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Thomson says India needs to have universities in the country conducting proper postgraduate courses in sports science, biomechanics, physiotherapy and sports medicine, and that the Sports Authority of India will need to set up these facilities at all its elite centres. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint (Ramesh Pathania/Mint)
Thomson says India needs to have universities in the country conducting proper postgraduate courses in sports science, biomechanics, physiotherapy and sports medicine, and that the Sports Authority of India will need to set up these facilities at all its elite centres. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
(Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

Indian sport must start from scratch: Jiji Thomson

The Sports Authority of India director general lays bare the fundamental reasons for India’s poor performance in Olympic sports

New Delhi: Jiji Thomson was appointed director general of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in March last year; SAI has been on a war-footing ever since. It battled the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) over the 2014 Asian Games contingent, caused an internal uproar with a mass shuffling of its coaches, and initiated more sweeping changes in its functioning in a year than it has done in the previous 10.

Perhaps the most telling sign of change was SAI’s handling of young sprinter Dutee Chand, who was barred from competing in women’s events after it was found that she had a condition called hyperandrogenism—her body naturally produces more testosterone than the cut-off limit for women set by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Instead of following precedents in which the athlete was humiliated with gender questions and then left to fend for herself (as in the case of Santhi Soundarajan and Pinki Pramanik), SAI has decided to fight the very basis on which IOC sets these restrictions. In an unsparing interview, Thomson lays bare the fundamental reasons for India’s poor performance in Olympic sports, and talks about the decision to take Chand’s fight to sport’s global lawmaking body.

There seems to be a lot of activity at SAI since you took over last year—you drastically cut down the (IOA) list of people for the 2014 Asian Games contingent, and that led to a major furore...

Look at this email sent to me by the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) listing the members of their contingent. Here we have someone listed as “office boy". Here is a “supplier" for something called “Mahadev Gas Agency". This man is a “real estate broker". Here’s a “driver". Who are these people? If I get a letter like this, should I not take action? PCI and IOA expect SAI to clear these names with no questions asked and the strategy is to send this list at the last possible second so no one has time to verify anything. The day we got the list, we had all hands on deck. We started at 7am. That night, there was a dinner for athletes who had won the Arjuna awards. My officers did not attend it so they could finish this work. We also rejected athletes and teams who have shown no progress and stood no chance of finishing within even the top eight.

The Chinese had around 700 athletes and won 342 medals—that’s one medal for every two athletes; we sent 516 athletes and won 57 medals, a ratio of one medal per nine athletes.

SAI, IOA, the sports federations, seem always to be working at cross-purposes…

I don’t understand what it is that the IOA is doing. Most of the sports federations under the IOA are not interested in scouting talent. They have no plans for promoting their sports. They are not involved in training athletes. In all other countries apart from India, sports are federation-led. In India, it is government-led. If the IOA has to take the lead, they have to be financially strong. Right now they come to us because they have no money. If they are approaching the government for money, then they have to be answerable to the government. I am all for their independence, the government should not be involved in most aspects of sports.

The SAI centres are not doing too well either.

SAI was set up with a clear mandate to train the elite athletes of India—that is all. But look at the situation now. SAI is involved in everything—scouting talent, nurturing them, training them, maintaining stadiums, sending them for foreign exposure, getting foreign coaches, running coaches’ training courses. We have tried a number of times, in writing in Parliament, we have requested that SAI be relieved of so many duties, but it has been rejected. I went to Tinsukia (in Assam) three weeks back. In 1957 or so a stadium was built there. Today it is in such a shambles that you will not even realize that there is a stadium there. Look at the five Commonwealth Games stadia under SAI in Delhi. You need 70 crore minimum to maintain them, but we get 39 crore. Raising money is a nightmare. If we want to use these stadiums for other purposes instead of sports—like a concert—they get trashed. You go to the stadiums in Europe, which are the best kept in the world; they have the technology to handle large events and keep the stadiums perfect. We don’t have that. We built a huge indoor hall for weightlifting for the 2010 CWG (Commonwealth Games)—completely new, and the biggest indoor hall in Delhi right now. After 2010, not a single event has taken place there. It is not fit for hosting any other events. We are sitting on dinosaurs. Now we charge 200 a month for (use of) our swimming stadium, which is a world-class stadium. Can you believe it? We increased it and immediately there was a dharna and the lady officer there was jeered. We have introduced five cricket practice pitches at JLN (Jawaharlal Nehru) Stadium. People are ready to pay any amount for that. If I charge them 2,000 for a day, they will say here’s 2,500, just put my son on the list.

