“But where is the pizza?” Momentary panic flashed in the eyes of a fellow journalist, soon after the first meal at the Inspire Institute of Sport had been eaten. The lunch, typical athlete fare, (boiled rice, a chicken gravy, a Thai green curry with vegetables, rotis and an boiled eggs) had gone down without complaint. Still, it’s easy to see his point. Seclusion is key to the life of an athlete here at Inspire Institute of Sport, a high performance Oluympic training centre founded under the banner, JSW Sports. “There is a Domino’s nearby,” smiled Mustafa Ghouse, CEO, JSW Sports. “Of course, we have CCTVs inside!”
It’s difficult to say if this remark was made in jest, but its message is clear. Still, it’s not too hard to see his point: at IIS, sport is the only God, the institute itself, a hermitage, tucked away in the heart of the Vidyanagar Township in Ballari. Founded by Parth Jindal, the scion of Jindal Steel, the institute brings world class facilities to India’s most promising young Olympic aspirants, their financial capacity notwithstanding. “I designed the place bearing a monastery in mind,” agrees architect Alok Shetty. “Ultimately, it’s about calming the mind. The rest will follow.” Alok’s approach has been strictly hands-on, down to the specially curated selection of plants (chosen for their medicinal and ecological properties) to the sculptures that adorn the sprawling, 42-acre campus.
The inauguration marks the culmination of a three-year journey, during which Mustafa Ghouse and Alok Shetty studied the best sports institutes from around the world. They found, for instance, that most institutes were so big that athletes tired themselves out simply getting from one centre to the next: “Despite the size of the campus, it’s not more than a five-minute walk for athletes from one end to the other,” Ghouse remarks.
The sky keeps up a light but persistent drizzle, the only sign of the bad weather that hit parts of Karnataka in August. Still, Ghouse’s words ring true, for despite the long walk through the institute, the rain hardly made its presence felt.
The Combat Hall is the first stop, where young athletes are already at work. Wrestler Geetha Phogat is there too, making full use of the specially-designed rubberised flooring designed to prevent injury. The wrestlers, boxers and judokas all work side by side, throwing themselves onto the floor with uncaring abandon. The discerning eye might notice the absence of vertical support structures and they would be right: This is the country’s largest space frame structure, Shetty explains.
The state-of-the-art, 16,000 sq foot gym draws a collective gasp: “I wait to get that reaction, Shetty laughs. An athlete, recovering from injury, practices on the indoor synthetic running track, impervious to the band of noisy entrants. We’re not encouraged to speak to the athletes either: the absence of distraction is an unbreakable rule here at IIS.
Statistics of great Olympians line the walls of the High Performance Centre. The pressure is high, perhaps, but the students certainly enjoy it, reading their way through corridors. Antony Couillard heads the sports research centre, another pioneering IIS effort. Every team has its own set of physiotherapists - “That way, a student, even if he or she leaves the institute and returns after a gap, goes back to the same physiotherapist,” Ghouse explains. Around a 100 students have already moved into the institutes, although this number will expand to around 300 in total. Athletes have to earn their stay too, although those who must leave will have their education taken care of by JSW Sports until the age of 18.
The morning’s calm soon begins to fade as preparations kick in for the official inauguration that was to take place the next morning. “I want JSW Sports to be the first publicly traded sports company,” says Parth Jindal, who arrived the evening before the official launch. “We want the best athletes of the world to come train here,” says Parth, who worked closely with various Sports Ministers during the conceptualisation of IIS. “Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore has asked us to take over three SAI centres as well, through a PPP model,” he explains.
Although it has been in operation for year and was formally inaugurated on August 15, 2018, IIS is sitll a work in progress. The aquatics centre will be ready for use only in 2019. Even so, athletes drop by through the year, either for training programmes or rehabilitation. Geeta Phogat is part of the latter, as is Asian Games gold medallist Vinesh Phogat. The Bengaluru Football Club has also made use of the facility for IIS, which, despite its obvious seclusion, is open to non-residential athletes too. Those who stay, however, are between the ages of 12 and 16, all chosen through a rigorous scouting process. Staying there is hard work too, as CEO Rushdee Warley put it at the outset, “Athletes who are not found to be upto par will be let go. There is room, of course, for them to re-enter, provided they prove their mettle once more.”
Education is a key factor too and tutors are brought in for the purpose. “Of course, these children might be far behind their peers, academically and we need to ensure they keep up,” Ghouse adds.
The idea came about with an invitation to lunch, says Parth Jindal, to which his father, Sajjan Jindal made a tongue-in-cheek observation, “A very expensive lunch.” The fateful luncheon meeting between Mahesh Bhupati, who arrived at the inauguration with his wife, Lara, set the ball rolling on the institute. Three years and Rs 100 crores later, JSW Sports and IIS are already on the map, bringing new optimism towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
A large black clock keeps a countdown as well. Are the young athletes under too much pressure? One can’t help but wonder at the start. The standing ovation that followed Geetha Phogat’s summons to the stage, however, put that to rest.
“Many of our students come from modest backgrounds,” says Ghouse. “Some even had to get accustomed to a bathroom of their own.” The athletes’ faces are a constant mixture of awe and incredulousness. There are few distractions, apart from a television room. The absence of teenage restlessness, is a point in favour of the JSW Sports Team.
Amidst this Olympic fever, it was hardly surprising that former hockey captain Balbir Singh was made to recount, several times over, the 1948 Olympics that brought India a gold. The nonagenarian, who received round after round of standing ovations, was happy to oblige. Olympian Abhinav Bindra, who is also on the advisory board along with Sourav Ganguly and Mahesh Bhupati, proved far more reticent. “No,” he retorted, as he was asked, for what may not have been the first time that day, to recall his moment of Olympic glory. “What’s the point in that? To every good day, there are a hundred bad ones. An athlete learns to deal with them all.”...