Is a successful London 2012 possible for India? Or will a sports culture remain an illusion with India not bothering to look beyond cricket and turning into a multi sporting nation?
[Edited extracts from Nalin Mehta, Boria Majumdar, Olympics: The India Story, HarperCollins, 2012, 3rd edition, first published 2008]
The foundation was laid at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October 2010. 101 medals, 38 of which were gold, second in the medals table displacing England for the first time ever in history, Indian Olympic sports and sports persons had made a statement to the world. Critics, however, had drawn attention to the relatively lower level of competition at the Commonwealth Games and suggested that the real test was the Asian Games at Guangzhou in November 2010. And as India’s shooters achieved modest success at the Asian Games, the murmur was fast gathering strength. The CWG, the first week at Guangzhou had shown, was a false dawn. The national ritual celebrating failure was about to start and coupled with the CWG scams, which were, and still continues to be in focus, Indian sport was staring down the barrel.
But as with sport, conclusions should not be drawn till the last medal is actually won. India, which had one gold medal from Pankaj Advani in snooker to show at the end of the first week of competition at the Asian Games, suddenly came alive on 21 November 2010 to claim a further three. Ranjan Sodhi was on target in men’s double trap and Preeja Sreedharan and Sudha Singh gave millions of Indian sports fans reasons to celebrate as they raced to gold in the 10,000 metres and 3000 metres steeplechase. Suddenly, the Doha 2006 haul of ten gold medals looked achievable and with the boxers putting up a stunning show, their best ever at the Asian Games, the CWG success did not look a distant dream.
Just as in the Commonwealth Games where Saina Nehwal’s gold in badminton, India’s 38th and last, was more than a medal, at Guangzhou Vijender Singh’s gold, India’s 14th, shone brighter than its colour. Achieved with a broken thumb in the 75 kilogram category in boxing, it propelled India to an unprecedented sixth place in the medal standings and summed up the story of India’s athletes, fighting on despite administrative apathy and bureaucratic red tape at every step. London 2012, it is hoped, will allow these athletes to occupy centre stage and herald the start of a systemic overhaul in Indian sports that the nation is badly in need of and has been craving for years. If the Asian Games was any indication, India, for the first time ever, can realistically expect 7 medals at London 2012, more than double from what India had won at Beijing. For the first time the world media was forced to publish headlines such as ‘China and India up, Japan down’, in summing up Asian Games performances in November 2010.
Talking about a possible Indian sporting renaissance at London, Indian Olympic Association Secretary General and India’s IOC member Randhir Singh suggests, ‘It’s a Catch-22 situation. You can’t produce champions without money, and money doesn’t come unless you have champions to flaunt.’ Fortunately for Randhir and India’s moribund and deeply politicised sports bureaucracy, India now has a plethora of champions in multiple sporting disciplines to market and promote.
What should help in marketing these athletes is the fact that their achievements in Delhi and China were analysed for hours on television and turned them into national celebrities. That there is a perceptible change is evident from the coverage in the media, the harbingers of such change. In March-April 2009, leading lights of world badminton were in India to participate in the Indian Open tournament in Hyderabad. Around the same time, the Indian cricket team was playing New Zealand for a bilateral series in New Zealand. Even on the day of the Indian Open finals, coverage of the competition was relegated to the lower half of most sports pages across the country when items about India’s preparation for the third Test of the series in New Zealand was given eight-column banner headlines. This was startling because India now has a handful of players who have made it to the top twenty-five in world badminton. Saina Nehwal, India’s best bet for a medal at the Olympics and ranked fifth in the world, trailed off with the following lament: ‘A lot of cricket is happening … nobody wants to take it (badminton) up professionally. It is not easy to be ranked number eight or nine. A lot of sacrifices have to be made and still not many are ready to do that. So maybe once in ten years we will have a Saina Nehwal.’7
In a glaring departure from the reality described above, every Indian achievement at Delhi and then at Guangzhou was a first-page headline while India’s triumphs against Australia and New Zealand in cricket were relegated to the sports pages of the national dailies. A successful London 2012 and a sports culture will no longer be an illusion with India gradually starting to look beyond cricket and turning into a multi sporting nation.
