India's performance in the world of sports is a matter of concern -- with some notable exceptions. It requires no rocket science to realise the simple fact that we perform badly because we are poorly prepared.
This is not to indulge in a blame game, but merely to make it clear that recognising a problem is the first significant step towards solving it. And it is not quick-fix measures but a change in the outlook and attitude towards sports that is required -- not just by the state, but by people at large. To do well, there is need for a social revolution concerning how games are played, how players are selected and how their talent is honed. They are, after all, our ambassadors.
Before getting into specifics, let us take the larger picture. Every sixth person on this planet is an Indian but the country's medals tally at any world class sporting event, particularly the Olympics, presents a dismal picture.
A lot has been said about the demographic dividend and clearly people are India's most prominent asset; we have a huge and unlimited reservoir of talent. India's dismal performance in the world of sport, barring a few like cricket, badminton, tennis (to some extent) and, of course, wrestling, is a reflection of the fact that we have failed to draw on this immense reservoir of talent.
There is no magic wand and those who claim they have one are lying. I do have a plan, though. It may sound disconcerting, but to me a good way to deal with the problem is to buy some time.
I am of the view that India should skip the next Olympics and prepare for the one after that, with the objective of not just participation but competing to win. Nothing succeeds like success -- and nothing fails like failure. Both failure and success become a kind of habit. And to shun old habits, one needs to take a break to inculcate new habits. This break should be utilised to change attitudes towards sports and for talent-scouting at the grassroots. The shortlisting and honing of talent should start in the early teens. At the same time, world-class sporting infrastructure and training facilities should be created in various disciplines.
China is a good example and there is a lot of merit in the way it does things. There is, of course, much criticism about China's "ruthless" way of producing champions that entail "human costs" to achieve sporting glory. I don't entirely agree. To excel in sports, as in any other field, players need to get out of their comfort zones to prepare to compete with the best in the world.
There is no gain without pain. We need a futuristic plan and its execution has to be like a "rigid sports regime". The leaders of China's Communist Party rely on "command-and-control" systems that are inspired by the erstwhile Soviet Union. It is definitely demanding and rigid and may appear ruthless to some. But there has to be some merit in the way China prepares its athletes, or how else can it consistently be among the top three countries at the Olympics in recent times?
Their model is simple: Identify talent at an early stage and hone it in the next few years. China ropes in prodigies almost at a tender age on various parameters like agility, natural talent and body-type. They go through a rigorous training schedule for years in sports facilities/schools isolated from the comfort of their families. The family becomes secondary to the pursuance of their goal.
They are trained with a focused approach, depending on their physique and inherent skills at state-sponsored "boot camp-style" training centres. They live there as a big extended family with co-players, coaches and officials. Coaches are like parents in these more than 3,000 sports schools spread across the length and breadth of China that are responsible for nurturing the talent of some half a million children blessed with special sporting acumen.
The West, however, never fails to term the Chinese coaching method as systematic physical abuse to produce champions, with particularly the use of corporal methods being condemned. But then, Olympic historian David Wallechinsky famously told the Washington Post: "They can mobilise their population of 1.3 billion people by reaching throughout the country and doing the German thing of looking for children of certain body types and going to their parents and getting them to send them to national training centres".
India will have to do something similar. To prepare for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China short-listed some 30,000 athletes from the pool of talented youngsters from all over the country -- more than ten times those who would actually get to compete. They were trained for years in 150 elite sporting camps. In this way, they were able to create a pool of world-class players. The best of the lot got to represent the country.
We need something of this nature to happen in India. Even at half the scale, the results will be there for everyone to see in less than 10 years. It requires political will and with Narendra Modi at the helm of affairs, there is no paucity of it. It is an advantage that India is a democracy -- there can be a concerted effort involving all the stakeholders: Government, private sector and non-government bodies. It should be a partnership among all sections of society. This kind of a partnership is not unprecedented in India but is rare and is limited to a few sports like cricket, tennis or badminton, like the MRF-Pace Foundation or the Gopichand Badminton Academy, to name a few. They have done incredible work in their respective disciplines.
It is necessary to create the minimum sporting infrastructure at the base of the pyramid and build super-speciality training facilities that will work on sporting talent for five to eight years, with an increased focus on athletics and a few other selected sports. Of course, that will require a break -- not just a break from the past, but a break from the present to break world records in the future.
(Siddhartha Upadhyay is member of the Governing Body of the Sports Authority of India and Founder of STAIRS, an organisation dedicated to the uplift of sports. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)