Neeraj Chopra’s gold, are we serious about becoming a Sporting Nation?

Gold medalist Neeraj Chopra of Team India stands on the podium during the medals ceremony for the Men's Javelin Throw PHOTO:Getty

Winning its first gold in Track and Field has the country excited for the future, but will promises and photo ops be enough to transform the India’s sports infrastructure? 

Everyone loves to love the champion! And if it is someone like Neeraj Chopra, India’s first ever Track and Field gold medallist, it’s little wonder that each and every politician or bureaucrat is eagerly hopping onto the bandwagon to showcase their special love for him.

There is no harm in doing so, especially when the whole country is celebrating the 23-year-old’s success at the highest level. Not to forget that Independent India is getting to savour the success of any track and field triumph when the country is celebrating its 75th year of freedom. 

Even before Neeraj returned to Indian soil, he had been showered with prizes and munificence. If central govt or various state govts are busy taking credit for his success, then large corporate houses are also chipping in with cash rewards or luxury SUVs. The Panipat-based Javelin thrower has been busy in attending multiple functions on his arrival from Tokyo, not to say that crores and crores in prize money has already been showered on this Indian hero.

Hearing all these announcements from across India, one could easily confuse it with a sense of arriving on the world stage as a ‘sporting nation’. But is that a true picture which we all have been watching since Saturday evening?

The answer is most emphatically a “NO” in all capital letters!

Exactly 13 years back, a similar euphoric hoopla swept our nation when rifle shooter Abhinav Bindra shot his way to glory, becoming the first ever individual gold medal winner at 2008 Beijing Olympics. There were promises galore of converting India into a Sporting Nation, just like what China did in late 70s till mid 80s before the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Crores were showered on Bindra, deservingly so, but without keeping any of the promises made then.

Bindra’s time was a bit different from what we’re witnessing right now. From 2006 onwards, the Government of India pledged a lot of money for Sports for the simple reason that India was to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Like any host nation, India had also kept a large chunk of money for athletes’ training and building infrastructure.

The results were in sight for all of us as India not only did exceptionally well at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi but took the highest six medals at the 2012 London Games.

 

Where is the focus?

As sports cannot fetch our politicians the desired number of votes, the discipline took a back seat again for our political parties, first the Congress and followed by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The budgetary allocations if compared with the rate of inflation started dipping severely post the 2012 London Games. Occasionally we saw the Government make extra allocations in the Union budgets in the Asian Games or Olympic Games’ years. But the 2021-22 budget was different for a unique reason. The Government slashed drastically the ‘sports budget’ by more than Rs 230 crores despite knowing well that Tokyo Games are round the corner. 

One may blame the Covid pandemic or shrinking government income due to slowdown, but that argument fails to hold ground at a time when more than Rs 13,000 crore are kept separately for building a new Parliament or the Central Vista. The real issue here is about the intention of successive govts in India. Sportspersons have always been used as pawns to get quick publicity amongst the masses. The present year is no different.

Struggling on the economic front and finding it difficult to ensure a smooth functioning Parliament, the Olympic medals could not have come at a more appropriate time to divert the attention of the general public. Else, why did the Sports Minister or anyone in the present dispensation stand up for Neeraj Chopra when his German coach complained about faulty planning and unfit diet for elite athletes in India.

For those who have not heard it till date, German coach Uwe Hohn was complaining about all this only one-and-a-half month before the Tokyo’s final event of his pupil. It’s also important to mention here that this 58-year-old German is the only man in the history of Javelin sport to have thrown the javelin over 100 metres.

On June 15, coach Hohn blamed the country’s top sports organisations — Sports Authority of India (SAI) and Athletics Federation of India (AFI) — of not “doing enough” to prepare athletes for the mega event. The coach behind Neeraj’s rise also said that “training for the Olympics was unplanned and the diet not fit for elite athletes’ ‘.

The German also alleged then that he was “blackmailed” into signing a contract he wasn’t happy with. He only had a few good words to say about the corporate house, JSW Sports, which was taking care of their travel to Europe for training and competitions.

Elaborating on conditions at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, where Neeraj had been training before leaving for Europe, Hohn said that “the temperatures in Patiala were pretty extreme and they could only practice early in the morning or after 6 pm”.

It was only after JSW helped Neeraj and coach to fly to Europe that the sporting star was able to practice in the right conditions. Going by the version of Neeraj’s coach, nothing was done by SAI or the AFI.

 

What’s the way ahead

Now that PM Modi has invited all these medal winners to the Independence Day function at the Red Fort, there can’t be a more appropriate time for India as a nation to take a step forward in the direction of becoming a “Sporting Nation”. And the first and foremost step in this direction is by announcing a “compulsory non-negotiable two% quota” for Sportsmen in all the government and private sector to boost their confidence. 

Knowing well that most of our sportspersons come from very humble backgrounds where parents struggle to make a living out of their incomes,  job security is a must for any upcoming sports person.

The doors of stadiums should be thrown open to any and every budding talent, without charging a single penny, across India. We have enough infrastructure in state capitals but most of that is left unattended and unutilised by the right persons. It is high time that India should have dedicated Sports Universities to take care of the future demands of the game. Sports doesn’t just mean running and aiming, but the inclusion of Sports Medicine, Sports Training and Sport Psychology, which are integral to the overall sports development in the world.

For example, all our elite sportsmen consult foreign sports medicine experts in the event of injury or recovery. In India, dedicated (sports) doctors or psychologists are rare to find. In an age where the Covid pandemic has wreaked havoc, the mental health of our sportsmen needs to be taken care of.

Neeraj’s coach also felt the same after spending more than three years in India. He said, when he came to India, he thought he “could change something but it’s probably too difficult with these people at SAI or AFI (Athletics Federation of India)”. He blamed it on a lack of knowledge or ignorance of these federations. Hohn complained of lack of nutrition and supplements needed for any top athlete during the camps or in competitions. The government TOPS scheme has also failed to help in these areas.

Last but not the least, Hohn blamed the authorities for allegedly going back on their word on his contract. “The promise of revising salaries of coaching staff was never fulfilled by government authorities and few of them even were blackmailed to sign on dotted lines to get their money paid,” Coach Hohn said before the Games.

But let bygones be bygones. There can always be a new beginning especially when a debate has been started by the government’s own people that “there is no one before PM Modi who has interacted so closely with the sportsmen in India”!

Let’s take it on its face value only. Let’s take India to the path of a growing Sporting Nation. Let’s get the required funds and budget to achieve this goal in the next decade.

Rome was not built in a day, similarly India cannot become a Sporting Nation by simply doing lip service.  Only time will tell whether Neeraj’s gold can usher in the change in our mindsets or will it also be another photo ops, just like after Bindra’s feat in 2008?

 

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Chander Shekhar Luthra
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