India- that is Bharat, occupies the last spot in the per-capita based, all-time tally of medals, at the Summer Olympics Games. In other words, world’s second most populous country has the worst record, in terms of medals per head. This is unacceptable, simply because our under-performing, and often unrecognised talent pool is perfectly capable of giving us many more podium finishes.
Sports is not just an object of national glory. Neither is it only a health prescription for the not-so fit ones. It will be a mistake to dismiss the need for it to be an important policy subject, even in a country like ours, where masses face a constant battle for survival. This is because, investment in sports makes perfect social, economic, and cultural sense. From equipment manufacturing, to generating new forms of employment, it can open up many hidden avenues. That a sport could empower two medal-winning women wrestlers in a male-dominated Haryana (Babita Kumari, Geeta Phogat), is evidence for the premise that it can indeed have societal benefits.
There is, therefore, enough incentive to give sports a chance; for now it is clear, that India’s growth story will be incomplete, without its due share of sporting achievements.
Making India a sporting nation.
Being a sportsperson does not fit into the middle-class Indian dream, of Roti, Kapda, Makaan. So far as the rural Bharat goes, sports is only seen as a tool for utilising free time. Choosing it over academics, is disapproved of. The limited savings that parents have, are used to finance competitive exam preparation at coaching institutes. The success of a school (both government, and private) is judged by the board marks, of its senior students. Another interesting quantifier is the number of IIT-ians, and civil servants, that a particular school has produced. A nation, which is so obsessed with academic achievements, should lead the world in scientific inventions, Nobel awards, new discoveries, medical research breakthroughs, industrial design patents, and so on. But unfortunately, that is hardly the case. Therein lies the tragedy of Indian middle-class dreams. Those who want to study, are not studying what they need to. And those wanting to play, are not getting the support they deserve.
If applying for a peon’s position, even after doing a doctorate, is considered acceptable in the name of fate and competition; why is it that not achieving enough as a sportsperson, and then becoming a coach, is seen as an example of total failure- one that is used by many parents to scare ambitious kids, who take up sports? Sporting nations are made up of sporting individuals, who accept the failures of a sportsperson, just as well as they accept the failures of a student, who does not make it to his dream University, even after trying hard enough.
Government needs to be an enabler, not ‘controller’ of sports- The Futsal experience
The most recent example of how government control negatively impacts a sport, is that of Futsal- an indoor variant of football. The sport, which is ‘controlled’ by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), was practically non-existent in the country. It was in this environment that a few Indian entrepreneurs created the Premier Futsal league. They roped in the likes of Luis Figo, Virat Kohli, and A.R. Rahman, to popularise the concept. But let alone cooperation from AIFF, they are now on the verge of being sued by the latter. All this while, AIFF did little to promote the game. Now, when an internationally recognised entity is trying to gain some ground for the sport, AIFF has decided that its exclusive ‘control’ cannot erode. And while we are at it, it comes as no surprise, that the Federation is headed by a part-time sports administrator, politician Praful Patel.
The contribution of sporting Leagues.
Mention should also be made of Indian Super League (ISL). It is only now, after three years of operation, that AIFF has ‘recognised’ ISL as the ‘premier’ football league of the country. The success of ISL, in promoting the game can be understood by the very fact that is the fourth biggest league in the world, by viewership. It is next only to Bundesliga, Premier League and La Liga. The league is bigger than the ones in countries with well-established football traditions, like Brazil, Argentina, France, and even China- which has a comparable population base.
The commercial success of Indian Premier League (IPL), has led to the emergence of its proto-types in Badminton, Hockey, Football, Kabaddi, Wrestling, and so on. While their success in producing good sportspersons can be debated, no one can deny that the leagues have made these games, ‘watchable’ for the Indian audience. They have drawn decent number of crowds in stadiums, and attracted corporate sponsorship, as well. These would not have been possible, had the government taken upon itself, the task of being an event-organiser.
Corporates need to be given a definite place in sports administration. Their services should be utilised in finding talent, nurturing it, and ensuring implementation of the Federation’s plans. The government will argue that it has made a National Sports Development Fund (NSDF), to raise resources from the private sector, and expect a pat on the back for having done the same. In doing so, what it forgets is that the money will be of no use, if those contributing towards it, have no say in the realisation of plans, which are made with their money.
