Between 1990 and 2013, Colonel (retd) Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore served in the Indian Army. He became a hero for all Indians on 17 August 2004, when he won the silver medal in the men’s double trap event at the Athens Olympics, India’s first individual silver since independence. Rathore has about 25 international medals in the sport, including a number of golds. In the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, he set a record which still stands, hitting 192 targets out of 200.

Rathore, now the minister for youth affairs and sports, believes India should focus more on playing and excelling in sports. “We can’t wait for the Olympics. Instead we have created competition of the level of the Olympics for under-17 children in India," he says in an interview on the sidelines of the Khelo India School Games, an event that marks the beginning of the Khelo India programme—an initiative focused on creating a multi-sport ecosystem.

The Khelo India School Games, held between 31 January and 8 February at a number of venues across Delhi, encompassed 16 disciplines and were broadcast live on Star Sports and DD Sports TV channels.

Rathore has been instrumental in shaping the Khelo India programme. As part of the programme, 1,000 athletes will be identified by a Talent Identification Committee comprising athletes and coaches such as weightlifters Karnam Malleswari and Kunjarani Devi, shooter Mansher Singh, hockey player Jagbir Singh, footballer I.M. Vijayan and boxing coach G.S. Sandhu. The athletes will receive an annual scholarship of Rs5 lakh each for eight years. Rathore says 538 athletes will be selected from the recently concluded games.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Why do we have so few Olympians in a country of 1.3 billion?

That is because there are so few people playing sports. The opportunity for playing a sport and then excelling in it is far too limited in our country. So I would presume if there are 5,000 players and you have two-three medals at the Olympics, that’s a great ratio.

What we need to do is broad-base the opportunity. First, we have to work on more opportunities to play and then we have to get quality coaches. When we do these two and bring the athletes to a greater level of competition, they can aspire to get better.

When you’re at school, do you wait for the MA exams to do well? No. So we can’t wait for the Olympics. Instead we have created the competition of the level of the Olympics for U-17 children in India which is the Khelo India School Games.

Indian parents force children to study and not play. How are you going to change that?

There needs to be a cultural shift. It is not just books that can equip us to live as better human beings. What we can learn on a playfield will probably not be available in books. So parents, teachers, uncles and aunts have to realize that. Not just to excel at the Olympics, but let’s play to become better doctors or engineers, better citizens of the country.

What is the government doing to ensure long-term support for promising athletes?

Sports is a state subject. States are responsible for investing in the grass-roots level of infrastructure. Then it is a federation-led system; every sport has a federation which is supposed to work towards excellence. Where the ministry of sports comes in is as a supporter of both the states and the federations, and to invest in excellence. But what we are doing now is that we are investing right at the grass-roots level. In Khelo India, we are creating playfields around the country, giving an opportunity to people to play.

Then we are setting up a system with a high level of competition, which is Khelo India School Games. We are also coming up with Khelo India College Games for U-21. We are picking people who don’t get sponsorship but have the potential and help them reach the podiums. This is the age (U-17) when they don’t have any sponsorship, so the government of India is coming up with the first support of Rs5 lakh per year for eight years for 1,000 athletes. Every year, we will identify 1,000 more athletes. So in five years, we will have 5,000 athletes who will get the support for eight years. Right now we are picking U-16 athletes but our vision is that in the next three-four years, we will pick athletes who are 12 years old and then support them for eight years, which will mean that by the time they turn 20, they would be competing at world-class levels.

Then we are preparing coaches. We are investing in a system in which any coach across the country, public or private, will be able to upgrade his/her knowledge.

And we are investing in women to compete more in sports. We are also investing in indigenous and rural sports because the idea is not just to excel at the Olympics, the idea is to play.

Many times, the funds don’t reach the target athletes. What are we doing to change that?

The common complaint in sports is that the right talent doesn’t get picked. So we have brought out some 60 Dronacharya and Arjuna awardees, and made them part of a panel that is selecting these athletes at various stadiums at various events. These selectors are going to become our core team for selecting and monitoring the talent ahead.

There have been other such schemes in the past too. How do you think Khelo India will be different?

Khelo India is all encompassing and has flexibility—from creating a competitive event like the Khelo India School Games to investing in women-oriented sports, coaches and rural sports. So we cover the entire spectrum.

Then we can partner with anyone, public or private, who has the interest of sports in mind. With these two things and the right intention, we hope to do well.

Till now, children could only dream of the Olympics, but what about a dream that many more children can fulfil? The dream of playing in the best U-17 competition in India which can compete with the Olympics in terms of quality.

How are you going to rural areas to tap the talent there?

It is up to the state to select the team. We have constituted a team of selectors from the local federations and state education departments to choose the team collectively. When they choose their team for districts, and then the state, players from rural as well as urban areas will come together and compete. In Khelo India School Games, we have representations from both.

Then we have a national talent portal that anyone can access. They can identify talented sportspersons and upload a video or send us a message through the portal, and we will send our officers and assess the quality of the athlete.

A shooter once told us that she needs to go to Europe to buy/repair equipment. This sometimes makes the travel more costly than the equipment itself...

A couple of years back, someone would have complained that the expertise lies in Europe and our athletes are unable to travel there. Now the complaint is that they have to travel and waste their time. But we will address that too.

During the coming summer vacations, we will host a summit of all the manufacturers from India and abroad, all people associated with sports sciences and sports education. We will discuss what policies need to be modified so that we have the best equipment manufactured in India. It is a process and might take time but everything begins with the first step.

You have been an Olympic medallist yourself. What do you think has changed between then and now?

If we talk about the sporting infrastructure from then and now, the number of shooters and shooting arenas has increased manifold. The attitude of the Indian athlete has changed. It is not just about competing at the Olympics any more. Everyone wants to win medals there.

Importing foreign equipment has become easier and without any customs duty for a large number of sportspersons. The sports ministry is now funding much more and more easily. So things are getting simpler.

What we need now is broad-basing of the system so that more people participate and support. The corporate sector is joining in. Look at the number of non-cricketers who are doing well and becoming icons. See the number of leagues coming in. It is just brilliant.

What are you most impressed with at the games?

I have been watching the coverage on Star Sports and DD Sports, and I am thrilled. It felt like you are watching an international competition. When someone would go over a 4.8m-high bar, you’d think: “Wow, is it an Indian who is doing that?" I think these children have tremendous potential. They are behaving like champions; every time they win a medal, they do this (makes a V with his index and middle fingers).

And the fact that we come together to give them this platform...if we keep doing this, I am confident that in about four-five years, the level of Indian competitors will be world-class.