What is stifling sports talent in India? Is it the poor infrastructure or the lack of it? Or, is it both? Answer to the question depends on the person you ask it or his perception. People are entitled to their opinion, but the real answer lies in what we have achieved over the years, say, since India’s first appearance in Olympics in 1900.
Sport is not just about winning, say the experts. But unfortunately for most of us sport, like politics, is a game of numbers. We always tend to weigh things on the scales of medals that our athletes have won in major Games, more specifically on the biggest stage of them all: Olympics!
India’s medal count in 30 Olympics is a mere 26—nine gold, six silver and 11 bronze medals, including eight gold medals in hockey, the last of which coming in 1980 Games in Moscow. To this date, shooter Abhinav Bindra is the lone individual gold medal winner.
That speaks volumes of our talent pool, with or without proper infrastructure, in a country that is the second most populous and the biggest democracy in the world. Now contrast this with China, which has 473 medals in just nine Games. This includes a whooping 201 gold medals. Interestingly, India finds itself ranked dead last worldwide in the number of Olympic medals won per capita. Paraguay, Niger and Iraq have done better!
India is a land of many talents, but sport isn’t really one of them. India, as proud and nationalistic a country as they come, can’t seem to get out of the starting blocks when it comes to the race for Olympic gold. Why should that be, particularly with a potential talent pool of 1.2 billion people? This brings to focus the country’s available sport infrastructure. Frankly speaking, the infrastructure in the country, except for a few major cities, does not match its population. Even where it is available, they are lying in a state of decay or out of bounds.
Take the national capital, for instance. The stadia that came up for the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi and subsequently renovated twice over for the 2002 National Games—the Games were shifted to Hyderabad owing to assembly elections in Delhi— and the 2010 CWG. Millions were spent in refurbishing them, of course with large-scale scams and scandals taking the front seat. In the bargain, the best conducted Games were put on the backburner.
But that is not the issue. The real one is what has happened to these facilities? They are very much there, underutilized and in a state of decay. The tracks of Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the showpiece venue which held the opening and closing ceremonies apart from track and field events, are not fit for another major athletics event. The adjacent weightlifting hall, which saw many a leak from rooftop to bathrooms during the Games, is stinking.
The Indira Gandhi Stadium Complex, which also has a wrestling hall and a cycling velodrome, has been put to use in more ways than one. There are seminars, political party gatherings or showbiz events held at the venue than regular sport meets. At least the wrestling hall has conducted a few events, keeping it alive and kicking.
Unlike these, the cycling velodrome is being regularly used, thanks to the academy that the Sports Authority of India (SAI) ventured into with the Cycling
Federation of India (CFI). The latter has also held two Asian events in the last two years and these have kept the velodrome in “working” condition. But the truth is that when the CFI took it over to conduct the Asian Cycling Championships, the venue was full of cobwebs and in knee-deep dirt. The CFI had to spend a few lakhs to make the venue event friendly.
The Talkatora swimming pool, renovated at quite a cost with flawed lifts, etc., has rarely hosted a state event, let alone an international one since 2010. It
has a SAI academy running there, but nothing comparable to the cycling one, which also has the blessings of UCI, the international body. Luckily, Dr Karni Singh Shooting range cannot be used for no other purpose because of the dangers involved. Fortunately, top shooters regularly practice at the range. But fewer tournaments are held here because organizers prefer going to places like Hyderabad and Pune, where lodging facilities are good.
Another venue in disuse is Delhi Development Authority’s Yamuna Sports Complex, the venue for both table tennis and archery. With the pay-andplay schemes in vogue, the YSC has its utility value but not substantial given the size of the complex, created for both table tennis and archery. The real gain of CWG is the Thyagraj Sports Complex under the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. It has been the most sought-after venues in Delhi, hosting national and international meets on a regular basis. Dr Ambedkar Stadium, in the heart of both New and Old Delhi, is regularly engaged for football tournaments as well as government functions! But the NDMC’s Talkatora Indoor Stadium, which was once a favourite hub for hosting national and international championships, has hardly conducted a sport meet after the CWG boxing events.
The lesser you talked is the better about other sport arenas of Delhi—the Chattrasal stadium at Model Town or the neighbouring University Sports Complex. With negligible sport in universities all over the country, particularly in DU, one shouldn’t expect the facilities to be put to good use. In comparison, the Jamia Millia has kept its premises and the ground, where cricket matches are held, in reasonably good conditions.
It is anybody’s guess what would be the state of affairs of sport facilities elsewhere in the country. Minus exceptions, the story is more or less the same everywhere. Infrastructure created in several states in the name of National Games, with the central funding, are mostly in neglect. They are either used
for stars night programmes or political meets and the most convincing argument advanced is the money the stadia authorities earn through them.
Nobody grudges the money they make through such events. They do need it to maintain the white elephants. But aren’t these meant for a specific purpose? The conduct of sports meets is increasingly becoming problematic with federations and state associations finding it difficult to pay the stadia charges. For a three-day meet, the charges at an indoor stadium could be anything in the rage of Rs. 5-7 lakh, if not more. It all depends on the size of stadium one hires for the meet and facilities needed.
Recently, I visited two southern states, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and the union territory of Pondicherry, near Tamil Nadu, to witness the national table tennis events. In the first and the second cases, the organizers had to conduct the championships in two marriage halls, adjacent to each other, because of lack of infrastructure. But in the third, which was held at an indoor stadium, the senior national championships were the first meet held in 10 years.
Kerala, which is hosting the National Games after numerous problems, will have a spread of infrastructure in the state with various districts conducting different disciplines. Try and speak to the Andhra sportspersons, they are spewing venom over chief minister Chandrababu Naidu for having invested everything in Hyderabad, for the 2002 National Games. Hyderabad was the united Andhra Pradesh’s capital then. Today, Hyderabad belongs to Telangana and Andhra will have to create its own infrastructure, including its capital in the next 10 years.
Travel westwards and to Mumbai, you will hardly find a state-owned indoor facility. With space selling at a premium, the private players are the ones who have indoor, air-conditioned stadium and it could cost the organizers anything between Rs. 35 and Rs. 40 lakh. Fortunately, the SAI stadia in New Delhi don’t cost that much thanks sports ministry’s small mercies. But it is still steep, say the national federations. With very little sponsorships coming their way, they are finding it difficult. Most federations blame it on cricket for all the ills and the corporate sponsors, ever after the mileage, who pump in a huge share on cricket leaving just the breadcrumbs to other disciplines.
As a result, talented athletes can’t find support to hone their skill, so they don’t catch the eye of sponsors. And sponsors, without stars to latch onto, continue putting all of their funding into a few cricketers. Another problem is that the government, in the last 68 years since independence, hasn’t considered sports an important focus compared with other pressing needs.
Of course, there is money available for sports through a central budget, apart from individual states allocating funds—sports is still a state subject in India—to manage competition in each sport and train athletes. But much of their budget is spent on salaries for bureaucrats, leaving the athletes complain about lack of money for track improvements, coaches, better training and infrastructure. We don’t need white elephants in a few urban centres, but facilities at block, district and state levels where state-run training programmes can focus on churning out finelytuned athletes. Yet, all these will not guarantee medals at the Olympics Games. Only the hard work will. EOM