An ode to the amateur athlete10 min read . Updated: 20 May 2016, 07:46 PM IST
For the likes of Shiva Keshavan, chasing their dreams relies heavily on generosity, sponsorships and benevolent employers
For the likes of Shiva Keshavan, chasing their dreams relies heavily on generosity, sponsorships and benevolent employers
Shiva Keshavan is perhaps the closest example we have to Eddie the Eagle.
A few months ago, Keshavan, who has been to five Winter Olympics to compete in luge, decided to crowdsource funds for a trip to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the 2018 Games. His story parallels that of Michael Edwards, a tenacious and eccentric British skier who, with courage bordering on insanity, bulldog-like stubbornness and poor eyesight, as The Telegraph puts it, managed to qualify for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics with only three years’ training, and finished last.
In early April, the film Eddie the Eagle released in the UK and the US (its release in India is uncertain), bringing back to focus the gallant amateur striving for success on borrowed money and a diet of passion. The difference here, of course, is that while Eddie did it once, Keshavan has been chasing money for training since the first time he qualified for the Olympics in 1998.
Money distinguishes the amateur from the professional—the latter earns it through sport, the former chases it for sport.
Like Keshavan, Rajkumar Tiwari—the son of a roadside vendor in Delhi, who assists his father by day and is a figure skater by night, having won a gold medal at the 2013 Special Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang—is trying to crowdsource funds to get to the 2018 Winter Olympics.
The Olympics long ago did away with the mandatory amateurism-for-participation rule, but in India at least, the vast majority of athletes are still amateurs. Besides international cricketers—and a few hockey, badminton, tennis and football players—most sportspeople still chase their dreams relying on generosity, sponsorships and benevolent employers to cover their expenses (training, equipment, travel, etc.).
Even in the big leagues of world sports—the NBA, the English Premier League and Formula One, to name a few where athletes sit on top of million-dollar deals—the romance of struggle, so common among those of “lesser" sports and lesser means, persists.
This season’s second highest goal-scorer in the English Premier League, Jamie Vardy, whose 24 goals helped Leicester City to the title, was playing for some team called Fleetwood Town three years ago.
Closer home, one of the fairytales of the Indian Premier League has been the success of Pravin Tambe; a spinner who had not even played first-class cricket and was stuck in administrative roles till the Rajasthan Royals picked him up in 2013 at the age of 41. Tambe went on to become the highest wicket-taker in the T20 Champions League that year.
Nevertheless, amateurism in sports is still seen as signifying one of four things in India: you didn’t make it big at a young age, you chose the wrong sport, you did not play for the country or you simply did not want it bad enough.
No pay, no play
According to the 1960 Olympic rules, athletes who decided to turn pro or chose to receive compensation for their sports performances were unqualified to be part of the Olympic movement as professionals. Jim Thorpe was a hero of the 1912 Games, but was stripped of his medals because he played some minor league baseball. His two gold medals were returned almost 70 years later, nearly 30 years after his death.
Historically, most amateur-professional distinctions have their origins in Victorian England. The Wisden Dictionary of Cricket traces it back to 1806 when the first Gentlemen (amateurs, of a higher social status) vs Players (professionals) match was played at Lord’s. It describes professional as a “person who plays cricket as a profession rather than as a pastime... as distinguished from amateurs who—officially at least—played without remuneration".
The lines were clear—separate dressing rooms for the two types of players, separate entrances to the field, separate travel, accommodation, dining, tables and menus. But “with the abolition of amateur status at the end of 1962, the term professional lost its social connotations".
In India, the earliest employers of Indian cricketers were the royals, but after Independence, even royalty could do with a job. Ronojoy Sen’s Nation at Play: A History of Sport in India mentions how princely M.A.K. Pataudi was recruited briefly by J.K. Chemicals, as was Hanumant Singh by the State Bank of India.
Ajit Wadekar, who captained the country to two of its most romantic overseas series wins in 1971, writes in My Cricketing Years that an aptitude for math brought him a job at State Bank of India as “promoters of sport enabled me to combine business with pleasure to a rare degree".
It was after the 1983 World Cup that money and glamour followed cricketers, as players such as Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev endorsed colas and shaving creams.
(A decade later, WorldTel’s Mark Mascarenhas signed on Sachin Tendulkar for Rs25 crore, and in 2015, M.S. Dhoni came 23rd in the Forbes list of the world’s highest paid athletes, while Virat Kohli is now in the “Rs100 crore club".)
In tennis, professionals were allowed to participate in Grand Slams beginning in the Open era, which started in 1968, and the Olympics changed forever in 1992 when the American “Dream Team", featuring Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, dunked its way to the basketball gold medal in the most one-sided competition ever.
Today, divisions exist in a few sports, like boxing, where only amateurs can go to the Olympics, or in American college sports, in which the institutions make loads of money but the athletes only get scholarships and no other compensation.
Sports in India are classified into two categories—cricket and not cricket.
International cricketers are signed on by agents, accept big endorsement deals, invest in property and date movie stars because the only other thing they need to do is play.
For the others, barring a few really successful individuals, the best one can hope for is landing a safe job. Public sector banks, petroleum companies and the railways have a sports quota for hiring—these jobs offer a lifetime of security for the struggling yet passionate amateur. They get to play their sport full time, while still being employed, and attending office is negotiable.
