The recently concluded Rio Olympic Games have grabbed the attention of everyone in the country, not least because of the dismal performance by India, which won just two medals this time compared to the six it had won at the previous edition in London just four years ago.
A lot has been written about the reasons for such a poor performance by our athletes. These include lack of world-class sports and training infrastructure, lack of adequate incentives for the players, sports not being a viable long-term career option for sportspersons, lack of a sporting and fitness culture in the country, infighting and indiscipline in the sports federations which select and train the players and poor oversight and management by the government.
Is there any hope for us to improve our performance and achieve sporting glory in the foreseeable future? When small countries like Fiji and Kosovo can win gold medals at the Olympics, why can't we, a nation with over 125 crore population? We must realize that long-term and sustainable improvement in sports cannot be brought about by this once-in-a-four-year obsession with the Olympics alone in our cricket-crazy nation. It requires sustained development and promotion of a sporting culture in the entire population with specific focus on the school going children from where our future sporting champions would come.
This needs to be matched with creation of quality sports infrastructure reaching right up to the village level to ensure that access to such facilities is widened and made more equitable. Instead of the overall size of the population, what is more important is how many people have access to quality sporting infrastructure.
Unfortunately, the proportion of the population having access to good sports infrastructure probably does not exceed more than 15% in our country. Widening the participation, spotting the right talent at a young age and grooming them to become future champions hold the key to success in sports. This is the strategy that worked so successfully in producing champions in athletics in countries like Jamaica.
While the central and state governments need to play a critical role in creating the sports and training infrastructure across the country, the various sports federations need to play an equally important role in selecting and training the sportspersons. However, in many sporting disciplines, the federations are ridden by factionalism, corruption and lack of transparency with no proper focus on promoting the game. Reforms in the federations on the lines of the Supreme Court mandated reforms in the BCCI are long overdue. Such a move would help in addressing many of the current ills in the system.
Though the government has substantially increased the cash incentives and employment opportunities to successful sportspersons, sports are still not seen as a viable full time career option by many.
This needs to change through participation by the private sector in providing suitable employment opportunities. To think that the government alone can provide employment to all of them is unrealistic.
Wider private sector participation also holds the key to rapidly improve sports infrastructure and groom the talented sportspersons. Suitable public-private partnership (PPP) models should be devised to allow the private sector to invest in creating quality infrastructure across the country. Specialised centres of excellence or academies in various disciplines should also be created through PPP model to groom the talented sportspersons to achieve excellence at international level. This approach is already yielding good results in a few disciplines such as badminton and squash.
To achieve the objectives outlined above, the present level of investments in creating the necessary infrastructure and training and supporting the sportspersons in the country needs to be enhanced manifold. We cannot hope to win medals at the Olympics with the current level of facilities and support that we provide. While a substantial part of the enhanced investments have to come from the government, both at the centre and in the states, the private sector needs to contribute too in a significant manner. Hopefully this would happen once the participation levels expand and there is more focus on achieving success in Olympic disciplines at the international level. Britain, after its relatively disappointing performance at the 1996 Olympic Games where it won just one gold medal and a total of 15 medals, increased its investments in sports and training of athletes substantially through its national lottery programme. As a result, during the past two decades, its performance has improved dramatically with the country winning 27 gold medals and coming second overall in the medals tally at Rio. If we have a strategic action plan in place as outlined above, there is no reason why we cannot win, say, 10 medals at Tokyo in 2020 and more in the future Olympics.
(The author is a senior IAS officer in Tamil Nadu and is currently the principal secretary, Youth Welfare and Sports Development. The views are personal)...