Politics Over the National Sports Bill: Red Tape Persists
After much deliberation and careful consideration the Indian sports ministry presented the national sports bill before the Union Cabinet on 30 August 2011. The bill, which had taken years in coming, provoked much outrage among several members of the Union Cabinet and wasn’t allowed to be tabled before the members of Parliament. Sections of the bill were considered too radical and the sports minister was instructed to redraft the bill and place it once again at a subsequent date. The leading opponent of the bill was the Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar who is also the president of the International Cricket Council and a former president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
On losing the Board of Control for Cricket in India presidential election to Ranbir Singh Mahendra in September 2004 Pawar had famously said that he was helpless because ‘the bowler, umpire and the third umpire was the same person’. He was referring to his predecessor Jagmohan Dalmiya using the BCCI president’s vote in levelling the poll count and subsequently using his casting vote to get Mahendra elected. It was, Pawar suggested, ‘a classic case of conflict of interest’. Sharad Pawar, as mentioned above, is now one of the principal detractors of the National Sports Bill. As president of the ICC he is an interested party and as Union Agriculture minister and former BCCI chief, Pawar, in this case, is the bowler and umpire rolled into one. His opposition to the bill is also a classic case of conflict of interest.
Cases of conflict of interest over the bill don’t end with Pawar. Farooq Abdulla, yet another senior member of the Union Cabinet and president of the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association, and Praful Patel, president of the All India Football Federation, are in the same league. It is natural that they would want to sink the bill for neither of them can debate it on merit as members of the Manmohan Singh Cabinet. While their opposition as sports czars is understandable, their challenging the bill from within the Union Cabinet is untenable. While there is little doubt that some of the concerns expressed on both sides, by the proponents and the detractors of the bill, were/are legitimate and tangible, far more problematic and far more significant, however, are the ego battles that were/are being fought around the bill. These games of one-upmanship are likely to have an adverse impact on the fortunes of Indian sport in the immediate future.
Unfortunately, the debates over the sports bill have hardly addressed the core concerns of transparency and accountability. The discussions are limited to the government trying to control the IOA and the Association doing its best to protect its autonomy. If there is one body that desperately needs to be made accountable it is the IOA. Its performance graph shows a consistent downward trend, natural in view of the gloom surrounding India’s Olympic sports scene for the longest time after independence in 1947. While India has won just one individual gold medal in its 88 years of participation at the Olympics, it did not win a single medal at Seoul in 1988 and again at Barcelona in 1992. The controversies surrounding the Commonwealth Games have badly dented the IOA’s image and its failure to organize the National Games in the last five years has had an adverse impact on Indian sport.
Moving on to specifics, despite a good number of shooters having achieved success at the international stage over the last few years India continues to rue the absence of a pistol coach, with the shooting federation and the IOA sidestepping such issues and focussing their attention on trying to protect their autonomy. That the Commonwealth Games opportunity was partly lost was largely due to a dysfunctional IOA and an ineffective sports ministry. The Games, which could have been the gamechanger for India’s Olympic sport, is remembered more for the associated scams and cases of malpractice.
Indian sport, to take advantage of the opportunities before it, needs to reform itself. Change is needed, both at the top and also at the grassroots, especially with London just days away. London 2012 can be a major turning point in India’s quest to become a sporting nation, an opportunity that might be lost at the altar of ego battles over the national sports bill. Winning medals at London, it must be acknowledged, will provide a huge boost for the athletes and will also result in opening up the possibility of corporate investment in Olympic sport. But the politics over the sports bill has badly impacted preparations for the Games with administrators engaged in guarding their turf rather than concentrating on athletes training for London.
A Firm ‘No’ to an Olympic Bid
A survey of international media reports in the aftermath of CWG 2010 helped draw attention to one singular strand of argument—that India was finally ready to mount a strong Olympic bid. These arguments were based on assumptions that hosting the CWG was a stepping stone towards bidding for the 2020 Olympic Games.
