Medal workshop: Planning and efforts behind India's recent successes
N May 2015, a senior Indian sportsperson was on the precipice. He was convinced that his career had hit a roadblock. As a last resort, he called up a scribe from this newspaper to vent.
During the lengthy conversation, this person revealed he had suicidal thoughts.
“I was asked to pay a bribe of more than Rs 1 lakh to even be in the national camp. That’s money that I don’t have,” he revealed.
“What am I supposed to do? I know I can win laurels for the country but I am not even given an opportunity to show what I’m capable of. I am feeling suicidal.”
This story did not stop there and the person in question did not stop fighting the system. After facing more hurdles in the following years, there was a happy ending at last year’s Asian Games.
An unexpected place on the podium was quickly followed by recognition, sponsorship and monetary rewards from the government.
From being asked to pay to represent the country to being given money to represent the country, the athlete had completed one incredible narrative arc.
Nothing follows success, fame and recognition like money and the athlete had realised it in Jakarta.
When Pullela Gopichand met then sports minister MS Gill after Saina’s Nehwal’s ouster from the 2008 Olympics, the minister had one pertinent question.
“Who are you,” he asked Gopichand. One of India’s most famous coaches and an All-England winner in 2001, the former had to resort to spelling his name out.
The scenario is different these days. So different that the current sports minister, Kiren Rijiju, has an unofficial nickname: ‘Twitter minister’.
Within minutes of an Indian sportsperson doing well in international meets, Rijiju is on social media congratulating the athlete. A personal invitation for an informal meet and greet quickly follows.
Gopichand himself was part of a special delegation that met Rijiju after PV Sindhu became a world champion last month. On the same day, the 2016 Olympic medallist left for Hyderabad in a special flight.
That wasn’t all. Earlier this month, the Andhra Pradesh chief minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy promised five acres of land to the 24-year-old for setting up an all-girls badminton academy.
This was over and above the monetary rewards that came her way. In the space of three hours on Friday, Rijiju fired his Twiter account twice to congratulate Bajrang Punia and Amit Panghal. A meet and greet, as well as monetary rewards, await them for their excellence in World Championships.
That’s the other positive thing that the government has done in the last month. Instead of applying and waiting for cash incentives, successful athletes will get it as soon as they come back to India.
Of course, that isn’t the only thing the government has done to motivate the elite. Even though there has been some form of funding open to athletes for more than a decade, the flagship Target Olympic Podium (TOP) Scheme was inaugurated in 2014 amid much fanfare. Even though it’s had its share of problems, it has benefitted athletes immensely.
Earlier, an athlete would have to wait for months to get government clearance for exposure trips or hiring personal coaches. The funding through TOP Scheme, open to the best of the best as well as some of the best prospects, has meant an expedited process.
All they have to do these days is send a bunch of receipts to the government and voila, it will be done.
At present, there are 88 athletes under TOP Scheme and more than a handful of them have already medalled at the Worlds or in continental championships.
The first real attempt to make India a sporting nation can be traced back to 2008. The system still had its own pitfalls, red-tapism was very much present but there was also that five-letter word which most athletes were craving to have a better chance at the world level — money.
External funding was just about beginning, the importance of foreign coaches was being realised and the first exposure trips were sanctioned.
It also helped that India had their best-ever performance at the Olympics (one gold, two bronze) and were now looking forward to hosting the Commonwealth Games in two years.
“Everything was being approved... left, right and centre. Whatever we asked, we got,” is how an active athlete remembers about the time between 2008 and 2010.
“You know what else we got? Respect.”Take the case of Vijender Singh. The poster boy of Indian boxing narrates an anecdote. He is candid about the changes an Olympic or a Worlds medal brings about. “It’s a metamorphosis of sorts,” he says.
“There was no road in front of my house and once I came back from Beijing with the bronze medal a metal road was built in front of my house. This would have never happened had I not won a medal.” There is another story. When he was preparing for the Olympics, he had to purchase his own supplement that cost about Rs 5000 a month, something unheard of now.
The boxer also narrates how he had to get used to the idea of shooting commercials.
“The nuances of attending functions and shooting commercials were new. It was a different kind of challenge. I tell new champions to not lose patience. Yes, you will be troubled initially because it is not a sport but later you will get used to it. My father was (a) driver and we did not know what TV or luxury was. The medal changed everything.”
He cautions athletes: “Be wise while investing your money. It doesn’t last.”
The boxer also believes such incentives are motivating more youngsters to take up Olympic sports. “If we have a strong base, eventually it will offer dividend,” he said. “Grassroot programmes are essential too.”
Manisha Malhotra was there at the very beginning. The head of sports excellence and scouting at JSW Sports, she was once associated with Mittal Champions Trust (MCT). The first of its kind in India, MCT’s idea was simple yet revolutionary.
“Identify Olympic medal winners.”
Even though they shut shop in 2014, they reportedly spent more than `75 crore to give athletes a shot at glory.
“Money is not really a problem now,” she said.
