Developing sports: Just another pipe dream?

Developing sports: Just another pipe dream?

With meager allocation for KICs, the Government betrays its lack of intent in developing sports

Due to administrative hurdles and Covid-induced obstacles, the relaying of synthetic track at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru has progressed at snails pace, an apathy not uncommon across the country. Credit: DH Photo/ BH Shivakumar

The wait is almost over. In exactly 26 days from now, it will be time to raise the curtains on the XXXII Summer Olympics where more than 11,000 athletes from around the world will put their best foot forward for the ultimate sporting glory.

Tokyo is ready. Even if it’s amidst public outrage about hosting the Games during a global pandemic. As the excitement gains momentum for the biggest sporting extravaganza, the Indian contingent too inches closer towards an unavoidable question hurled at them once every four years.

How many medals can a nation with a population of more than a billion win?

In a bid to clear this ever-looming black cloud over India’s sporting fraternity, at least the timing seems well-orchestrated, the central Sports Ministry recently announced the setting up of 143 Khelo India Centres (KIC). Spread across seven states, these facilities are meant to nurture talent at the grassroot-level and imbibe sporting culture among people. The spread of these centres gives an indication that the aim is to develop talent not just from urban places but also from the hinterland.

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“It is our endeavour to make India one among the top-10 countries in the 2028 Olympics. To fulfill this goal, we need to identify and nurture a large number of talented sportspersons from an early age,” said Kiren Rijiju, Minister of Sports, in a statement. “With the availability of good coaches and equipment at the district level KIC’s, I’m confident that we will be able to find the right children for the right sport and at the right time,” he added.

For this, a total budget of Rs 14.30 crore has been earmarked. Incidentally, the state Rijiju hails from, Arunachal Pradesh, got a major chunk of the share with 52 KIC’s, followed by 36 in Maharashtra, Karnataka 31, Manipur 16, Madhya Pradesh 4, Mizoram and Goa with two each.

Though the intent of such schemes initially appears great on paper, the implementation, more often than not, remains a pipe dream. Once the hype around the grand proclamations settles down, what mostly follows is criminal negligence. With purpose defeated, and athletes short-changed, again, we get back to square one - deserted stadiums with shoddy and crumbling infrastructure.

The journey of a successful sporting career begins with a strong foundation, pundits say, however, emphasis on the gambit is flawed in more ways than one. This weary state of affairs resonates way too well closer home.

Except Bangalorean Fouaad Mirza in equestrian having made the cut, no other Karnataka athlete from any sport, so far, has qualified to represent the country in the upcoming Olympics. A new low for a state with rich sporting history. With a possible last-minute qualification up for grabs, Rohan Bopanna (tennis), Srihari Nataraj (swimming) and Aditi Ashok (golf) are keeping the hopes alive.

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Will the 31 KIC’s - one in every district entrusted with one discipline per centre - act as a saving grace for the Department of Youth Empowerment and Sports (DYES), the parent body for developing sports in the state?

Each KIC is delegated to pre-existing district stadiums or sports schools, sanctioned for four years. “Performance from these sports hostels and the infrastructure available in district stadia were the basis for choosing a sport to a particular district,” said Shalini Rajneesh, Additional Chief Secretary, Youth Empowerment and Sports Department, Government of Karnataka, who preferred to answer questions through WhatsApp.

Barring a few, to be fair, the available infrastructure - under construction, defunct lights, stinking toilets, broken or rusty sub-standard equipment, uneven tracks or worn-out turf and courts..

“One-time capital grant of Rs 10 lakh per KIC will be used to prepare/ upgrade facilities, purchase of equipment, kits. Recurring annual grant of Rs. 5 lakh will be to pay salary to coaches, support staff, further purchase of equipment, event participation, sports science support and other expenses,” explained Shalini to whose department the funds of Rs 3.1 crore will be released through the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Head Office in Bengaluru.

To put things into perspective, a decent artistic gymnastic set-up consisting of 10 apparatus costs around Rs 50 lakh, monthly maintenance expenditure of a swimming pool requires close to Rs 2 lakh, tatami mats for an 18x18 judo floor requires Rs 8-10 lakh, to revamp an uneven wooden badminton court you need Rs 4 lakh..

Indeed an ambitious project to cover all the requirements with meager allocation to every centre that is mandated to identify at least 30 trainees comprising an equal number of boys and girls.

Further promises include recruiting past champion athletes as coaches and mentors for grooming the talent pool. “Support staff such as strength and conditioning coach, physio, nutritionist and psychologist with requisite expertise will be hired on honorarium basis,” confirmed Shalini.

With a monthly pay cap of Rs. 25,000 sans job security, coaches are reluctant and opt to stay away. Besides, regular monitoring of their performance is crucial, depending on whether or not the committee keeping a check is well qualified. Chances are that a crack in this system makes way for inexperienced and under-qualified coaching staff. Quality compromised.

Let’s leave aside the insufficient budget allocation, clearly not the only major issue. Delay in procuring equipment or half-done infrastructure contributes to the predictable apathy at most grassroots academies across Karnataka.

Besides, a stadium is never meant just for sporting activities. In recent times, a few of these facilities along with sports schools served as Covid Care Centres (CCC). In normal times, their multi-purpose facet includes them getting converted into venues for political and cultural galas.

In all this chaos, sport is conveniently pushed to the back burner. Precious time is wasted in the controllable. A price too costly to pay in a sportspersons’ career that cruelly spans for only a finite number of "active" years.

"It is a good scheme," reckon most former athletes from the 13 "other sports" recognised for the programme. An uneasy pause later, "..only if it is executed and followed up with the same vigor as the announcement," is the unified opinion.

The year is 2021. We are seven summers away from the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. The clock is ticking.

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