Put bluntly, India is not ready to prepare a serious Olympic bid. The Commonwealth Games had come to India prematurely in 2003, a decision that explains the problems in the lead-up to the Games and the clean-up act currently underway. Most top brass of the Games Organizing Committee are now in jail on charges of misappropriation of funds. An Olympic bid, which comes at a serious cost to a nation, will divert attention from the athletic achievement at CWG and Asian Games 2010, which for the first time ever in our sporting history has given us hope of achieving the objective of sport for all. If the CWG experience is taken as evidence, an Indian bid will only be a waste of time, energy and money and will only result in huge money spent on non-sporting activities at the cost of our athletes with little returns on investment.
As Jacques Rogge had emphasized during his visit to Delhi in October 2010 when asked about an Indian Olympic bid, ‘You have great athletes and you have one overriding sport, which is cricket. But we need more gold medals from the second-most populous country in the world before you make a pitch for hosting the Olympics.’ The point the IOC president made is already a well-established paradigm in the West. Only after a country seriously invests in sport and improves its record by winning a handful of medals at the Games can it join the race for hosting the most prestigious global sports spectacle. A strong Olympic bid is premised on winning medals at the Olympic stage and unless India achieves the latter, the former is a non-starter. In the current context, an Olympic bid is a luxury in India, which its sportspersons can ill afford.
The Making of a National Audience
CWG 2010, as mentioned above, was an important pit stop in the journey of Indian sport. It was proof that Beijing 2008 was no flash-in- the-pan success. Abhinav Bindra, India’s lone individual gold medallist at the Olympics, was only one of many world-class Indian shooters who have emerged in the past decade.
Besides the shooters, India has a number of boxers capable of winning medals at London. As the boxers felled down their more famed opponents at Guangzhou, for the second time since Beijing 2008 a national television audience led on by a cheerleading media focussed on Olympic sports. The fact that the entire boxing team had emerged from the small north Indian town of Bhiwani with few facilities, a fact mentioned earlier, provided too irresistible a story of human triumph against all odds.
Lessons From Bhiwani: Demystifying the Revolution
The Bhiwani Boxing Club’s iconic coach Jagdish Singh is fond of saying ‘Geedar ka shikar karna ho to sher se ladna seekho.’ (If you want to hunt jackals, learn how to fight a lion.) Surprisingly enough, till 2008, Bhiwani was a rather insignificant presence on the Indian sporting map. Despite giving the country multiple Asian Games gold medallists and a slew of medals in other international boxing competitions, the nation hadn’t trained its eyes on Bhiwani before Beijing 2008. A few startling days at the Olympics changed all of this. As Akhil Kumar punched his way past Sergei Vodopyanov after four gruelling rounds in the 54 kg pre-quarterfinal and Vijender Singh matched up to Emilio Correa in the semifinals of the 75 kilogram category, media persons swarmed to make every inch of Bhiwani their own. Apathy soon gave way to unending television glare and Bhiwani, from being a shantytown, suddenly turned into the cynosure of all attention.
Bhiwani had its first tryst with international sporting success in the 1960s when Hawa Singh won gold at the 1966 Asian Games. He followed it up with another gold medal at the Bangkok Asian Games in 1970, giving rise to a boxing culture that has since flourished in this village on the Haryana–Rajasthan border. This is a well-established paradigm and one on which the Olympics are premised. Performance at the highest level has always served as the best inspiration for new participants wanting to embrace the sport. Despite such success at the international stage, no funding was directed towards developing a boxing culture. But that didn’t dampen the gung-ho sporting spirit of the Bhiwani boxers, who continued to pursue their sporting dream. Things hardly looked up in the 1970s and ’80s. Consequently, a section of the youth left Bhiwani for neighbouring states in search of work and livelihood. This was their way of showing discontentment over the Central government’s prolonged apathy. Things reached a climax during the 1980s and early 1990s amidst a growing sense of frustration and uncertainty as unemployment prevailed. Thousands of Bhiwani youths were left with two options – either to take up sport or fall prey to unemployment.
