A big challenge

Updated: March 6, 2016 1:37:04 AM

There is still a lot to be done before the country can hope for a rich medal haul at the forthcoming Olympic Games

Earlier this week, the sports ministry reviewed India’s preparations for August’s Rio Olympics along with all the important stakeholders. At the end of it, the government looked confident that India will return with around ‘10-14 medals’, almost double than what it managed at the London Olympics.

Under normal circumstances, the target would’ve seemed natural, as it would reflect India’s steady growth in Olympic sports, but as is the case so often, India looks to have lost the plot and failed to carry on the momentum gained after the London Games, which makes the ‘10-14 medal’ projection slightly bloated.

The ministry insists it is doing everything it possibly can to ensure athletes’ interests are taken care of. And to be fair, ministry officials have, to an extent, been flexible with budgets and have virtually accepted every demand made by the federation despite a few inevitable bureaucratic delays. But the government’s words are not entirely supported by their actions. Arun Jaitley did not even mention sports during his Budget speech on Monday and when the allocation for sports was revealed later, there was just a nominal hike of Rs 50.47 crore from last year.

In an Olympic year, the government has set aside Rs 1,592 crore for sports and youth affairs, of which Rs 381.80 crore will go to the Sports Authority of India, Rs 545.90 crore to sports institutions and Rs 12 crore for anti-doping activities. On the face of it, this seems a substantial amount, but is it enough? As per China’s National People’s Congress, in the last financial year, the country allocated 50.815 billion yuan for sports and culture. Almost half of it was channelised towards the preparations for the Rio Olympics and developing school-level sports. Their vision, though, doesn’t end by just setting aside money for sport.

They have further set a target of creating a 503-billion-pound sports industry by 2025 in partnership with private players and are planning to grow its average area of sports facilities to 2 sq m per person from 1.2 sq m in 2010, as per The Telegraph.

That’s a sporting giant we are talking about. Even Mongolia, considered a minnow in the sporting world, has demarcated approximately Rs 2,285 crore (691 billion Mongolian tugrik) for their sport and health ministry in an Olympic year.

This isn’t to say the entire responsibility lies with the government. Private players and dedicated professionals play an equally important role. Nor does this imply that there is a direct correlation between money spent and medals won.

The other important aspect is governance. In that, the entire system has let us down. The ministry showed where its priorities were when it virtually forced top athletes to compete at the inconsequential South Asian Games last month, forcing athletes to modify their training programmes and give up on far more important international tournaments just six months ahead of the Olympics.

It’s not just about the ministry though. Even four years after it was suspended and then reinstated by the International Olympic Committee, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) remains a divided house. The differences within the parent body and absence of leadership have severely affected other sports, boxing in particular. It was a discipline where India was emerging as a strong challenger to traditional world superpowers. Eight Indian boxers qualified for the London Games and, for the second time in a row, India returned with a medal. But vested interests of a few resulted in the federation being suspended internationally and even after three years, there is little hope of the house being set in order. In the process, boxers have severely suffered. While all this happened, the sports ministry remained a silent spectator.

Even in wrestling, where India won two medals last time, the country has failed to ride on the momentum and, as we stare at another Olympics, we are still stuck with the two same stars rather than focussing on any emerging talent.

Tennis is another sport where India has been longing for a medal, especially in doubles. But once again, the knack of our star players of putting self ahead of the nation has blown their medal chances.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Shooting remains the key sport where India can expect medals even though their inconsistency on big global platforms remains a concern. Badminton, too, continues to prosper under Gopichand’s regimented watch. Hockey has been making steady strides although it may still be far away from posing a podium challenge. Unlikely challengers have also emerged in race walking, a sport where India barely managed to put a foot right a little more than five years ago. But today, nearly a dozen have met the Olympic standards and they are not expected to go down without a fight in Rio. Archers, too, have been consistently winning medals at world cups.

Infostrada, one of the leading sports data providers, has projected that India will win five medals going by the current form of the country’s athletes. Two of them are in tennis—a mixed doubles and women’s doubles. Five medals seem to be a more realistic projection instead of the double-digit figure the government is hoping for. Although India has made some strides at an international level, there is still a lot to be done before the country can hope for a rich medal haul at the Games.

By Mihir Vasavda

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