Why doesn't India produce world-class sportsmen?
Over the last 50 years, sports was never a priority for the government. India's grassroots sports program was never systematically developed. Neither was sports infrastructure created nor was it make accessible to the masses. With very low per capita income, sports and the outdoors was never the focus for the average Indian.
Sports always took second priority when it came to education and the opportunities to follow a career in sport was just not there. To top it all, the central & state government interface as a means of managing sports in India left a lot to be desired.
While India continues to produce a few individual sports stars and taste sporadic success in world sports, India clearly lacks the 'Systemic Machinery and the Structural Construct' to produce a pipeline of talent across age groups and across sports that would help us emerge as a dominant force in world sport.
India at the Olympics - Track and Field events
With a population of over a billion people, India has never produced an Olympic Medal in track & field events. However, in the last 44 years, there have been three noteworthy performances that Indian athletes delivered at the world stage:
(#1) PT Usha, 400m hurdles, Los Angles Olympics, 1984: Usha lost the Bronze medal by 1/100th of a second with a time of 55.42sec while Nawal El Moutawakel clocked 54.61sec to won the Gold medal.
Over the last 34 years, the 400 m hurdles world record has been bettered approximately 25 times. Athletes around the world have outperformed their individual limits to deliver spectacular results. But while the world moved forward, India stood still. The time PT Usha set at Los Angles (55.42sec) continues to be the Indian National Record; even 34 years later.
(#2) Shivnath Singh, 42km Marathon Runner, Jalandhar 1978: Shivnath finished 11th at the Montreal Olympics with a time of 2.16.22sec while the winning time was 2.09.55sec. However, Shivnath improved his time at the National Marathon Championships in 1978 with a timing of 2:12:00sec, a national record that remains unbroken 40 years later.
The Olympic record today stands at 2.06.32 in the name of Samuel Kamau set at Beijing Olympics in 2008 while the IAAF world record for men is 2:02:57sec, set by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya on September 28, 2014, at the Berlin Marathon
(#3) Sriram Singh, 800m, Montreal Olympics, 1976: Sriram came 7th in this race but set a national record at 1:45:77sec while Alberto Juantorena won the race with time of 1:43:45sec.
Between 1981 - 2012, the 800m world record has been reset about 25 times and today stands at 1:40:91sec in the name of David Rudisha (London Olympics 2012). Again the surprising fact is that Sriram's timing continues to be the national record in the 800m event, even 42 years later.
There are of course many other examples of athletes including Anju Bobby George and Milkha Singh whose records are yet to be broken. But the point has been made.
Why hasn't Indian track and field delivered at the world stage?
(#1) Systemic factors - Limited intent, poor governance & leadership in sports, absence of public funding & transparency, inadequate support to athletes, poor facilities, poor athlete representation, lack of high performance coaching, limited competitive events, lack of international exposure, poor equipment & gear and inadequate athlete development programs have all contributed to this sorry state of affairs. No one seems to be interested in putting together a Comprehensive & Unified Game Development Program to further the cause of sport.
(#2) Personal factors - Sometimes a fraction of a second improvement owing to random factors such as weather and air pressure on that particular day can be the difference between a record standing or falling. Sometimes random factors such as the human spirit and the unplanned twitch of a muscle can wildly change the outcomes of an event. In addition, technology, athlete gear, improvement in medical science and evolved training programs have all contributed to an athlete surpassing the established limit.
When both the systemic and personal factors have been nurtured, harnessed and provided as part of a structured athlete management & development program, does the athlete deliver beyond his limits. And that then translates into records and noteworthy performances on the international stage.
Enabling athletes to deliver results
The degree of 'catch up' that these U20 age group athletes need, to compete at the world stage is seriously daunting. While the 'catch up' seems daunting, it is not impossible primarily because these athletes are young and have age on their side.
India sent a 59 member contingent (31 boys & 28 girls) to the South Asian Junior Champions in Sri Lanka. This team has returned with 50 medals including 20 golds, 22 silver and 8 bronze.
However, this performance has to be viewed in the context of the competition. This is only one of the many small steps towards India's journey to the Tokyo Olympics 2020.
The way forward
Obviously, these athletes have the hunger and passion to perform and deliver. If over the next two years leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, these athletes can be systematically developed through curated high performance coaching support including mental conditioning, customized athlete training programs, international exposure & expert advise on fitness & nutrition, they will surely deliver a good account of themselves.
In addition one of the ways to galvanize performance and encourage the orientation towards delivering high performance is to 'incentivize breaking national records'.
India has to build a long-term vision, align efforts across all stakeholders, keep the athlete as the centre of focus, create a unified game development program, execute as per plan and measure progress. If this happens, we will begin the process of our systematic transition to becoming a sporting nation.