In a desperate act to protect young children from future unemployment, most parents encouraged their wards to embrace sports. To encourage this effort, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) started a training school, giving Bhiwani its first organized sports facility. They were encouraged to do so by the achievements of Raj Kumar Sangwan who won golds at two Asian-level meets—at Bangkok in 1991 and at Tehran in 1994. However, this solitary SAI facility did little to solve the problems of infrastructure. It was the Bhiwani Boxing Club, hardly a modern facility itself, which ultimately made a perceptible difference. The club, which is in a much better state today, was once described in the Indian Express thus:
Tucked in a corner, almost hidden by fields, the yellow brick building is more a farm outhouse than a possible breeding centre of international sportspersons. If quaintness equalled success, the place would get top marks. And well, now it does … The Bhiwani Boxing Club is just that, two rooms and a shed. A peepul tree and a Shiva idol stand to the left outside the gate, a sagging volleyball netting graces the right flank. Five punching bags hang next to the room, a huge mirror frames one wall, there is a basic weight-training machine on one side, and a new ring on the other.
Problems of infrastructure were, however, more than counterbalanced by individual passion for boxing, as the turn of the century marked the arrival of a golden era of Bhiwani boxers in the national arena. Despite making a mark in almost every recognized competition, it was at Beijing 2008 that Bhiwani finally scripted an unparalleled success story. The nodal boxing body of Bhiwani – the Bhiwani Boxing Club – was established in 2002 by current coach Jagdish Singh. Indian Express reported it thus:
Six years ago (in 2002), Singh, one of the many boxing coaches with the Sports Authority of India, decided the daily effort he was putting at the SAI centre in Bhiwani needed to be topped with something more. So, in a move that some would describe as whimsical, he got together his life’s savings, took a bank loan, and set about realizing his dream of having his own boxing club. Singh has always had an eye for spotting talent and following an approach that focuses on dealing with the worst-case scenario, he trained a band of boxers who slowly began dominating the national scene.
After almost seven years since its inception, the boxing club has finally spread its wings to the far-flung corners of the state through its policy of decentralization. In fact, Bhiwani’s glittering track record (of producing as many as fifty sportspersons who have represented India in internationals competitions) can largely be attributed to the modus operandi of the nodal organization, which tried its best to promote a healthy sporting environment. Lack of exposure and absence of recruiters acted against Bhiwani’s boxers, while mainstream Indian sport remained unaware of their maturing skills. At the turn of the millennium, a few self-made individuals training under the watchful eyes of Jagdish Singh finally broke all shackles to catapult Bhiwani to the national and subsequently international level. Akhil Kumar, for example, beat all odds to come out stronger from a career-threatening injury and made it to the Olympics quarterfinals. Following his example, Olympic medallist Vijender Singh emerged as the biggest name in Indian boxing and is currently one of the most sought after sports celebrities in the country. Inspired by the simple logic that a good showing at the national level is the best bet to securing a government job, a vast array of talented youngsters have now taken to boxing in Bhiwani. In Jagdish Singh’s words: ‘Parents are keen to bring them here, knowing this is a future they can dream of. Now that they’ve seen the success stories, it’s a reality they want to believe in.’