One of the main functions that SAI does is to train coaches. Poor coaching is perhaps the biggest reason why we don’t do well in international sports…

Can I be brutally honest? The coaching diploma you get at NIS (National Institute of Sports) Patiala 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.

Today if you go to our sports science centres, you will be ashamed. Either it will be a shell with no equipment, or it will be some equipment rotting away because there is no one who knows how to use them.

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. SAI will then need to set up these facilities at all its elite centres.

Coaches are also not committed. I have had kayaking coaches who applied to be shifted to Patiala, which does not have a water body. Private coaching is rampant. Of course, there are some very committed coaches, but the majority is just in a comfort zone and want to stay there.

Then there is sexual harassment. The incidence is very high in SAI. We will probably top the list of all government agencies if someone took a survey!

What steps are you taking to fix these problems?

We are looking for the right partners. We have started a swimming academy at SPM (Shyama Prasad Mukherjee) swimming complex in Delhi, but we have no swimming coaches, qualified lifeguards or pool managers. So we have just signed an MoU (memorandum of understanding) with Australian Sports Academy and Queensland University to conduct diploma courses for coaches, lifeguards and pool managers. The charges are very high, so we are looking for ways to subsidize it. We are also shifting elite athletes to some of our stadiums for training. The archers have been permanently shifted to Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (New Delhi).

Our aim is to set up very sport-specific academies. We set up a jump and sprints training centre in Trivandrum which is operational. We are about to start a middle-distance run centre in Bhopal. We have scouted out 200 trainees, all of whom will run at the Delhi Half Marathon. From there we will pick 60, and then 20 from that group will be sent to Kenya for training. We have set up an academy for throws as well, in the massive 120-crore sports facility built by HUDA (Haryana Urban Development Authority) in Rohtak. That will start after the Haryana elections.

How did this decision to fight Dutee Chand’s case at CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) happen?

I got a letter in my office in June from AFI (Athletics Federation of India) requesting a “gender test"—it said so on the file in big bold letters. By that time I had already gotten involved with the Santhi Soundarajan case, and had met Payoshni Mitra (a researcher and activist on gender and sports who worked with Soundarajan and is now working with Chand), so I had come to know a lot about this issue. The first thing we did with Dutee is that we removed the phrase “gender test", because it’s not a gender test. Then we made sure that no one else in SAI handled the file except for me. Then we got Dutee to Delhi, and Payoshni and I sat down with her and we talked about all the options we had. Dutee straightaway rejected medical intervention—surgery and hormone therapy—so that left us with two options: quit, or take the fight to its logical extreme. We spoke to the top experts in the world about this. Usain Bolt was born with very long legs. He completes the 100m race in 41 strides. His nearest competitor takes 45. Should we ban Bolt? What about basketball? On an average the Japanese are shorter than the Americans, so they have a very small talent pool, while the Americans have a huge one. Do we ban the Americans for the inherent advantage they have? Then why do we keep people like Dutee out for what is natural and inherent?

We sent a very detailed note to the sports ministry listing out everything we proposed to do, all the possible expense for it. I got the backing of the minister. Jim Bunting from Canada came on board as our legal counsel and said he will fight pro bono (Bunting is a lawyer who represents the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, among other things). Now the appeal has been filed, and a committee of international experts have been formed. The great thing about CAS is that we will get a result within six months of the appeal.

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