Look around any field, and you will see a hurricane of bats striving to meet, pell mell, a hail of balls. If the scraggy maidans and parks of northern India are crawling with cricket academies, the choice of young parents cagily exploring a career in sports for their children is quite clear. Cricket’s ascent to the topmost sport in the country has been fuelled by three World Cup wins, starting from the miracle that June day in 1983 at Lord’s. A paradigm shifting moment in Indian sport, certainly.
No, it hasn’t acquired the aureole that 1983 has, but the introduction of the cash-rich Indian Premier League in 2008, where unheralded players became overnight millionaires, is no less a watershed moment that, too, ignited a million willowy dreams. In a new India where fresh aspirations are minted every month, an uncapped player like a Rahul Tewatia, who makes a neat Rs 3 crore for less than three months service for IPL franchise Rajasthan Royals, is a role model of sorts. Which other field of activity can bestow success this quick?
The theme of cricket as vehicle of success has been playing out before the Indian middle class for years now, through the careers of Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Mohammed Azharuddin to those of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Virat Kohli. But roll over, Virat. The newest record of a fast-track to monetary success is set by the richest uncapped player in IPL 2021—Krishnappa Gowtham, who was paid a gobsmacking Rs 9.25 crore by Chennai Super Kings. Given this, why won’t impressionable boys and girls stay seduced? Furthermore, not only are IPL franchises happy to break their bank, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, one of the world’s richest sports organisations, doles out decent match fees to almost all levels of domestic cricket. In spite of all this, will Neeraj Chopra’s Tokyo Olympics gold, or Mirabai Chanu’s historic silver, or Lovlina Borgohain’s bronze change perspectives? Can following in their footsteps win rewarding careers?
“Let’s look at the seven medals at Tokyo 2020 as a starting point. The sports ministry has done its bit to prepare elite athletes and it will continue supporting them till 2028 Los Angeles Games. Now it is up to the states to provide a feeder system,” says Sandeep Singh, former hockey Olympian and now Haryana’s sports minister. Sandeep bats for a long-term vision, pointing out that money in cricket did not happen overnight. Success attracted the corporate world to pour in money. “We need the same in Olympic sports. When people come to me to say that they want their son to play in the IPL, I tell them to pursue an Olympic sport. There is a future there,” he says.
Apart from cricket, a clutch of Olympic sports has given independent India international sporting recognition. While the eight Olympic gold medals in hockey, the last coming at the 1980 Moscow Games, make India a perennial superpower at the very mention of the game, the growth of shooting, boxing, wrestling and badminton are clearly linked with success at the Olympic stage. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s silver at Athens 2004 and Abhinav Bindra’s gold at Beijing 2008 gave shooting a shot in the arm, while ancient, roll-in-the-mud wrestling got a tremendous boost from Sushil Kumar’s double Olympic medals. Mary Kom’s bronze in the 2012 London Olympics and Vijender Singh’s Beijing bronze were certainly fierce upper cuts to our narrow sporting horizons. And then there are the soaring, graceful birds of prey reared in Hyderabad—Saina Nehwal’s London 2012 bronze and P.V. Sindhu’s silver in Rio 2016 catapulted badminton to a prestige sport.
Sport was a galvaniser of social change too—Geeta Phogat’s 2010 Commonwealth Games gold helped women emerge as equal sharers of sporting glory in Haryana’s orthodox, patriarchal society. Indeed, that has been the great story of Indian sport in the past decade—the emergence of women as power-packed performers. Just refer to the results of Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020. While Sakshi Malik kept the Phogat legacy alive with a bronze at Rio, P.V. Sindhu with her Tokyo bronze became the first Indian woman to win back-to-back Olympic medals. Lovlina Borgohain matched Mary Kom’s London 2012 boxing bronze, while Saikhom Mirabai Chanu lifted a historic silver medal.
A rock climbing wall outside the Kalinga Stadium complex in Bhubaneswar attracts young enthusiasts
The most glittering stories were, of course, the men’s hockey bronze, the incredible pluck and heart of the women’s hockey team and Neeraj Chopra’s javelin gold—India’s first athletics medal and a balm, finally, to apply over the heartbreaks of Milkha Singh and P.T. Usha’s near-medal photo-finishes.
Decades of Olympic drought resulted in a chorus bemoaning a lack of sporting culture in India, but there seems to be a clearly perceptible shift in the last five years. The Union sports ministry’s Khelo India scheme does seem to shore up renewed interest in sports, though its talent development schemes need time to fully fructify. As everyone knows, the seeds of sporting success are sown at the grassroots. Yet two of India’s biggest states—Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh—don’t have a sporting structure to speak of.
