Sports Development in India: the Need for a New Paradigm
We have become accustomed to a flurry of activity a few months before the Olympics or Asian Games, with special task forces formed to ferret out talented sports persons from the length and breadth of this vast country. Teams of officials and politicians will jet off to distant countries to ‘study’ how they do things there. Meetings and schemes and projects to promote sports will be inaugurated by prominent politicians, who will deliver homilies on the importance of sports, while breathing heavily from the exertion of getting up on the podium, and delivering the speech, mopping florid countenances with hand towels provided by obsequious flunkies standing by attentively. The Olympics or Asian Games will take place, and the memory of another disgraceful performance by such a large country will fade into the rest of the forgettable events connected with our country’s recent history, and everything will lapse into its usual somnolence, to wait for the next Olympics.
Sports facilities, and consequently opportunities for sportspersons to hone their skills and talents, are severely limited, both in terms of numbers and access in India. Very few schools have sports grounds fit for sports like football, hockey, volleyball, basketball etc. Very few colleges, too, have such facilities, and where grounds do exist, that is all there is, without any equipment, trained coaches or budget for sports activities. In a typical district in India with a population of about 2 million, there would be a few towns, and many villages, with a few colleges and many poorly equipped schools. There are likely to be very few other sports facilities such as badminton courts, tennis courts etc. and where these are available, they would be found in private clubs where admission is restricted to members.
There is an apocryphal story of a conversation between an admiring US visitor remarking at the amazing talent of Chinese table tennis players, who swept all the titles in an international tournament. The Chinese guy hearing this remarked drily: On any given evening, there are 100,000 active TT clubs where several million young Chinese will be playing supervised by coaches. With such a vast base of the pyramid, you should be surprised only if they don’t produce world champions! To put the matter in perspective again, when I was in college in Chennai, my contemporaries included the famous Amritraj brothers, Anand, Vijay and Ashok. Another classmate was Jayakumar Royappa, who also represented India in tennis. Also entering college around that time was the younger Ramesh Krishnan, son of the legendary Ramanathan Krishnan. Chennai in those days had only a handful of tennis courts, most of which were in private clubs, or in colleges like Loyola College. The Amritrajs, Royappas and Krishnans had the benefit of access to these tennis courts, and even had private tennis courts in their homes. It was nothing short of miraculous that, given the very small base of the tennis pyramid in India, we were able to produce players of such skill who performed well at the highest level.
The thesis proposed here is simple: we must have a broad base to the sports pyramid, if we are to improve our performance in international competitions.
A few years ago, Kerala took the first steps towards such a scheme, by proposing to set up sports centres in every panchayat that would have the facilities for volleyball, basketball, tennis etc. I recall that a few such centres were set up across the State, with plans to set up many more and eventually cover all panchayats. I imagined several thousand youngsters playing these games, at over 1000 such arenas across the State, supervised by trained coaches.
Somehow, the programme floundered, and is today moribund. It is difficult for me to understand why the importance of this programme was not appreciated by people in key positions. The stakeholders also should have felt that they were an important part of the programme and that they stood to benefit by it. If such an effort had been taken in Kerala, the panchayat sports centre programme would have proved to be a huge success.
A mass based sports development programme on the lines suggested above alone will be able to make a difference in India, to change the abysmal state of sports in the country, in terms of both accessibility as well as excellence.