New Delhi: India’s 81-strong Olympic contingent for the 2012 London Games, starting 27 July, has arrived in the host city, riding on an unprecedented wave of popularity and expectations back home.
“It’s a new feeling for me,” says 2008 Olympics bronze-winning wrestler Sushil Kumar. “When I went to Beijing, the only people who knew me were other wrestlers. This time I’ve spent most of my spare time giving interviews.”
After shooter Abhinav Bindra, boxer Vijender Singh and Kumar ended India’s Olympics medal drought at the 2008 Beijing Games, Indian athletes have seen a remarkable rise in public interest buoyed by increasingly consistent success at the international level.
“The attitude before the 2008 Olympics, among both sports officials and athletes, was that we are not good enough to win at major international events,” says Singh. “Now, even the youngest athletes of India, who are making their debut, believe that they can win at the Olympics. This mindset is half the battle won.”
But another battle, of deeper significance, is only just beginning. Despite the improved performances of India’s Olympic athletes, the country’s deeply politicized and moribund sports system continues to stumble with scant signs of change.
“2012 may be India’s best Olympics ever,” says former India hockey captain Viren Rasquinha, who is now chief executive officer (CEO) of Olympic Gold Quest, a not-for-profit organization that helps athletes with funding and expertise. “And the scale and quality of government support for the topmost athletes has gone up, but we are a long way from bringing even a semblance of efficiency in the sporting system.”
Government spending for Olympic athletes has gone up significantly though. In 2009, an unprecedented Rs 678 crore was given to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) to enable the core group of elite athletes to train and compete abroad, to train coaches and officials, and to upgrade SAI’s training centres. For the 2012 Olympics, the sports ministry sanctioned Rs 258 crore, to be used over a 14-month period starting April 2011, specifically for the training and competition needs of the core group of athletes.
But mismanagement is rife. Kumar, who trains at SAI’s centre in Sonepat, Haryana, says he gets his own food, since the meals served at the residential centre don’t meet nutritional requirements. “The quality is not good at all,” he says. “And the meals are not planned according to what we need for a sport as physically demanding as wrestling.”
“Across the world, elite athletes get the highest-quality diet, scientifically tailored down to the last calorie, for their sport,” says Manisha Malhotra, CEO of Mittal Champions Trust, another not-for-profit organization that works with Olympic athletes. “Here we have no concept of such a thing. Whether you are a wrestler, boxer, marathon runner or weightlifter, you get the same dal-roti-paneer at the training centres.”
There are problems with medical care and physiotherapists, too. A few days before Kumar left for the London Games, he found out that the wrestling team’s physiotherapist was not part of the team the Indian Olympic Association was sending to London. “In a fighting sport, you have no chance if you don’t have a physiotherapist to help you with your injuries,” Kumar says. “I’m paying from my own pocket to take our physiotherapist to London.”
Malhotra also says that most physiotherapists and medical staff hired by SAI are “clueless” about managing elite sportspeople. “If you want world-class athletes, you need world-class physios,” she says. “The ones we have right now are more of a danger to our athletes than help.”
Despite repeated attempts, officials from SAI refused to comment on these matters.
That the increased government expenditure for sports often gets misappropriated was disclosed in detail in the performance audit report for the 2010 Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi. Among numerous other infractions, there were irregularities in the purchase of sports equipment for competition and training venues. A budget of Rs 30.42 crore had been sanctioned for this to the organizing committee (OC). The OC was supposed to consult the national federations for various disciplines, but most of the federations did not bother to participate, leaving the committee, with no expertise on the matter, to procure the equipment. Global tender procedures were not followed, and no performance guarantees were obtained from successful bidders. Boxing rings did not match competition specifications, and of the 24,000 shuttlecocks bought, the shelf life of 12,000 had expired before the event began.
“Our sports federations and associations are like the Taliban,” says Rahul Mehra, a Delhi lawyer who has filed several pieces of public interest litigation (PIL) against the multiple sports federations. “They have destroyed so much, there is nothing much left to destroy. Now we can only rebuild.”
Mehra, who filed a PIL against the Board of Control for Cricket in India that led to the organization becoming more transparent in its affairs, has been challenging the workings of various sports federations in the country—challenging their organizational structure, functioning and financial dealings.
“In every sports federation, you have politicians and bureaucrats occupying all the positions,” he says. “They won’t step aside, they have to be thrown aside. They answer to no one, there is widespread evidence of every kind of irregularity. No one is saying that only former athletes should run sports bodies, but at least give them some representation.”
Rasquinha adds that Olympic Gold Quest’s original efforts in aiding sports federations with funding were dropped because of these issues. “We had a bad experience,” he says. “There was no transparency or accountability. Why do you think sponsors don’t come to Indian sports? So we shifted our policy to support individual athletes.”
Bindra, too, speaks out against the system.
“While I’m happy that the best athletes in India are getting a lot more money to train and compete, we are still hopeless at the grass-roots level,” he says. “We need to do a lot more to offer facilities, infrastructure and coaching know-how to young children who’ve picked up a sport. That is the most crucial time, but we tend to treat that as unimportant.”