Indian sports stars who returned with medals from the Tokyo Olympics were showered with gifts ranging from free air travel for life to cash rewards and multimillion-dollar brand contracts.
The gritty stories of silver-medal-winning weight-lifter Mirabai Chanu or hockey team captain Rani Rampal and player Neha Goyal overcoming odds to become household names are now encouraging youngsters to take a serious look at sports in a nation that, despite its 1.4 billion population, has had little to shout about on the world stage.
Chanu had to collect firewood from the forests near her Manipur home because her family could not afford a gas stove. Rampal’s mother was a domestic helper and her father a street vendor. Goyal, who lived in a shanty near a drain in the northern state of Haryana, helped her mother to straighten spokes at a local cycle shop to make ends meet.
Yet, more than celebrate, their successes underscore India’s failure to promote sports beyond the popular game of cricket. They also highlight the hurdles posed by country’s notoriously bureaucratic sports agencies and the government’s insufficient investment in sports infrastructure and training.
“We have consistently failed to foster players with a competitive edge in any sport other than cricket,” Prakash Rawat, a former member of the All-India Football Federation, told The National. “It’s almost like other sports don’t exist.”
India finished 48th on the medal tally at the Tokyo Olympics, its highest in more than four decades. The previous best was 51st at Beijing in 2008. It has won 10 medals so far at the Tokyo Paralympics, its finest performance at the event.
In 2018, sports minister and Olympic medal winner Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore told parliament the Indian government spent 0.03 rupees a day per capita on sports compared with China’s equivalent of 6.1 rupees (about $0.08).
The situation is no different in 2021. Even in the year of the Olympics, the central government in the union budget for 2021-2022 allocated $400 million to sports, 10 per cent less than the previous financial year.
The state-run National Sports Development Fund, which helps train athletes and facilitates their participation in international competitions, cut its allocation by about 30 per cent from a year earlier.
Nepotism, corruption and low accountability compound the problems, Mr Rawat said.
In 2012, the International Olympic Committee suspended the Indian Olympic Association for electing in its governing body members with criminal cases pending against them. Subsequently, Indian athletes had to compete at the Sochi Winter Games under the IOC flag, instead of the Indian one.
Experts also point to a lack of focus and planning in sports training.
India’s javelin coach Uwe Hohn, who is from Germany and trained Tokyo gold medallist Neeraj Chopra, had earlier said the Sports Authority of India and Athletics Federation of India “did not do enough” to prepare athletes for the mega event because their training was unplanned and diets poor, even for elite athletes.
Much of the current mess in Indian sports can be traced to India’s lack of a sporting culture, veteran sports commentator and columnist Ayaz Memon told The National.
“Sports must be made mandatory in schools, just like in other leading sports nations like the US and Great Britain,” Memon said. “The government must invest heavily in facilities at the grass roots, top class coaching and mental conditioning for juniors. Families, communities, society must come forward to encourage sports participation, particularly for girls.”
Sports officials, for their part, are quick to claim India’s best showing at the Olympics this year as a testimony to the state’s nurturing of talent.
“It’s become fashionable to slam the government while ignoring its efforts and outreach to players,” a senior Sports Authority of India official told The National. “Every time a global sporting event happens, the same old narrative plays out – the government isn’t doing enough, it is incompetent and so on. This is unfounded.”
Funding for programmes such as Khelo India Games, a national level multidisciplinary talent hunt at the grassroot level, was boosted this year by about $46 million, an increase of about 10 per cent since last year, the official said.
Other government programmes, such as the Target Olympic Podium Scheme, which provides Olympic-bound athletes financial assistance for training at world-class facilities, are “creating a robust ecosystem for sports in the country”, the official said.
Still, the government needs to focus on easing bureaucratic processes, some elite players said.
Golfer Aditi Ashok, who narrowly missed the bronze medal in Tokyo, rued how she could not use the Target Olympic Podium Scheme for her second Olympic outing because she was given the funds only 60 days before the event.
India would do well to emulate the US, the UK or China, which have successful templates in place to produce winning athletes, Memon said.
China, which modelled its sports programme on Russia’s, has established an efficacious system in which promising youngsters are selected at a young age by scouts and sent to special state-sponsored "boot-camp-style" centres to be trained rigorously for international competitions.
“If India has the ambition to become a great sporting nation, we need to revamp our bureaucracy totally,” Dangal Singh, a state wrestling coach, told The National. “We also urgently need a robust and transparent grassroots system that invests in talented players from the start. Not just when they are poised for Olympic victory.”