The Problem: We Are Like This Only
While Bhiwani was/is at the centre of national attention, it is important to remember that only a sustained effort at building infrastructure could ensure that CWG 2010 and Gwangzhou aren’t exceptions. Bhiwani continues to be a town which goes for days without electricity, where the rains have made it impossible to drive a car faster than 5 km/hour on most roads and where most people have to rely on inverters to watch the home boys win. In such a setting, sport has emerged as a way out for many.20 The real success of Bhiwani lies in the rock-solid confidence of the new generation of athletes and a nascent public–private partnership which allowed them to transcend a system used to mediocrity. They have not been content to merely repeat the past; and this is the new Indian spirit that needs to be celebrated. The picture is similar if we turn our gaze to shooting, India’s favourite medal event since Bindra’s gold at Beijing. While Gagan Narang, Bindra’s compatriot in the 10-metre air rifle, has been in sizzling form since the Olympics and has even broken multiple world marks, his performances are once again the result of individual flair and brilliance. The fact that Narang could win four gold medals and two silvers at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games respectively is testament to his skill and mental strength. While Narang’s exploits give us ample hope before the London Games, in a shocking exposé it was brought to the nation’s attention in April 2009 that the fifteen top coaches engaged in training India’s shooters for the Commonwealth Games weren’t paid between January and March 2009 when each of them was entitled to payments of up to Rs 30,000 per month as per the terms of their contract. Also, at the time of appointment, these coaches were promised advanced-level coaching abroad; but till April 2009, none had been sent. In an interview to Ajai Masand and Saurabh Duggal of the Hindustan Times, one of these coaches, engaged in training at the national camp in Pune, spilled the beans:
All of us, barring national coach Sunny Thomas, have not received a paisa (penny) from the government for the work we have been putting in to prepare the 150-odd core group shooters … At the time of writing with just months left for London, India still doesn’t have a pistol coach and the nation’s leading shooters are trying to circumnavigate the problem by making use of the facilities at compatriot Gagan Narang’s academy in Pune.
These discrepancies, born out of insurmountable administrative apathy at the highest levels of Indian sport, only add to the despondence of India’s sportsmen and women. Blaming the media is the short cut sports administrators often resort to. However, that such a situation has been created in the first place speaks volumes of their efficiency. Unfortunately, in India, virtually every sporting body is controlled by a politician or a bureaucrat and, once entrenched, most manage to stay on for years, if not for decades, a point discussed at length in the Epilogue.
More alarming than politicians controlling sports is that these men have managed to stay on in power despite a high court ruling which decreed that guidelines on tenure of office bearers of the National Sports Federations are maintainable and enforceable. Suggesting that this is in no way a violation of the principles enshrined in the Olympic charter, Justice Geeta Mittal, sitting judge of the Delhi High Court, observed that even the International Olympic Committee had restrictions on the terms of its office bearers. She went on to state: Firstly, I see no interference by the stipulation of the tenure condition as a condition for grant of recognition and assistance by the government. Secondly, the same does not enable the government to have any say of any kind in the affairs of running of the sports body …A limited office tenure will have the impact of minimizing, if not eliminating, allegations, criticism and elements of nepotism, favouritism and bias of any kind.
The court judgment, the Hindu noted, had serious ramifications on the tenure of office bearers and stipulated that an office bearer of a federation can have two terms of four years each at a stretch, the second one on a two-thirds majority. However, the same report went on to suggest that ‘the IOA took the lead sometime in the mid-1980s to flout the guidelines by amending its constitution and almost all National Sports Federations followed suit’.
Commenting on the impact of the ruling, the Times of India reported:
‘Most of them do not believe in handing over the baton. Perched securely as heads of various sporting federations, sports bosses have been virtually unmovable. But maybe not for long. The ruling could lead to changes in the Indian Olympic Association as well as other sports bodies.’
What the court ruling highlights is that the International Olympic Committee needs to take into account local peculiarities while trying to push through its agenda of political independence of the NOCs. The ruling demonstrates that in cases like India you need the power of local legislation to force the IOA to get its act together. Unless global policies are mediated by local ground truths it might result in empowering the unworthy and it is important for the IOC to take note of these ground realities.
A More Proactive Sports Ministry?
Drawing strength from the high court ruling the sports ministry under the newly appointed minister Ajay Maken has now suggested in the National Sports Bill that no administrator can continue to head sports bodies past 70 years of age. Following the lead of the International Olympic Committee, which asks IOC members to retire at 70, the ministry is determined to ensure that Indian administrators give up their posts past this age. Again, this draws attention to the differing ground realities in particular local contexts. While the ministries’ agenda may be perceived as interference by the IOC, the ministry is actually trying to implement a policy laid down by the IOC itself against opposition by the IOA, which, in turn, is drawing strength from the autonomy clause in the IOC charter.
