2020 was supposed to be the year of the Tokyo Olympics. The best of the athletes from across the globe were giving finishing touches to weave out the real-life stories of fighting against all possible and scripting success in the highest sporting platform.
Suddenly, a virus came and decided to thrive amongst us, putting a sudden break to most of the human activities. Sporting activities which constantly inspires us with unending tales of human resilience and fighting spirit, ironically, stopped as well, perhaps just in time when the human race needed it the most?
The Olympics, the tennis grand slams, popular football leagues, the basketball league, the Indian Premier League- one after the other all the sports tournaments got either cancelled or postponed indefinitely. And yet, even when in extreme inaction, sports teach a few things about life. There is a thin line- which separates the legends of sports from the good players. Both of them do receive setbacks and defeats in their careers.
Post-defeat, the legends are those who those, who mentally reset their targets and starts preparing physically for the same. Post-lockdown, if India aspires to be a strong nation in the Olympics, it needs to reset its goals and work out a blueprint- so that post lockdown it should be up and running to achieve its goal. What should be the blueprint like?
The need to work out a unique model
Almost ten days before the lockdown, I was invited as one of the speakers in the international conference on Sports Management and Women’s role in Sports and Entrepreneurship 2020, organized by Pondicherry University.
The conference gave me an opportunity to closely interact with Dr Packianathan Chelladurai, known as Chella. Dr Chella, 93 years old now, is one of the original founding fathers of the sports management as an academic discipline and has taught at the University of Madras in India, University of Western Ontario in Canada, Ohio State University and Troy University in the United States.
In one of the sessions, I specifically asked him about what should be the approach of India to be amongst the strong nation in the Olympics. Dr Chella discussed distinct models of the national pursuit of excellence in sport based on extent and type of involvement of respective governments. He also talked about sports policy factors leading to international sporting success model and suggested that 70% of the variance in the medal winnings at the Olympic Games is won by the wealthier nations.
But more importantly, he pointed out that comparatively poor and small nations should not blindly follow the practices of the rich nations in their attempts at winning medals in international competitions. To climb up the ladder, they should work out on their own unique model.
He gave the examples of nations like Cuba, North Korea, Tunisia and Lithuania who were able to win gold medals- despite lacking the obvious strengths of the powerful sports nations. In nutshell, he introduced an alternative model to the sport excellence that emphasized the significance of the national psyche and the critical role of the government, media and educational institutions to create the national fervour for the same. Adopting the best of the international practices, India’s approach to be amongst the top nations has to be unique to its own conditions.
What is the uniqueness in approach in terms of finding their own answers to the emerging questions?
If India aspires to be a strong sports nation, northeastern states of the country have to be the engine of the growth story. Be it the Ima Keithal- a 500-year-old all-women market in Imphal or the double decker and single decker root bridges in the Khasi hills or the indigenous games empowering the women in Assam, the beauty of the northeastern states lies in their own unique approach in terms of finding answers to their challenges and opportunities.
Amidst this backdrop, it is an added advantage that the Sports Minister of the country, Kiran Rijuju, is from one of the northeastern states- where the culture of sports is deep-rooted in the way of life. After getting hang of his department, Mr Rijiju, made his intent clear, in October 2019, when he said:-‘We will go to the Tokyo Olympics with the available talent. The next big target is Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028.
Recently, I had a meeting with IOC and heads of sports federations. We have set the target that medal count should be in double digits at Paris 2024 and by 2028, India should be among top ten medal winners at the Olympics’.
With the consistent improvisations in the TOP scheme and plan to replicate the TOP scheme at the junior level, emphasis on the Khelo India Games to widen the base and consistent interactions with the sportspersons in their highs and lows, there have been serious attempts in this direction in the last several months.
Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs and the Sports Authority of India has tried to remove the bottlenecks and move ahead in tandem with the sports federations. But the most important point is as to whether the Indian Olympic Association and the national sports federation has got the wherewithal to walk the talk? If not, what needs to be fixed with promptness?
Indian Olympic Association, in a relatively proactive approach, has sought support and feedback from all national sports federations to find a detailed roadmap for the resumption of sporting activities in the country. The idea is to formulate a white paper with practical suggestions.
The IOA president has sent out a detailed presentation seeking inputs for the blueprint from the medical, athlete, social, competitive and economic perspectives. If we go through the entire presentation, we find that the immediate focus of the entire exercise is to resume the preparations for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and other international competitions in accordance with the governments’ guidelines on the COVID 19 scenario.
Though the intent is right, is the execution part is highly doubtful? How responsive will be the national sports federations to the entire idea? Even if they would like to, will they be professional and proactive in terms of sending a detailed response based on the nature of their respective sports?
Post COVID-19, sports specific modules need to be worked out
The new normal in the post COVID-19 world would be strict adherence to the basic hygiene protocol in the form of good respiratory etiquette, personal distancing protocol, use of the face mask and frequent hand sanitation.
But these generalizations apart, sports specific modules need to be worked out. Individual non-contact sports played outdoors have a bit of advantage when it comes to the relative medical risks in comparison to the team contact sports, combat sport and sports played in the indoor arena. For instance, FIH has already issued certain guidelines when hockey matches and training sessions are to be resumed.
This includes sufficient ventilation for indoor hockey, avoid close interactions of the participants, entrance screening of risk exposition and symptoms, limit or reduce the number of participants and don’t shake hands before and after the match.
Do most of the other federations are even thinking or working in this direction? Are they willing to engage and involve the domain experts to work out sports-specific modules for their sports? Do they have enough professionals to respond and be receptive to these ideas? Are they in touch with the federations in the developed sports countries to understand and assimilate their best practices? Unfortunately, the answers to most of these questions are no.
If Tokyo Olympics 2021 takes place as per the schedule, those countries which kick-start the best after the present situations will automatically be in an advantageous position. Had it not been better if IOA would have engaged the services of a professional agency to work with these federations and draw out a comprehensive plan?
Can’t this time be utilized for bringing in professionalism and better sports governance in most of the sports federations? In the absence of the proper and nuanced feedback from most of the national sports federations, the entire effort to work out on the white paper will become a routine bureaucratic exercise. As has been the case in the past, a select few will formalize the paper, copying the models in the developed sports countries without any uniqueness in approach and attention to details to our own conditions.
An opportunity to reboot in Indian sports
The lockdown has given an opportunity to reboot in Indian sports. All the stakeholders which include the government, the national sports federations, the broadcasters and the media need to engage with the sponsors and the industry to work out on a sustainable plan and trigger a national fervour for excellence in the Olympics sports.
The blueprint may incorporate the best of the practices in the developed sports countries, but as Dr Chella had emphasized, should be unique to the Indian situation. Some of the unique factors may include, un-tapping the huge potential in the indigenous sports to promote sports culture in the country in the lines of aborigines specific YULUNGA project in Australia, reworking the calendar of the national championships in different sports as per the Indian conditions.
There is also a need to make it more competitive and appealing for the broadcasters and sponsors, find out the deficiencies in the Khelo India Games and start working on them and optimize the usage of the existing sports infrastructure in the country and taking them to the next level. COVID-19 has impacted sports the most. But here is the chance to reset our goals and start working effectively to make India a power to reckon with by the LOS Angeles Olympics 2028.