India in 10 years: 10 Mary Koms needed to revolutionize sports

A sport like badminton is an exception, but parents are still hesitant to let girls pursue contact sports like wrestling and boxing


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

That India was disappointed at winning only two medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics says a lot about how our expectations have grown. During my playing days, we didn’t even know if we would win medals and if we did, where they would come from (one bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games, one bronze at the 2000 Sydney Games, one silver at the 2004 Athens Games).

Rio also proved that given a level playing field, women seem to perform better on the big stage. Some of the biggest icons in Indian sport, barring cricketers, are women: P.V. Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom and Sakshi Malik. At the elite level, female athletes may be getting facilities and encouragement, but these are still lacking at the grass-roots level. A sport like badminton is an exception, but parents are still hesitant to let girls pursue contact sports like wrestling and boxing. We need 10 Mary Koms to bring about a change in attitudes.

There are various parameters to measure sporting success. One is the number of athletes participating, second is the number of potential medallists, and then the ones who actually come back with a medal. We progressed greatly in the first, sending our biggest contingent to the Rio Olympics. Even as far as expectations go, there were about 15 athletes who had the ability to come back with a medal. But the challenge in the next 10 years will be to actually start winning medals.

For that to happen, national sports federations need to be much more proactive. Right now we have only a handful of administrators who are taking the initiative and not relying on government funding alone. Narinder Batra, former Hockey India chief and president of the International Hockey Federation, is an example. He is passionate about the game and is the main reason why hockey has been doing well in the past five-six years. Right now, apart from cricket, it’s the best-run sport in India. He has integrated the sport well, bringing men’s, women’s and junior hockey under one roof. India has also started hosting a chunk of major international tournaments, and that exposure has been critical to the country’s recent success.

The sports ministry and the Sports Authority of India have been doing a good job, but it is up to administrators in individual sports to be more proactive and accountable for the funding they are getting. In the future, sports that are run by bureaucrats will be left behind.

Private organizations like the Olympic Gold Quest and JSW are doing as much as they can, but it’s a drop in the ocean. The government has to be more involved at the grass-roots and provide the infrastructure so that more children are attracted to sports.

The other big void is the technical support for our athletes. You cannot make world-class athletes with poor coaches or trainers or sports scientists. Currently, we have foreign coaches and trainers for all major sports in the country, and we are spending a lot of resources on this. We need to train our coaches, technical coaches and support staff and bring them to a world-class level so that they can in turn produce world-class athletes. Even in shooting and archery, which are considered medal sports, we rely on foreign coaches.

Pullela Gopi Chand is probably the only Indian coach whom people abroad will pay money for.

What he has done for badminton, or what Batra has done for hockey, shows what a difference the right people in power can make. It is individuals whose passion drives sport. And we need more good people in sport. We need to attract the best talent, at every level—be it in coaching or administration or even accounting—to turn sport into an industry and run it well.

Funding is a major obstacle. Over the past few years, corporate interest has grown but they will need a vision and a plan, not a begging bowl.

One of the positives for Indian sport has been the emergence of leagues. They are already helping to build a sports ecosystem. The Hockey India League or the Premier Badminton League are helping youngsters share the stage with some of the biggest names in the sport. I know that if I had had that chance as a 17- or 18-year-old, I would have given an arm and a leg for it. We tend to forget the impact an idol can have on a young mind.

Having said that, we cannot be entirely dependent on leagues and their success. They are only one part of overall development. For Indian sport to truly grow, all the factors have to come together.

As told to Deepti Patwardhan.

Viren Rasquinha is CEO of Olympic Gold Quest and former captain of India’s national men’s field hockey team

This is part of a series of articles in Mint’s 10th anniversary special issue that look at India 10 years from now. The entire list of articles can be found here

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