Reorienting the role of the government
The government has to shift the focus of its participation in sports administration, to the lowest of all levels. It has to make the talent pool stronger, trap it in an organised training system, and propel the same to upper divisions, where the private sector can come in. The government’s strategy so far, has been limited to two plans. One, announcing performance-based incentives, in the nature of cash rewards. And two, in building stadiums, primarily for the organisation of sporting events. There is a need, not to build white elephants in the name of large stadiums, but to instead build sporting centres in the remotest of all towns, and the smallest of all districts.
Talent hunt: Involving RWAs, and panchayats
Talent hunting is a major challenge, given our population base. Residents Welfare Associations (RWAs), and panchayats need be tasked with finding promising talent, at the grassroots. It will not take the members of these local bodies, more than a weekend, to spot good athletes in their own locality. These bodies can be the necessary feeder systems- up to the district level, where they can be assessed, and trained by professionals. The training centres at the district level need to focus on expanding the talent footprint.
Some areas need to be developed, as centres for a particular sport, with specialised trainers. Haryana is a good case in point. It has developed centres for individual sports, such as academies for boxing in Bhiwani, and wrestling in Rohtak, and Sonepat.
Identifying talent in schools
Just like teachers identify academic virtues, there is a need to identify students who have good sporting potential. These students have to be encouraged to take up sports. It is imperative for teachers to understand, that physical literacy, and physical ability are just as important as academics. The New Education Policy, which is due to come out later this year, should bear this in mind.
Using traditional sports, for building sports skills
Government of Haryana’s new policy of establishing ‘Sports Nurseries’, at the school level is one positive step, that can be replicated elsewhere.  Manipur, which has consistently produced top-class athletes, is another example to learn from, on how to leverage traditional sports, in order to build skill sets- like physical strength, footwork, hand-eye coordination, etc., which can then be used for modern sports.
Getting sports ‘drop-outs’ back to the field, in Universities
Many talented sportspersons leave sports, as they approach high school. This is mostly due to academic pressures. These ‘drop-outs’ need to be reinstated into the sports ecosystem, at the University level. They may not all become Olympians; but at the very least, will contribute to a lively sporting culture. Our Universities focus on organising cultural festivals (‘fests’), and debates- but very little is done, to get the students back to sports.
Why cannot we have, for instance, a National University Games competition? Medal winners can be given fee remittances, or academic credits. Such a University league was in operation for cricket, a few decades back. Matches between Punjab University, and University of Delhi- were considered most engaging. If the same happens, at an India level, for track and field events, for instance- it will go a long way in creating a sporting culture.
Involving the Indian Armed Forces
A total of thirteen athletes are participating at the Rio Olympics 2016, from the Indian Armed Forces. The Army has, over a period of time, built many training facilities. Army Sports Institute (ASI)- Pune, the Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU) in Mhow, a cantonment in Indore, and various others are being used. The strict discipline, and mental strength that the Army works with, can be of great help. Indian athletes need good mental conditioning, as can be seen in the close losses, which many of them have endured in the ongoing Rio Olympics.
Olympics: The long-term strategy
For the short term, focus has to be on sports like Badminton, Archery, Hockey, Boxing, and other such sports, in which India has a steady participation rate in Olympics. However, for the long term, India needs to start investing in building a talent pool, for sports that have high medal potential. Aquatics, athletics, and rowing are important sports in this regard. It can take inspiration from China’s ‘Project 119’. Launched in 2001, Project 119 was named after the number of gold medals then offered in track and field, swimming and other water-based events like rowing, canoeing, sailing etc., in which China was traditionally weak. 
It’s time to seize the opportunity
A detailed plan for sports, is expected to be unveiled on August 29, the National Sports Day. The Sports Minister has announced that 1,000 sportspersons will be selected, and given customised training. While such a plan may give limited dividends at 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there is a need to bring about large-scale, systematic changes in sports policy, if India is to become a sporting power.
From winning just five gold medals at the 1988 Seoul Games, China claimed 51 in Beijing (2008), and then 38 at London (2012). India’s story may not be as impressive; for it is a lively democracy. But brick-by brick, India can surely reach its optium potential. One can only hope that it does.