There is also the deep chasm separating domestic and international standards. Success at Khelo India—two editions of the youth games were held in Pune and Guwahati in 2019 and 2020 respectively—is certainly an inadequate measure of sports development. Maharashtra topped the event on both occasions but it has not produced an Olympic medal ever since wrestler K.D. Jadhav won a bronze in the 1952 Helsinki Games. Namdev Shirgaonkar, secretary-general of the Maharashtra Olympic Association, puts the state’s failure to produce champion international sportspersons to a “lack of vision”. Says Shirgaonkar, “Maharashtra’s success at Khelo India can be misleading. Clearly, our athletes are not going to the next level. National level success is fine but to take that forward, we need to utilise resources better…there is no dearth of infrastructure in Maharashtra.”
On this one count, Haryana has outstripped every other state—producing Olympians and constantly feeding the talent pool in boxing, wrestling, and field events in athletics like javelin, shotput and discus. All of it is part of a long-term gameplan backed by a robust, incentive-cum-employment structure. Many states, like Gujarat, have sent delegations to study the Haryana model. Sports minister Singh is happy to share information, but says that Haryana’s success can only be replicated through proper utilisation of infrastructure, trained coaches, sports science, injury rehabilitation and mental training.
Haryana has put aside an impressive Rs 400 crore in its budget for sports. This includes cash awards of about Rs 150 crore every year. Singh explains that incentives are meant for success at the state level too. “No state has this structured incentive plan. We have plans for both able-bodied and physically challenged athletes and Haryana is the first state that has given Rs 5 lakh to each Olympian and Paralympian before the Tokyo Games,” he says. The 35-year-old former Indian full back and penalty corner specialist says something that the rest of the country might like to mull over. “When our children go for their Board exams or JEE or professional courses, don’t we spend on their studies and preparation?” he asks.
Sandeep Singh’s ministry organised the inaugural Khelo Haryana Games between August 27 and 29 to coincide with the National Sports Day. Athletes competed in 20 disciplines; there was special focus on diet and gear. “Haryana is prepared to do anything for sports. We will soon have a sports university that will focus on management of athletes, coaches, sports science, mental hygiene and diet…. We need trained sports managers and thus, playing IPL is not the only career option,” says the former Indian hockey captain.
While Haryana is far ahead of other states in putting in place a comprehensive template like this, Odisha is only other state to invest significantly into sports infrastructure. The state itself may have only intermittently produced quality athletes, but the Naveen Patnaik government’s emphasis will support the Indian sports ecosystem and tap into the natural athleticism, power and endurance of Odisha’s large tribal population.
Extending sponsorship to Indian hockey for another decade and committing Rs 100 crore towards it has been a smart marketing move; so has been investing in world-class infrastructure—Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium, which is fast becoming an iconic venue for hockey. Apart from the several high-performance centres (HPCs) coming up in Bhubaneswar, Odisha has set up 16 sports hostels in 15 districts, and each of them runs training and coaching programmes in multiple sports. Like Haryana, the investment in monetary terms is singular—the projects have absorbed almost Rs 1,800 crores. While hockey remains a cherished project, Odisha has built bridges with former Olympians to run the HPCs.
The Abhinav Bindra Target Performance Centre is functional but what looks like a prized project is the eight-court badminton centre, designed like a shuttle cock, which is expected to be match-ready by the first quarter of 2022. Vineel Krishna, commissioner-cum-secretary, sports and youth services, government of Odisha, says, “The Pullela Gopichand High-Performance Centre will probably be the best badminton infrastructure in the country.” The centre will have boarding and lodging facilities for 40 players and eight coaches. With a sitting capacity of about 500 spectators, it would host both national and international events.
Krishna, however, knows that infrastructure only performs a crucial, complementary role. HPCs do hone talent, but the real job lies in identifying athletes who will finally land up in the centres, get their rough edges polished and get primed for the topmost levels. Here, the role of qualified coaches cannot be over-emphasised.
The choice everywhere, it seems, is between short-term success and a long-term, rewarding career. The IPL may win a quick buck over a glad season, but as Sandeep Singh never tires of reiterating, success in Olympic sports ensures immortality. That glory shines on you forever. The money, of course, imparts crucial varnish. Ask Neeraj Chopra, whose brand value has reportedly shot up by 1,000 times. With his annual brand endorsement fees expected to hover around Rs 2.5 crore a year, the Olympic champion, whose social media valuation is around Rs 428 crore, will certainly take his place in the major league of highest earning sportspersons. Those two winsome throws of the javelin on a Tokyo afternoon are the sharpest ends of a mammoth, well-oiled machinery sweeping every patch of grass trod upon by young feet.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Raise High The Roof Beam")