London Calling, Delhi Slow on Uptake

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The government’s half-hearted support is still the main hurdle in our athletes’ race to London, reports Prakhar Jain

Matter of time The Oympic countdown clock in London
Matter of time: The Oympic countdown clock in London

JUST SIX months to go for the Olympics and only 27 Indian athletes are on track for London. Others are still in training, hoping to be found eligible. The sports ministry, along with the Sports Authority of India (SAI), seems to be in mission mode, having launched a special project called Operation Excellence (OPEX) for the ‘core probables’. However, scratch the surface and you’ll find that despite qualifying, many athletes face bureaucratic delays in getting support.

Take Virdhawal Khade, qualifier in 100m freestyle swimming. In spite of having qualified for the event in July last year, Khade is still waiting for the money for his foreign training to be sanctioned. Spending approximately Rs 1 lakh a month from his pocket to train in Bengaluru, he is infuriated at the procedural delays. “The foreign training, which should have started by now, is still waiting for financial clearance by the sports ministry,” he says. And this might be because SAI, despite two swimmers qualifying, doesn’t want to bet on them as they are not “medal hopefuls”.

Against all odds Olympic qualifiers Manoj Kumar (boxing), Jayanta Talukdar (archery), and Virdhawal Khade (swimming)
Against all odds: Olympic qualifiers Manoj Kumar (boxing), Jayanta Talukdar (archery), and Virdhawal Khade (swimming), Photos: AFP

Archer Jayanta Talukdar also faces a similar predicament. Set to participate in the men’s individual recurve event, he had written to the SAI and the sports ministry long ago through the Archery Association of India for funds to train in Korea. Yet his efforts have come to naught. Instead of training abroad, he has settled for the foreign coach arranged by the Tata Archery Academy, Jamshedpur. “My score has improved with the help of the Korean coach, but it can increase if I compete with Koreans, who are best at the sport,” he says.

Incidentally, out of 27 sportspersons who have qualified till now, around twothirds also belong to independent programmes initiated to help athletes win Olympic medals. Ten are part of the Olympic Gold Quest run by sports legends such as Prakash Padukone and Geet Sethi and five are supported by the Mittal Charitable Trust, funded by steel baron Lakshmi Mittal. These programmes aim to “complement the efforts of the government and various sports federations by doing what it takes to ensure a world-class performance by our world-class athletes”.

Boxer Manoj Kumar, a beneficiary of the Olympic Gold Quest, feels these programmes step in when it matters the most. Kumar, a hopeful in the 64 kg welterweight category, underwent hand surgery with the aid of the agency. “I was operated upon by the same doctor who treats Sachin Tendulkar,” he says. “Although we have support from the government and SAI, with these agencies we don’t have to wait for the paperwork to get things done.”

Lack of funds is not the area of concern here. OPEX, with a humongous budget of Rs 258 crore, equal to almost one-fourth of the sports ministry’s budget this year, is a giant leap from the previous practice of relying on four-year Long Term Development Plans of national sports federations to produce athletes of international standards. But OPEX is selective in its allocation of funds and focusses on only 16 out of 26 disciplines. Sports such as basketball, cycling, football and volleyball — where India barely stands a chance of qualifying — have been kept out. However, a bounty has been set aside for disciplines such as shooting, boxing, wrestling and hockey.

Two-thirds of the qualified athletes are benefiting from private initiatives to provide world-class training

This might sound like a good strategy, but it becomes an area of concern when, even after zeroing in on fewer disciplines, Indian athletes might end up presenting a challenge in only eight of them. A ground check with senior officials of SAI and most national sports federations paints a grim picture of the expected performance at London. According to officials, the sports in which we barely stand a chance are gymnastics, judo, rowing, table tennis, taekwondo, swimming, weightlifting and yachting. This year too, it’ll be the sports in which India has traditionally excelled and won medals. Shooting holds out some hope; nine out of the 27 athletes have qualified for it. And the rest in athletics, boxing and archery. Many more are expected to qualify in badminton, hockey, tennis and wrestling through various upcoming international tournaments.

However, in terms of medal haul, nothing extraordinary should be expected this year too and there is a reason to it. The sports federations told TEHELKA that the money from the government has started flowing in adequately only in the past twothree years. Thus, it will take around 10 more years of such backing to produce medal-winning Olympians. “The support from the ministry is quite good, but the national sports federations also need to become self-sufficient in the long run,” says Muralidharan Raja, Secretary General of Indian Amateur Boxing Association.

The argument of adequate funding producing medals seems true if you consider that the amount earmarked for the preparation of the athletes for the Commonwealth Games was Rs 678 crore and it showed up in the form of a huge medal tally for India. Though it’s another story that only Rs 338 crore from it got utilised and the rest was sent back to the government.

Only if government and private initiatives are harnessed together can India expect more Olympic medals

The expenditure under OPEX, according to the sports ministry, has been around Rs 110 crore till November 2011 and was shown as spent on national and international coaches, organisation of national coaching camps and foreign exposure. The term ‘foreign exposure’ here is a bit tricky as it also includes participation of athletes in international tournaments, which is essential to qualify. Specific foreign training has been allowed to a select few, that too mostly through the corpus of National Sports Development Fund (NSDF).

Although some athletes don’t live the foreign dream and want to train only in India, the facilities on the ground are still to catch up. The synthetic turf promised by Sports Minister Ajay Maken to the PT Usha School of Athletics a year ago is yet to materialise. Tintu Luka from this school has qualified for the 800m run. Although the money has been released to SAI, it is now on the Central Public Works Department to lay the ground.

“Our athletes are training on the mud track as usual as the synthetic track might take at least one more year. We need them only for the last leg of preparations and will be training either in Bengaluru, Chennai or Kochi,” says V Sreenivasan, husband of PT Usha, and treasurer of the school.

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Summary Of Expenditure

Foreign Exposure
64.10 Cr*

Coaching Camps
41.69 Cr

Foreign Coaches
4.40 Cr

Indian Coaches & Supporting Staff
1.00 Cr

Grand Total 
111.19 Cr

*Note: All figures are in rupees. Data till November 2011

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TEHELKA’s queries to SAI officials on whether red tape was holding up the funds did not get a clear answer. Dr PC Kashyap, executive director of SAI’s Training of Elite Athletes and Management Support division, says, “We have sent our recommendations (for Jayanta and Virdhawal) to the sports ministry. Depending on their medal prospects, the committee will take the decision.” A senior official of the sports ministry, on condition of anonymity, says that set procedures are being followed for foreign clearances and laying synthetic tracks, as public money can’t be spent without checks and balances. He also emphasised that these matters are dealt on a priority basis and there are no pending issues with the ministry. Rajesh Malhotra, Director of Media Communications for the sports ministry, says, “The data regarding support provided under NFSD would be made public by month-end.”

It does seem that with adequate funding and good national and international coaching, India has a chance of rising above its three-medal tally of Beijing 2008. However, there is a danger of these benefits being squandered if there is indifferent treatment of the needs of athletes, like those of Virdhawal and Jayanta. This not only lowers the morale of athletes but can also impact their chances of winning. Only if the potential of government and private initiatives is harnessed together, we should expect something better than Beijing. Else, hopes will have to lie low until 2016.

Prakhar Jain is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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