Pivoting Rural Sportspersons in the International Arena

26 Oct 2021
Sandeep Sharma Founder, Indiadonates

‘Mirabai Chanu wins the first medal for India in Tokyo’ read the headlines across all news portals on 24 July, 2021. As visuals emerged of her holding up her silver medal, with a vivacious smile peaking through from under the mask, the joy was palpable. Mirabai not only scripted history by being the first Indian to win a silver in the weightlifting category, her medal was the first medal that India won in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

Neeraj Chopra, ‘India’s man with a golden arm’ made a space for himself in the annals of Indian history after winning the first ever Gold medal in Athletics at the Olympics. This was not the first time he brought home a medal, his performance in the Commonwealth Games and the subsequent Asian Games have all ensured he is ranked number one in the league. 

Krishna Nagar, Suhas Yathiraj, Pramod Bhagat, Manish Narwal, Avani Lekhara all scored individual medals at the Tokyo Paralympics 2020 but their names only received mention in the media once a medal came their way. 

These examples are well worth coming to the conclusion that India's performance in this edition of the holy grail of sports- the Olympics and the Paralympics- has been touted as the best in nearly 4 decades. While we bask in the glory of the performance of our deserving athletes, there seems to be no better time than now to introspect the larger burning question that still remains unanswered... In a country that reveres cricket with much adulation, why are other sports not met with the same fate?   

In 2019, former Indian opener Virendra Sehwag said in an interview, “I always used to think the Olympics and Commonwealth Games are bigger than cricket (events). I used to think that these athletes would have been looked after very well, that they would be getting good food, and nutrition along with physios and trainers.”

Athletics as a sport is not something that is viewed as professional recourse, but rather as a hobby to be pursued at intervals, or until you bag a job. Until independence, it was also viewed as a passion profession for the dominant princely states who encouraged wrestling, shooting, etc. However, over time athletic sports have found nodes and roots in the rather non-princely populace of the country. And time and again, India has produced brilliant champions in this field.

Case in point is the state of Haryana. The agricultural state has repeatedly produced and promoted world class athletes in wrestling, boxing, weightlifting, etc. In the Commonwealth Games in 2018, Haryana accounted for “22 or every third medal India won.” Apart from the general zeal for such sports that Haryana has displayed, it also has a robust sporting infrastructure that helps in nurturing talent from a young age, through practice, nutrition, opportunity. The state of Manipur has also produced some of the finest sporting individuals, including the household name, Mary Kom, weightlifter Mirabai Chanu and Indian footballer Bembem Devi. 

However, the road to success is more often fraught with thorns, for those unknown names, who do not make it to the list of the international games, because of lacklustre infrastructure to promote individuals from impoverished backgrounds. This year’s Olympic finalists are itself a page turner, take for example Pravin Jadhav, 2019 World Championships Men's Team Recurve silver Medallist started as an 800m sprinter when he was young. Until gross malnourishment made him switch to archery. He had even fainted on several occasions during his training days in the National Youth Championships. Jadhav was born in a family of daily wage labourers and lived with his joint family in a shack near a drain in Maharashtra's Satara district. It was his school teacher who helped him out with his training and kit expenses. He initially had started with bamboo scrapes to use as bow and arrows and soon entered the services in the Army, which eventually allowed him to afford his own equipment.The arena of sports is rampant with such stories. To us it is just stories, stories that we hear upon selection at international forums, but in case it doesn’t, they never become front page stories. They remain a folklore. But everytime, India makes a mark with a medal, it becomes a dream for thousands.  

In a country of more than 100 billion, we still produce sportspeople at a miniscule rate, and even less representation at international level. Consider the situation in the Olympics, where India has only won 35 medals of the 24 games that India participated in.  

In the last 2 decades, India has no doubt made tremendous strides to gather momentum around sports. Infact India can now boast of having more than 15 national sporting leagues from hockey, football, cricket, badminton, kabaddi etc. However, despite the burgeoning growth, the focus has always remained to promote only the saffron strands from the sporting kitchen, automatically deducting a large portion of population from even providing opportunities. Stadiums and other sporting avenues are still widely concentrated in larger cities, which in itself creates inequality for a vast rural population residing in India, many for whom sports is more than just a hobby. The situation gets rather dismal, when it comes to providing infrastructure, nutrition, tools to players in difficult topography or facing abject poverty. 

Although there are initiatives taken by the government like Khelo India Initiative to promote sports at the grassroot level, mainstreaming of sports across the spectrum is largely missing, and so is decentralised investment to necessitate and promote talent from the hinterlands of India. One of INDIAdonates partner NGO Sanskriti Samvardhan Mandal, is doing something similar in promoting and providing professional training to select few athletes from economically marginalised families. So far many of their athletes were able to win laurels at various district and state level sporting events. However, mainstreaming of sports will always remain a challenge until we take an integrated approach to train, provide, identify, educate, connect, and promote.  In our day-to-day development discourse, sport is unlikely to make it to the discussion, unless we understand the importance of sports in building the soft-power of the country in the larger context.