India where to go from 2016 Rio Olympics?

(OPINION) Prime Minister Modi’s recent announcement to establish a bespoke ‘task force’ to prepare Indian sports person for the next three Olympics is certainly a welcome move. Let us hope this organisation will not only prepare a sound plan but will deliver it successfully?

Ashis Choudhury
Ashis Choudhury

To non-resident Indians, any world-class achievement of their mother nation is a matter of immense pride and joy, and conversely, disproportionately dismal failures feel disappointing and even embarrassing. To Indians, resident in the British Isles ( a nation with a population less than many of the Indian States) whose participants shone as brightly as the 27 gold, 23 silver and 17 bronze medals, the performance of the world’s second most populous nation could not present a more contrasting picture!

So, what went wrong with India’s Olympic preparations and delivery? Whilst the people and authorities of India are providing a heroes’ welcome, cash rewards and other gifts to the two young winners and one near-winner that they of course richly deserve, isn’t it essential for us to immediately decide a much better course of action to achieve a far greater success four years on at the Tokyo Olympics?

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We read the various announcements, comments and analyses offered by sports personalities, politicians and other pundits in the Indian media. Some of them lamented that the country spent only Rs 8100 million (£90 million) for Olympic preparations, compared to some £265 million in the U.K. In the context of India’s GDP, this is clearly a substantial expenditure and one finds it hard to agree with the observation of one Indian athlete who claimed that India didn’t provide “the money needed to convert performance into medals”.

Budgetary provision is not the key issue in India where even modest success in Olympic sports brings instant rewards worth Crores of Rupees (one-half to quarter million in pound sterling to each winner!). In my humble view, the key issues are the institutional organisations (free from nepotism and corruption), drive and initiative. In this regard, individual athletes and sportspersons also have their responsibilities. In Britain, whilst the government is rightly organising victory parades, the participants in the Rio Olympics have already started their own training for the next Olympic games. They know that they can’t afford to lose any time if the most outstanding rate of success is to be repeated four years from now.

It’s clear that India has quite an impressive institutional structure for the development of sports. At the federal level, there is the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and there are National Sports Federations (NSFs) that have benefited from the National Sports Development Fund. In addition, there has been a Target Olympic Podium (TOP) programme. The question that comes to mind in this context is: are these various organisations conducting their specified business properly? Is there an evaluation and follow-up system to monitor performance? Do we arrange regular participations of Indian sportspersons in regional international competitive events to test and hone their skills?

From media reports we also note that whilst the UK has 18 million people aged between 15 and 35, India has more than 400 million youth in that age group. Clearly, this provides a huge opportunity to identify potential talent for training and development. When I lived in the Indian State of Jharkhand in my childhood and early youth, I was struck by the immense stamina of the Adivasi people who, if nurtured and trained, could become outstanding athletes. Similar people exist in India’s hilly areas such as Nagaland and Kumaon. We have witnessed how the African tribes have provided brilliant performers in all areas of sports in the western countries. The excellent armed forces in India, with their vast resources, can also produce outstanding sportspersons.

If one visits the ‘ghats’ of Varanasi, one witnesses so many wrestlers and musclemen practising on their own relentlessly. Would it be impossible that some of these unsung people could be properly trained to win us a few wrestling and weight-lifting medals? Then one finds in the country’s rural areas young people swimming against fierce currents in swollen rivers.

Can’t we cast the net wide and identify talents among them to compete – after a well-devised rigorous training and necessary nourishment – in future, creating budding Indian equivalents, for example, of Usain Bolt or Mo Farah or Michael Phelps?

Sports development in India must not be limited to the privileged few and pre-conceived ideas. We need an objective and impartial scouting system to identify potential talents from such sources, rather than being solely dependent on the known faces and their clout. The wonderful achievement of the girl gymnast from the relatively less resourceful state of Tripura demonstrates generally unexpected potentials.

We imagine the Federal Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports of the Government of India will soon set out a clear goal for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 and begin the preparations on a ‘war footing’ that will hopefully not be mired by high-level interference and corruption (e.g., as witnessed in the organisation of the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games). We shouldn’t be simply satisfied with modest achievements but aim to compete fiercely with other leading achievers.

We know, in light of our mother nation’s track record in possible political and social malfunctions, this is not an easy task. Nonetheless, we would very much like to be optimistic!

Author Ashis Choudhury

MA(Econ), MSc(Eng), DIC, DipTP, MRTPI, AITP, CMIHT, CMILT is an urban planner, traffic engineer and transport policy analyst.
(The author has been living abroad for over 50 years, but continues to proudly remain an Indian citizen, despite considerable problems in international travel with an Indian passport)