In tennis, for example, young players start with International Tennis Federation tournaments, collecting ranking points, which are directly proportional to matches won. They travel frequently, stay in shared rooms in grungy hotels and survive on pasta as the measly money earned from wins gets spent on expenses.
“You need something, a job, a government or private sponsorship, some support. You just can’t do it otherwise," says Hemant Bendrey, who coaches India’s highest ranked women’s singles player, 23-year-old Ankita Raina. In early April, she was playing a tournament in Karshi, Uzbekistan; last week, she was in Anning, China.
It’s only after they get into the top 150 ranking or so that tennis players get to participate in Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) or Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) events, where they can earn a decent amount, since hospitality is taken care of and the prize money is bigger. Raina, ranked No. 276 in the world, is employed by the Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd (ONGC).
Keshavan, on the other hand, balances that fine line between amateurism and professionalism in sport. “I am technically not a professional," he says, citing the erstwhile Olympic ideals of no-pay-for-play. “But practically I am one, because this is the only thing I do, compete." The sport does not fund him entirely; he has to find other means to support the interest.
Last year, boxer Vijender Singh turned professional, ostensibly to bring professional sport to India. But it was also because he was “done doing" what he could as an amateur representative for India and arguably because he saw his chances of another Olympic medal diminish over the years since his bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games.
“I have given years to the country, won titles in the World Championships and the Olympics," he says. “But it’s a tough sport. How will young boxers make a living from it?"
With a screen-friendly face, Singh did manage endorsements, a movie and entry into reality shows, but athletes’ relevance as celebrities shrinks with their playing years. He has crossed 30—the point when they start getting referred to as “senior".
Abhinav Bindra, who was the first-ever individual Olympic gold medal winner from India, at the 2008 Games, has often said that the only reason he was able to compete at the highest level as a shooter was because his family was able to afford his expenses for training.
Not the others
Even with cricket, the country’s most popular and well-paying sport, only those who reach the highest levels can survive purely from the sport; the others have to work their way around it.
In April, Oman chose Indian-born Ajay Lalcheta, 32, as its cricket captain for the World Cricket League Division 5 to be held in May. The typical Oman cricketer is an expat—most likely an Indian or Pakistani—and would essentially count as a “semi-professional".
Lalcheta, who played age-group cricket in Saurashtra with Cheteshwar Pujara and Parthiv Patel, both of whom went on to play for the national team, is employed by a construction company in Oman.
He moved to Oman in 2006 with the intention of playing cricket, once it was clear that in India, his chances of hitting it big were slim. By 2012, he was in the national side, and his slow left-arm spin has so far got him seven wickets in 11 T20 internationals, besides the captaincy.
“When you have a dream and you believe you can do it, it pays off," he says when asked about his decision to move.
The slow change
But there were others who stayed back in India, where turning professional—or in this case, not chasing a job—is increasingly the norm among young cricketers.
Austin Coutinho, who was once in the probables list for the Mumbai Ranji Trophy side, but ended up spending a lifetime in coaching and administration, says the few boys who seek his coaching expertise now, after his retirement from Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilizers, have one goal—becoming a pro.
“There is no money in cricket at the club level," he says. “But you can make the same amount of money in two seasons of the IPL as in 10 seasons of Ranji."
He takes the example of Aditya Tare, in his teens a promising cricketer and also good academically. Tare was headed for a career as a chartered accountant when, in his second year of BCom, he had to decide between the two, sport and taxes. The question Coutinho asked was: Can you make money out of cricket?
The answer was yes. From captaining the Mumbai Under-19 team to getting into the Mumbai Indians team in the 2010 season of the IPL, Tare’s greatest moment came when he hit James Faulkner for a six off the last ball against the Rajasthan Royals in 2014 to take Mumbai into the play-offs.
In that ecstatic moment of impending stardom, as his last name so aptly suggests, he took off his shirt in celebration and was next season selected by the Sunrisers Hyderabad for Rs1.2 crore.
As an increasing number of domestic leagues are bringing in money for other sporting disciplines, a more democratic distribution of wealth could push for more professionals in sport, and higher standards of achievement.
Sports sponsorship in India grew 12.3% in 2015 from the previous year, according to the ESP Properties-SportzPower report released in April. This includes endorsements, which doubled for “non-cricket-playing" sportspeople, with 40% being shared by boxer Mary Kom, badminton player Saina Nehwal and tennis player Sania Mirza.
Sports endorsement deals, the report adds, overall grew to Rs416.4 crore, but cricket alone got Rs264.4 crore and Rs110 crore went to international athletes, leaving just Rs42 crore for other sports. That, however, represents a 90% increase from Rs22.1 crore in 2014.
The increasing numbers are signs that even niche sports like kabaddi can be professional. The sport and its practitioners are being glamourized and given haircuts and shaves to make them more marketable.
There is still a gulf that shows Keshavan, Rajkumar and their successors will have to wait before they are flooded with calls and offers. The wait is getting shorter though.
“Apart from competing, I have to earn a living. I have a 10-month-old daughter now," says Keshavan. “Sport was not a career option, I could have been a banker. But I was driven by passion, to represent India and develop sport in my region. It’s irritating because time spent (on raising money) is time lost. But I will just have to deal with it."
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Rajkumar Tiwari was crowdsourcing funds to participate in the 2017 Special Olympics.
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