launch a ‘Country Programme’ next year in India in partnership with Adecco,” says IOA secretary general Rajeev Mehta. “From 2020 onwards, IOA would be able to provide full support to our athletes in career and job placement.”
By the end of the session, the placards had no meaning for the 30-odd athletes present, nor did switching the tags around to sit next to a friend. After all, it wasn’t a day meant to know your peer. It was to know more about yourself.