Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh: At 6am, Vidya Rekhwal lifts her oar in triumph as she crosses the finishing line and ends the training session. At the age of 15, she’s come a long way since the swimming competitions of her youth in the river bordering Hoshangabad, a district 70km from here.
Vidya is now a national-level kayaker—discovered during a talent hunt by a coach from the Grameen Yuva Kendra programme, a grass-roots effort to marry the athletic abilities of rural youth with India’s gold-medal ambitions.
Long before sports in this state went from bad to worse, the Grameen Yuva Kendras were set up two years ago to give every 100 villages and tribal areas a playground of a quarter-acre, complete with infrastructure to support the game of choice, usually kabaddi, kho-kho or volleyball. On average, the set-up cost about Rs25,000 and served 5,000 people; the coach hired to oversee the school must have passed the class 12 exams and been a participant in a state-level tournament.
Finally, after increased funding, a partnership with the private sector and a campaign to raise awareness of sport as a career option, dozens of success stories from these schools set up as an experiment are starting to emerge. In fact, Madhya Pradesh’s medal tally went up from 30 to 63 in the last National Games held in Guwahati.
Honing skills: One-third of the recruits at the Bhopal academy are youth sent from various Grameen Yuva Kendras in Madhya Pradesh; the academy offers 14 sports, including shooting, kayaking and hockey.
It’s hard to imagine that many who contributed to that tally started out at as humble a structure as this school: a single room that houses a desk, a few chairs and modest sports gear generously called “equipment”—ropes for tug-of-war, a football and some skipping ropes. An open field that’s been converted into a sports ground surrounds the structure and the Grameen Yuva Kendra is painted bright yellow with its customary red giant kite symbol occupying one entire wall.
Each Kendra also has a coordinator who finds children with promise, educates them and their parents about the programme and then trains them. Those who show potential are brought to an academy in Bhopal. They study here, stay in dormitories next door and train on the premises. The academy has 14 sports like fencing, shooting, kayaking, canoeing, boxing, hockey, track and field, among other sports. About one-third of children in the academy are recruits from these Grameen Yuva Kendras across the state.
The Madhya Pradesh government has increased the budget for various athletic programmes including the Kendras from Rs5 crore to Rs40 crore.
The last three months have seen the state win more than 300 medals at various national sport events. It hopes to continue this success during the upcoming national games in Jharkhand, also a largely tribal state, from where cricketer M.S. Dhoni hails.
“Sports is a very big binding factor and it cuts across everything. So our theme was very simple: Sports is an option, it’s a career,” says Sanjay Chaudhary, director of sports and youth welfare in Madhya Pradesh.
Initially, the Kendras saw little response from the villagers. In 2007, the Madhya Pradesh government roped in Ogilvy and Mather (O&M), a public relations and advertising firm. O&M’s campaign relied on street plays and short films to promote sports as a career. The company painted walls in villages with the campaign’s slogan and its symbol—a kite.
“There’s a small girl carrying a head load. And in another picture, the same girl or a similar girl, lifting weights and winning the gold medal in the Olympics,” describes Chaudhary. “It was an expensive campaign but we have great results.”
He notes that the level of participation from rural parts has suddenly gone up at the state’s annual sport meets. “We use to have 10,000 to 12,000 participants at the district level, it’s become up to 30,000 to 34,000. And the bulk is coming from the rural area.”
One of the crucial links in the programme is the Kendras’ coordinators. Former state-level champions, they travel from village to village looking for talented children and then the hard part begins: convincing their parents to send them to the academy in Bhopal. Most draw a salary of Rs 2,000 per month, happy to at least make a living from sports.
“Nobody knows what professional sports is in the village. We tell them its importance. We tell them your daughter can become like Sania Mirza and make you and your family famous,” says Meena Nagar, a coordinator in Berasia, the site of one Kendra.
Not many families are convinced easily though. Like Dinesh Swaskil’s.
Now competing in canoeing, Swaskil lied at home to get into the academy in Bhopal. “When I was in the village, I had imagined nothing more than making a living as a labourer, just like my parents. But that was before I got a chance to get into the academy,” says 15-year-old Swaskil, who belongs to the tribal area of Badwani in Madhya Pradesh. Swaskil says the most difficult part is to explain what canoeing is to his family.
“They ask me if I row a boat like the one in our village, and I give up and say ‘Yes, it’s exactly like that.’”
The first in his family to have ever ventured into a city, Swaskil dreams of bringing a medal home and making his parents proud.
Just like Mazhar Kamal from Mau in Uttar Pradesh, also tapped for the academy training. A hockey player, Kamal dreams of making it to the Indian hockey team and restoring its lost glory. “I’ve decided to make hockey my career. I don’t mind working day and night for it. But whatever I earn, I’ll earn it through my hockey stick.”
Tapping rural and tribal talents has been tried before. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) floated the “special area scheme” two decades ago, sending authorities on a hunt for tall boys in rural Rajasthan to play basketball and tribal women in Bihar to play hockey. Olympians such as Manohar Topno from Bihar, athlete Mala Siddhi from Andhra Pradesh and archer Limba Ram have all been from rural or tribal India. In recent years, philanthropists and companies have tried to support athletes; in Manipur, weightlifter M.C. Mary Kom, the three-time world women’s championship winner, received a sponsorship of Rs3 lakh last year from Sabeer Bhatia, the Chandigarh-born founder of Hotmail.
But corporate participation in Indian sports has been limited to games with greater visibility, namely cricket, golf and tennis. “The credibility of sports administrators in India is not very good. So people wouldn’t like to put in large sums of money,” says sports analyst V. Krishnaswamy, a former sports journalist who has closely followed recruitment of rural sportsmen in Kerala.
Ironically, making a career out of sport has meant securing jobs with various government departments. State governments reserve between 1-3% of seats for sportspersons, known as the ”sports quota.”
Now, things seem to be changing slowly, says Krishnaswamy. “Many of the youngsters are taking up sports not just because they love it or it’s glamorous, but because it’s also a viable career now, especially in cricket, golf and tennis.”
Still, experts say other sports are languishing because their federations are not doing enough to popularize the sport. And experts say schemes that hunt for rural talent have never lasted for long in the past—which makes Madhya Pradesh’s efforts significant.
“You can’t win medals over night and it can’t happen within one Olympic cycle. It has to be there for two-three Olympic cycles. Maybe even more to make it into a movement to make it into a talent hunting, talent nurturing scheme,” says Krishnaswamy.
Various private trusts also are working to help better India’s chances at the Olympics, such as the Mittal Champions Trust set up by steel industrialist and ArcelorMittal president and chief executive Lakshmi N. Mittal in 2005. Other academies too have sprung up to nurture talent in individual sports, such as the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, set up in 1994, and the Amritraj Tennis Academy in Chennai.
But setting up appropriate infrastructure and tapping world-class coaches to guide players continue to be tough hurdles for academies and the rural schools.
Hiring foreign coaches and physiotherapists is still a far-fetched dream. For foreign equipment, there is a wait of about five to six months at the very least.
Still, seeing success, the government plans to add another 50 Grameen Yuva Kendras this year.