Further continuing with its agenda of sports reform, the sports ministry, for the first time in years, sent out a circular to all sports federations, whose disciplines were in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, to send details of the past and recent performances of all ‘core group’ athletes. This directive came at the back of growing discord among sportspersons who felt that despite performing at their best they weren’t being rewarded in the absence of proper laws and guidelines. Reacting against the groundswell of discontent, a ministry official emphasized that the directive was meant to weed out the non-performers and encourage sportsmen and women to excel in international competitions.
Carrying on with its objective of identifying talented sportspersons on the eve of the Delhi Games, the government, the Telegraph reported, endowed Rs 5 lakh for the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Trophy, handed out to the best sporting university in India, to encourage talent at the collegiate level. It also identified Ladakh as a fertile ground for archery, ice hockey and figure skating.
As Anirban Das Mahapatra reported:
The government has upped financial incentives for successful sportspeople. Former medal winners at international events now have their pensions doubled. Financial assistance for medical treatment is now up a whopping 500 per cent to Rs 2 lakh (2800 GBP). The government has also released a grant of over Rs 6.5 crore (900000 GBP) for upgrading all four training centres of the Sports Authority of India, to provide state-of-the-art training facilities.
It was in 2009 for the first time ever in India’s sporting history that the government came forward with a grant of Rs 678 crore to enable our athletes to train abroad with the world’s leading professionals. This was to ensure that they were exposed to the best of facilities before the 2010 Commonwealth Games and in the lead-up to London 2012. While more money for sport is always welcome, the problem lies in the details and in how it is spent. One statistic is telling. Against an allocation of Rs 678 crore for the Commonwealth Games, the government had spent just over 35 per cent, only Rs 232.19 crores, by November 2009. If the idea of pumping in this money was to create champions for the Commonwealth Games, to use them as a springboard for greater sporting glory at London, clearly something went terribly wrong. Unless there is a serious organizational learning and a realization that London 2012 is India’s last opportunity to become a sporting nation, it is impossible to expect radical change in the existing scenario. London 2012 is a potential gamechanger and this realization is crucial to heralding a fundamental transformation in the country’s sporting scene.
The London Test
Talking about the possibility of a sporting resurgence, IOA Secretary General Randhir Singh suggested that individual prodigies aside, the connection between modern sport and commerce is undeniable. This is precisely why nascent private sector initiatives like the Mittal Champions Trust and Olympic Gold Quest, non-governmental organizations formed to stimulate sporting excellence, are much needed.
That Olympic Gold Quest is clearly focussed on the job at hand is evident from the following report published in The Hindu:
With exactly a year to go for the London Olympics, Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) announced that it was putting together the best possible package to help the athletes in their pursuit for the gold medals. Addressing a press conference, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of OGQ, Viren Rasquinha, said that five select athletes would get the support of ‘performance and mental strength’ coach, Abha Maryada Banerjee. Rasquinha mentioned that a personal masseur, Kassenova Kacehoba of Kazakhstan would help the shooters, who often complain of back and shoulder stiffness.
Come August 2012 and the CWG legacy will be put to its sternest test. If India can double its medal count achieved at the 2008 Beijing Games, it will give an unprecedented fillip to Indian Olympic sport. A failed effort at London, on the other hand, organizationally and with regard to medals won, will mean that the lush promise of CWG and Asian Games 2010 will be confined to sports history books by the time of the next Olympics at Rio in 2016.
London, it is time to accept, is going to be a watershed event in the history of Indian sport. A successful Olympics will propel India to the forefront of Asian sport and may even translate into an Olympic bid a decade down the line. A failed Games experience on the other hand will mean Olympic sport taking a backward step and the country losing all momentum built at the Delhi CWG and the Asian Games at Guangzhou.