The Khelo India (Play India) school games organised for the first time by the Modi government has been an eye-opener for athletics in India. An analysis of the times and distances in Under - 18 track and field events held in the US and UK by Business Standard shows that India's junior athletes still have a long way to go before they can catch up with American and British athletes. The records of these junior international athletes were then compared with the records achieved by India's junior athletes in the Khelo India school games. A look at the timings achieved in track events shows that India’s school athletes have grossly underperformed as compared to their American and British counterparts. While the Indians have under-performed, British kids have given a tough competition in some of the events to the Americans. But on the whole, American kids much like their senior counterparts who clock the highest medals tally in virtually every Olympics, run faster, jump higher and throw farther than anyone else. In the 400 meters run, Gandi Dhanush Kumar who hails from Andhra Pradesh clocked a timing of 49.05 seconds in the recently concluded school games organised by the Modi government under its flagship Khelo India scheme. In comparison, 17-year-old American athlete Tyrese Cooper clocked an impressive 45.38 seconds at the Under-18 games held at Ypsilanti in Michigan. British junior games athlete Ethan Brown meanwhile ran 400 meters in 47.82 seconds. Kumar took 3.67 seconds more than his American competitor to complete the race despite coming out on top – a massive difference in an event where victory and defeat are often defined in milliseconds. Indian school athletes meanwhile are no better when it comes to more intense races where the line between the winner and the loser is even thinner. In the 200-meter sprint, Indian school athlete V A Shashikumar, clocked 21.82 seconds. Meanwhile, American 200-meter champion Tyrese Cooper finished the race in 20.51 seconds to come out on top at the Under-18 games held at Eugene in Oregon. This difference of 1.31 seconds between the Indian and the American junior athlete is much larger when compared to the British. (See table) While India’s school athletes need to train harder to match their European and American competitors, there are some reasons to be optimistic about the future of India’s track athletes. In the 100-meter sprint, junior athlete Nisar Ahmed clocked an impressive timing of 10.76 seconds. Junior American athlete Anthony Schwartz had clocked 10.15 seconds at Gaineville in Florida last year. But Ahmed’s performance in the past has impressed many. Ahmed, the son of a rickshaw puller in Delhi, will be training at Usain Bolt’s Racers’Track Club in Jamaica this year. With the guidance of the world’s fastest man and world class facilities at his club, Nisar certainly looks like a bright prospect in India’s quest for Olympics glory in track events. The sole shining light at the Khelo India school games was Punga Soren from Odisha. His timing of 14.12 seconds was much better than his American and British counterparts. Soren outpaced them by over 30 milliseconds. The head coach of National Institute of Sports, Patiala, Bahudur Singh told Business Standard, “72 per cent of the India's youth live in villages and there is an immediate need of playground in the villages. The government owned land is available in every village, if boys and girls are allowed to play in these ground then we do not need that much of fund in the initial stage and the future of the young athletes will be sealed.” Meanwhile, Indian girls’ performance was even more unimpressive. In the 800-metre race, Tai Bamhane who comes from Maharashtra had clocked a timing of 2:13.37 minutes in the Khelo India School Games. In comparison, Anna Burt of Britain clocked a timing of 2:04.50 minutes in U-18 games in Manchester. A similar under-performance is discernable in 100-metre sprint as well. Avantika Narale of Pune clocked a timing of 12.36 seconds at Khelo India School games in New Delhi.
While, the 17-year old American athlete Sha'Carri Richardson was a good 1:08 seconds faster than Narale while sprinting in Austin at Texas last year. With her performance, Narale wouldn’t have been even able to qualify for the American junior 100-meter sprint. The performance of school athletes in field events like Pole vault, long jump and high jump also show dismal performances vis-a- vis international standard. (See table)What perhaps explains this dismal performance of India’s junior athletes as compared to Western athletes can partly be explained by the lack of adequate nutritional facilities, sub-par training facilities and a cavalier attitude of sports administrators towards school level athletes. This administrative apathy came to the fore in the Rio Olympics held in 2016. A look at the performance of Indian athletes shows that while most of them managed to achieve timings required to qualify for the Rio Olympics at home, they couldn’t beat the qualification timings during the actual event at Rio. The Niti Aayog in a report published in 2016 had acknowledged the sorry state of affairs in India’s sporting ecosystem. The report noted, “The funding available per sportsperson is very low, only about Rs 12,000 per annum. Studies suggest that a growing number of coaches, parents, and children believe that the best strategy to produce superior young sportspersons is to have them specialised in one sport from an early age. Presently, the only provision India has to identify young talent is through SAI’s National Sports Talent Contest, (NSTC) Scheme. The NSTC scheme scouts’ sports talent in the age group of 8 – 14 years from schools and nurtures them into future medal hopes by providing scientific training. However, there is lack of awareness towards this scheme and lack of focus towards developing individual talent in the age group of 5 – 10 years."In China sports is compulsory for both boys and girls and half of the school time is allotted for sports but in India there is no such policy. In India, female players don’t get the ample opportunity to excel in the field of sports as compared to United States. When the government provides better avenues then our female players will also perform like their international counterparts” added Mr Singh. The administrative apathy is further exacerbated by the poor nutritional profile of India’s young population. This holds particularly true for athletes. Reports suggest that 80 per cent of India’s population is protein deficient. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that India has one of the lowest per capita supply of calorie and protein. Indians on an average can access 2,455 kilo calories and 60 grams of protein. The Chinese meanwhile get almost six times more calories and protein than Indians. The British and Americans get almost twice. The Niti Aayog’s report noted, “It is suggested to set up a dedicated mechanism to address health and nutrition needs of sportspersons in each zone - North, South, East, West, Central, and North-East. The objective is to create this structure is to integrate diet and nutrition services for sportspersons at all three levels by 2024.” A further indication of the lackadaisical attitude of successive governments can be borne by a state of statis in budgetary allocation to sports in the country. In 2013-14, the erstwhile UPA government had allocated a little over Rs 13 billion to sports in the country – less than 1 per cent of the India’s total budget that year. In 2018-19, the budgetary allocation stood at Rs 22 billion – again less than 1 per cent of the total budget. This allocation is not just meant for promoting junior athletes but has to be shared by various sports federations in India. But a silver lining to this story is that out of the Rs 2.58 billion increase in the sports budget of the country in 2018-19, two-thirds of the money will go to Khelo India. If the government manages to match its intentions with concrete action on the ground, India could well be on track to groom its junior athletes to achieve its stated objective of bagging 50 medals in the 2024 Olympics in Paris.