“Athletes, including young kids, are going everywhere for exposure trips. There are foreign coaches, the expertise is there. The need of the hour is to widen our talent pool.”
She spoke about Indian shooting to paint an example why widening the depth is of utmost importance.
“On any given day, there are roughly five shooters who are capable of winning in that class. That’s what we have to look to do across all sports.” Malhotra has a point. In the TOP Scheme list, 18 (four more are para-shooters) of the 88 athletes are shooters.
But one genuine criticism of most external funding agencies is how they focus on the growth and development of the top 1%. While Malhotra accepted this, she threw light on the work JSW Sports are doing to tap into the next generation.
“That (the top 1%) is there, but why I respect JSW Sports is there are 150 kids learning in an institution.” Crucially though, there is nothing conflicting between the funds made available by TOP Scheme, OGQ or JSW Sports. “It’s a symbiotic relationship between us and TOP Scheme,” Malhotra said.
Viren Rasquinha, CEO of OGQ, sang from the same hymn sheet. “Let me speak of the last three-four days. Four wrestlers qualifying for the Olympics from the World Championships is unprecedented. Our collaborative effort with Sports Authority of India and other stakeholders like the federations are yielding results. What happened in the last three days is unprecedented. Four wrestlers have qualified from Worlds and two boxers have assured medals.”
The operative word here is collaboration. There is a common goal and all the stakeholders are working towards it.
“Take the example of Deepak Punia and Ravi Dahiya. We hired Sushil’s long-time foreign coach Vladimir Mestvirishivili and put him up in New Delhi at the Chhatrasal Staidum for four years. He has been training Ravi, Deepak and a few others. But all other wrestlers are benefitting. The OGQ’s mission is to help athletes. The government has TOPS and we compliment that scheme and add a few more extras.” Close to `2 crore has been spent on Vladimir for his stay and salary.
“Take the case of Vinesh Phogat also. We hired a foreign coach and rented him a house in Lucknow. We also hired a physio. We must have spent close to `1 crore on her training. The Sports Authority of India must have spent about more than a crore on training camps, exposure trips and participation in competitions.”Same is the case with (weightlifter) Mirabai Chanu. Over the last week, Punia, Dahiya, Phogat and Chanu have either won Olympic quotas or broken national records.
“Nowadays the support system is very strong and the success of our athletes are rubbing off on the youngsters,” Rasquinha said. “TOPS’ CEO Commander Rajesh Rajagopalan is doing a tremendous job. In fact there will be more unprecedented occasions in the next one year.” He is happy that the relationships between SAI, sports ministry and organisations like his have matured over the years.”
As more and more youngsters get motivated to take up Olympic sports because of such support and incentives, India gears up for another Olympic year. With inputs from Indraneel Das.
Established by Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports in 2014 to support India’s Olympic dream. A committee identifies elite athletes capable of winning medals and the TOP Scheme supports them in all aspects like funding, training, coaching and taking part in competitions.
High-priority sports like archery, badminton, boxing, hockey, shooting and wrestling are considered. The Scheme’s success includes PV Sindhu’s silver in Rio. Of the 70 athletes who won medals at the 2018 CWG, 47 were supported by TOP. It has a Mission Olympic Cell that approves customized programmes and disburses finances for the same.
Olympic Gold Quest
Badminton, shooting, wrestling, boxing — disciplines fetching a lion’s share of medals won by Indians at the top level of late are under this programme, which also supports archery and athletics. Launched in 2007 by the Foundation for Promotion for Sports and Games, it has former hockey captain Viren Rasquinha as CEO.
It estimates that an athlete needs Rs 15-Rs 60 lakh PA for coaching, training, diet etc and provides a part of it. It has helped over 70 athletes at the senior level including MC Mary Kom, PV Sindhu, Amit Panghal, Vinesh Phogat and Gagan Narang. Five of India’s last eight Olympic medallists received funding through OGQ.
Started in 2012, JSW Sports is associated with some of the biggest franchises like Bengaluru FC, Delhi Capitals, and PKL side Haryana Steelers. They also support top athletes Asian Games winner Neeraj Chopra, multiple-time World Championships medallist Bajrang Punia and Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik. In 2018, they opened Inspire Institute of Sports, a private high-performance training centre. It has athletes from five disciplines training in Vijayanagar. They also have an Excellence Program which supports 31 athletes. They spend around `65 crore annually for sports.
Mittal Champions Trust
Started in 2005 by UK-based Indian steel giant Lakshmi Mittal, its idea was to produce Olympic medal winners. Former national women’s tennis champion Manisha Malhotra was its CEO. Before closing down in 2014, they spent reportedly to the tune of Rs 80 crore on 40 athletes from eight disciplines. Existence of this trust coincided with India’s most productive outing at the Olympic (6 medals in 2012) and Commonwealth Games (110 medals in 2010). The 2010 Asian Games (65 medals) was also the country’s best till then. Abhinav Bindra, Yogeshwar Dutt and many Asian Games medallists were among the beneficiaries.