Like many Indians, I love watching sports from the armchair. Couch potatoes must form the largest part of the viewing population. They give cricket high TRP ratings and earnings to the cricket board. Sports organizations receive government grants. There is power to be wielded in choosing participants, coaches, and so on, and perhaps money to be made in awarding contracts for infrastructure and in running large events. There is also foreign travel accompanying the sportspersons to international events. Government and sports association officials sometimes outnumber participants at such events. The public wants Indian sportspeople to win and has a stake in how sports activities are governed and managed in India.
During the Cold War years, Russia, East Germany and China won many Olympic gold medals. These countries were said to track and take over talented children, give them intensive training, luxurious living by local standards, even use drugs to enhance performance, and provide them opportunities to compete internationally in whichever sport they were selected for. That it was not merely a powerful communist state programme cracking the whip is proved by the continuing and dominating performance of many sportspeople from these countries. In tennis, for example, Serbia, Croatia and Russia are producing powerful, amazingly talented, female and male tennis players.
The Beijing Olympics will again show that China has world champions in many sports and athletics, not just great tennis and badminton players. India, with its more than a billion people and many climatic conditions, has been unable to win gold medals or trophies in any sport for many years except rare ones in badminton and, fifty years ago, in hockey. Our cricket teams perform patchily, especially overseas. In hockey, we have descended to the bottom after being world champions. We have little to show in other sports. But we have many associations and substantial government spending on sports.
Almost every possible sport has a federation and affiliated associations that claim to run it. They are led, in many cases, by top political leaders, bureaucrats, policemen and, in some cases, businessmen. The Softball Association, for instance, is led by Shivaji Sarode, the National Rifle Association by Digvijay Singh; Abhay Singh Chauthala leads the Amateur Boxing Federation; the Athletics Federation is led by Suresh Kalmadi; Vijay Kumar Malhotra presides over the Archery Federation; Vidya Stokes over the Indian Women’s Hockey Federation; B. Sivanthi Adityan, over the Volleyball Federation; K.P. Singh Deo over the Rowing Federation; Ajay Singh Chauthala runs the Table Tennis Federation, and K.P.S. Gill the Indian Hockey Federation; and Jagmohan Dalmiya followed by Sharad Pawar the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Most of them need no introduction, gracing the media regularly as they do in their non-sporting, (usually) political and sometimes bureaucratic lives. They are also familiar because they have led the sports bodies for many years, for example, Kalmadi, Gill, Stokes and the Chauthala family. The common thread among them is their lack of vision for the sport they lead and little attempt to identify, train and nurture talent.
The Indian government has released a national sports policy. It bears the imprint of the egalitarian and outspoken minister for sports, Mani Shankar Aiyar. It has three objectives: sports for all, excellence in sports and contingent constitutional, legal and institutional measures to operationalize the policy. Each objective has ambitious goals. Under Sports for All, the ministry wants to provide universal access to sports and physical education for all classes of citizens, in all segments of society and across all age-groups. In order to achieve this, the policy expects to develop local institutions with substantially enhanced public investments to provide facilities for sports in urban and rural areas. It encompasses sports facilities and supervisors in educational institutions and aims at women, the disabled and senior citizens.
The policy draft also rightly belittles the hosting of mega-events. They give “very short-term benefits” for the country unless they are part of a “comprehensive and long-term vision” encompassing a larger base of athletes. “After hosting the Afro-Asian Games in 2003 at Hyderabad, the World Military Games are to be held this year (2007) at Hyderabad. The Commonwealth Youth Games will be held next year (2008) at Pune, which will be followed by the Commonwealth Games in 2010 at Delhi...There is talk of India making another bid for the Asian Games and seeking to host the Olympics. And the president of the Indian Olympic Committee has floated the idea of Formula One motor racing on 700 hectares in the vicinity of the capital...However, the economic, social and cultural benefits of hosting mega sporting events have to be weighed against the huge opportunity costs involved and needs to be clearly evaluated in the specific context of each country...While the hosting of such mega events undoubtedly gives a boost to the image of the country in the sporting world and makes the promotion of sporting excellence an important agenda, these can be reduced to very short-term benefits unless they are part of a well-formulated and comprehensive long-term vision which aims at Sports for All and includes among the highest of our national priorities the development of a National Sports Culture.”
The long term incumbents in Indian sports associations have reacted as expected. Kalmadi is most upset that his great efforts to host the Commonwealth Games and then other games have not been praised but criticized. He has done little to spread Olympic sports and athletics over the country, find talent, train and provide opportunities to compete in India and abroad. (Our athletics heroes are a handful of silver or bronze medalists; our only gold medal was in hockey over 50 years ago.) Instead, his focus has been on mega-events with large expenditures and infrastructure. At these events, India’s performance is always dismal. However, expenses are lavish and take away most of the government budget for sports.
The policy rightly stresses the need to provide sports infrastructure to benefit more people over India. It would like all classes of people to participate. It would like to offer training to people with talent. Perhaps it could employ talent-spotters who would go to different local tournaments and spot talent for development.
The governance of our autonomous sports associations is opaque, without vision and professional management, and are resting places for powerful people least concerned with development of the sport. One only has to look at what is being done for cricket to understand what could be done, but is not. The big money that cricketers earn has brought in great players from lower socio-economic classes all over India. However, this has not been part of any deliberate plan, as it should be. We could learn from American baseball, basketball and football associations that have developed talent-spotting and development into a science. The policy also seeks to develop sports infrastructure in every part of the country. It wants to encourage schools and colleges to offer sporting facilities. It proposes generous sports scholarships for talented students.
Self-regulation in sports has not worked. Sports association leaders do not see themselves as accountable for improving the sport and its performers. Yet their teams wear India blazers and the leaders speak for the country. They want their monopoly control, but not responsibility for performance. We need legislation to ensure that all associations give representation to sportspersons, are transparent in their governance and finances, and the leaders are accountable for performance. Perhaps the Sports Association of India could be the regulatory body for this purpose.