Reading between the lines in Niti Aayog’s bid to revive sporting glory

A critical look at 10 of the 20 points that make up Niti Aayog’s draft plan for developing sports, and improving our performance at the Olympics

Badminton player P. V. Sindhu became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics . Photo: PTI
Badminton player P. V. Sindhu became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics . Photo: PTI

The Niti Aayog’s draft plan for developing sports is not just ambitious—50 medals at the 2024 Olympics is how the report is headlined—it is also a carefully thought out document with a clear vision. It manages to identify, with honesty, the numerous drawbacks in the Indian sporting system and its chronic problems. This is in itself is a firm step in the right direction—most government inquiries into sporting failures are marred by various agencies blaming each other.

Here’s a look at 10 of the 20 points that make up the document, and what they mean for the development of sports.

1. Target a group of priority sports

The plan speaks of 10 disciplines to be identified as priority sports, depending on India’s winning potential in each category, and providing extensive and in-depth support for these sports.

Verdict: Absolutely essential in a country with limited resources and a poor history of international sporting performance. We have been moving in this direction since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when Abhinav Bindra won a medal in shooting, Vijender Singh in boxing, and Sushil Kumar in wrestling. These three sports became the focus of our Olympic programmes, attracting far better funding and infrastructure than any other disciplines. Unfortunately, the efforts were undermined by debilitating administrative chaos. India’s boxing federation was banned in 2012 by the combat sport’s international body for rigging elections, and internal feuds have ensured that four years later, there is still no sign of a federation, leaving the boxers stranded.

This point needs a critical amendment: What happens when the federations of the chosen sports are too caught up in internal politics or are too corrupt to actually work for the development of the sport?

What may be the 10 priority sports? Shooting, boxing, wrestling, archery, and badminton are no-brainers. Field events like javelin, shot put, and discus; middle-distance and long-distance running along with gymnastics are good contenders.

Wrestler Sakshi Malik won the bronze medal in the 58 kg category at the Rio Olympics. Photo: PTI
Wrestler Sakshi Malik won the bronze medal in the 58 kg category at the Rio Olympics. Photo: PTI

2.Organize sportspersons in three groups for each sport, and give them contracts accordingly.

Group A will have players ranked in the Top 50 in their sport in the world, Group B for those ranked between 51-150 and Group C for young athletes who are district/state/national champions.

Verdict: An idea borrowed from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Allows for a safety net for sportspeople, who mostly come from economically weaker backgrounds, and an incentive to work their way up the contract categories.

3. Harness the potential of indigenous and regional sports

Scouting sports talent in inaccessible tribal, rural, and coastal areas of the country and nurturing them.

Verdict: Sports Authority of India (SAI) already operates on this principal, running 19 Special Area Games or SAG schemes in various parts of the country. For example, there’s a hockey scheme in the tribal belt of Chattisgarh, an initiative for archery in Jharkhand, a drive for wrestling in Haryana, boxing in Manipur, etc., but all these need to spread far and wide.

Hugo van den Broeck, a Dutch coach who heads a SAI programme meant for the long-term development of middle-and-long distance runners, says, “We need to identify places where good runners come from and scout there, we shouldn’t just do trials in Delhi. There are thousands of kids in areas where they won’t even hear about such a race, and if they hear about it, they won’t have the money to get to it.”

The draft plan takes the extra step of admitting, with an honesty that has been otherwise missing from Indian sports administration, that the “funding available per sportsperson is very low, only about Rs12,000 per annum”. If the funding can be increased significantly, this will dovetail perfectly with the first point and is bound to improve the sporting culture and performance.

Boxer Vikas Krishan (in red) at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Reuters
Boxer Vikas Krishan (in red) at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Reuters

4. World-class coaches

Hiring more national and international coaches per sport, per training centre, and per location.

Verdict: There is no argument that there is a dire shortage of properly trained coaches. “Our biggest problem is that there are very few coaches who really know what they are doing, and even fewer who are world-class and have modern knowledge of the sport,” says badminton player and Olympic medallist Saina Nehwal.

But good coaches cost good money—where will the corpus for their salaries come from? One connected point in the draft plan is to improve the quality of home-grown coaches with better training programmes. If this draft plan had to be reduced to just one point, this would be it. Right now, there is only one institute for training coaches, the diploma at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, run by SAI.

This is what Jiji Thomson, who headed SAI from 2013 to 2015, has to say about the diploma: “It has no value and is totally outdated. Our coaches are not given the expertise they need. They know nothing about biomechanics for example, or sports science. We have to start from scratch. We need to have universities in the country conducting proper postgraduate courses in sports science, biomechanics, physiotherapy and sports medicine.”

5. Grading system for coaches

Performance of the coaches should be reviewed and assessed annually. Recognition of good performance through attractive pay, promotion, etc.

Verdict: Like most aspects of sports administration in India, the appointment and tenure of coaches is heavily tainted with corruption and political affiliation with absolutely no heed paid to actual performance. Because they have never been held accountable for their performances, coaches tend to hold their posts for decades. On the other hand, coaches who are committed and forge their own path are often sidelined. A case in point is Jagdish Singh, the SAI coach at Bhiwani who had trained four of the five boxers, including eventual medallist Vijender Singh, who qualified for the 2008 Olympics.

“The boxing federation did their best to undermine and humiliate me,” Jagdish says. “And I neither got any help from them, nor the government.”

6. Sports injury insurance scheme

Life time insurance, loss of sports kit, personal accident insurance, disability insurance, hospital and pharma expenses

Verdict: Essential for athletes. At the moment, most Olympic athletes get help in this regard from non-profit organisations like Olympic Gold Quest or GoSports Foundation. They are the ones who provided athletes with extra funds for equipment and gear, and arranged and paid for their medical care. Athletes who were not on the roster of non-profits or not at the Olympic level got no help.

7. Strengthening and scaling up SAI centres

Improving infrastructure and administration of these centres and setting at least one new centre in each state by 2020.

Verdict: Essential, but raises the old question: if the current centres—56, with 5,394 trainees—do not have sufficient funding, where will the money come from to make new ones? In yet another disarmingly honest admission, the draft plan says that the centres are “prone to negligence and substandard delivery of services and lack of timely disbursement of funds and kits”. This needs to be addressed first, and with urgency.

8. Facilitate creation of more academies for individual sports

Help people set up private academies for the priority sports, like the Gopichand Badminton Academy, Bhiwani Boxing Club, Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools, Tata Archery Academy, etc.

Verdict: In the short term, this will be far easier to implement than opening new SAI centres. There are plenty of former athletes, companies, and organisations who aspire to do just this. Help them get land, provide subsidies for equipment.

9. Promote revenue generation for team leagues and priority sports

Help existing leagues like those for hockey, golf, football, badminton etc, by allowing private companies/PSUs to acquire various kinds of rights in exchange for sponsorship.

Verdict: Of course this works. The Indian Premier League (IPL) has shown the way. India is also in the middle of a sports league boom. But the hurdle is not that companies don’t want to invest in these leagues, but that they often run into trouble with the federations running the sport.

10. Consistent funding contracts

A fixed four-year contract between SAI and sportspersons from Group A, keeping in mind the funding required by them up to the next Olympics and other international events in between. For groups B and C also, the budgets for the next four years should be fixed, with consistent funding allocation for each year.

Verdict: Just what the athletes need, and have been demanding for decades. Currently, funding is random, often does not reach on time, and is provided far too late to cause any real change in the athlete’s training program. Pouring money on an athlete six months before an Olympics makes no sense, because by then, the training is essentially over. Athletes need these funds years in advance. Changes in performance don’t happen over months, but years.

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