Beijing 2008, Delhi 2010, London 2012 — three major athletic events in the past four years offer clues about India’s sporting trends. Medal tallies have improved from Beijing to London, and from Melbourne to Delhi. There’s also been a shift in public focus to new disciplines. It’s no longer all about hockey; shooting, boxing, archery, weightlifting, women’s track, wrestling, tennis and badminton are all likelier medal candidates. In these disciplines, individuals can aspire to world class, without too much institutional support.
Unfortunately, there are limits to going it alone. It is difficult to fund sporting excellence without state support, and even more difficult given incompetent sports administrations. It costs to develop infrastructure and provide equipment. Hiring skills to hone talent also costs.
The shambolic nature of India’s sports administration should not surprise anyone. After all, sports is run by babus and netas, and their incentives are never performance-linked. The nexus recently outdid itself by delivering the biggest power cuts in history. The power minister promptly received a promotion. India also consistently achieves the highest global road fatality rates. No transport minister has ever been sacked for this.
In sports, hockey embodies everything that’s wrong with Indian administration. Astroturf was introduced at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. India still has less than a dozen quality “turfs”. The lack has directly contributed to deteriorating performance. The fast, predictable, even-paced surface requires technical adjustments and high fitness levels. If hockey results are to improve, astroturf must become the default surface across the country, from school-level up. Pitches cost Rs 3-4 crore to create and large sums to maintain. That money will have to be found if you want hockey medals. This has been obvious for 36 years.
The folks in charge of Indian hockey have, however, never really tried to develop a national network of astroturf pitches or looked for creative ways to fund this. Sponsorships from companies based in hockey heritage centres could have been sought. Appeals could have been made for public contributions. Tenders could have been floated inviting jugaad to develop cheaper turf to required specifications.
Instead, the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) indulged in infighting to such an extent that the International Hockey Federation (FIH) disaffiliated it. Hockey India (HI) then took charge. After some bureaucratic judo, an agreement between the rival associations was signed. The details are sordid and scarcely matter. The point is, India’s hockey administrators have no incentive to deliver results. The security of their gaddis is unaffected by non-qualification for Beijing, and a play-off for 11th or 12th in London. I suppose one should be grateful that no one has yet claimed credit for the improvement!
One could cull similar stories of infighting and rebel associations from most sports. Sports associations in India are elected. But the incumbents have the latitude to induct members as they choose and to conduct elections as they please. Funding is all about government connections, not performance. The public cannot translate its anger at non-performance into votes against incumbent office-bearers.
Given such an array of misplaced incentives, there are only a few oases of excellence in the country, like the boxing gharana at Bhiwani in Haryana. A fortunate few like Abhinav Bindra and Sania Mirza are lucky enough to be born into families that can financially support their ambitions. The “average” Olympian – who is, of course, way above average in terms of talent – can hope for a sports quota job in a public sector undertaking (PSU) or a government department. This is certainly not to be sneezed at. But it is also not enough to afford the best equipment and coaching.
The laws governing sports bodies (such as the Societies Registration Act, 1860) in the country would have to be redrafted before one could even hope to change the mindsets of administrators. That is about as likely to occur as Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs Ajay Maken running 100 metres in 9.62 seconds.