Developing a Sports Culture in India
by Sandhya Jain on 18 Apr 2017 10 Comments

Plans to move Sports from the State List to the Concurrent List to boost the development of sports across the country have not come a day too soon as Indian youth show attraction towards diverse sports - wrestling, badminton, tennis, football, shooting, athletics, and others. Notwithstanding the spectacular money power associated with cricket, other sports have fought for their place in the sun. The Mumbai film industry has unconsciously supported this effort with biopics on the lives on Milkha Singh, Mary Kom, and the Phogat sisters.

 

In recent years, sports have emerged as an important career option for youth, and deserve attention and investment by the State. The Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports has therefore discussed bringing Sports into the Concurrent List with Drona Award awardees in the States; all public sector undertakings are on board.

 

Interestingly, sportspersons with disabilities showed their mettle at the summer Paralympic Games at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016, where they recorded India’s best ever performance with four medals (two gold, one silver, one bronze). Devendra Jhajharia broke the world record in javelin throw. However, most sportspersons with disabilities have struggled to achieve their own triumphs; a more inclusive sports policy is in order.

 

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking personal interest in promoting sports (he personally met the athletes representing India at Rio), Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports, Vijay Goel, has made ‘Target Olympic Podium’ a major goal of his ministry. Probably for the first time, an Olympics Task Force has been set up to prepare a blueprint for ambitious performance goals for the Olympics in 2020 and 2024.

 

Olympics require long term investment in players, with best training and facilities. The old practice of preparing only two years before the Games needs to be scrapped. There must be scientific selection and nurturing of players in the under-14 and under-16 categories.

 

The process of ad hoc selection of foreign coaches and training of elite athletes must be overhauled. So far, a player would select an academy or coach known to him, and ask government to pay for the same. A far better approach is to scrutinise all academies and employ a competent coach to come to India and train more players. This could also help Indian coaches to enhance their skills. In this regard, the ministry has done well to ask sports federations to suggest names of coaches for each sport.

 

The ministry’s best initiative, however, is setting up a high level committee to look into grievances and complaints of women sports persons. Meeting them on the occasion of International Women’s Day, Goel was shocked to discover that all claimed sexual harassment as the major cause of stress in their careers and impediment in girls participating in events. Immediately announcing a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment, he directed all sports federations to appoint anti-sexual harassment committees and ensure adequate numbers of women on the Board and in the game, failing which their recognition could be in jeopardy.

 

The need for safe spaces for girl athletes is non-negotiable. Their demand for female coaches, wherever possible, should be met, along with female doctors for check-ups, female physiotherapists and female psychologists. It is shocking that such basic issues have not been addressed till now. For a meaningful career in sports, girls must begin training at a tender age (around nine years), but Indian girls come forward at a much later age and families hesitate to send them for events with male coaches. There is no reason why government should not make provision for a family member to accompany girls to sports events.

 

The flip side of the growing national interest in sports is the rise of doping in schools, as a result of which the National Anti Doping Agency (NADA) has been taken down to school level. Urine samples have been made mandatory for all junior players in tournaments. An associated menace is age fraud, and parents are culpable in both. Age fraud enables 18 year olds to play in the under-16 category, where they do well, but lose out when they have to play in their own age group. Parents get involved because sports quotas are the gateway to college admissions, scholarships, corporate sponsorships and eventual employment. Hence, there is need for careful scrutiny in this area.

 

It is notable that parliamentarians across party lines joined the Mass Awareness Programme for Sports Culture in the country, especially football, on March 29, 2017, where Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan presented footballs to MPs as part of Mission XI Million, to popularise football across India in the run up to FIFA U-17 Football World Cup (Kolkata, October 2017). The programme aims to take football to 11 million children through 15,000 schools and mass contact programmes, and ensure that every child has the opportunity to play the world’s most popular sport.

 

FIFA U-17 figured in Prime Minister Modi’s popular Mann Ki Baat (March 26, 2017) wherein he described it a great opportunity for a revolution in sports throughout the country. The Sports Authority of India and MPs will now organise football tournaments at village, block and district level.

 

But the major hurdle in developing a sports culture in India is the absence of sports grounds in many urban schools. Admitting this, Vijay Goel says the priority now is to save village playfields in right earnest. At the same time, plans are afoot to develop ten universities as Sports Hubs on a pilot basis, as all universities play, have grounds and hostels and sports quota. Selection would be on the basis of infrastructure, interest, and available players. A long overdue remedy is to ensure full utilisation of all stadiums, beginning with Delhi.

 

But a Government truly invested in Sports Culture must ensure the dignity of every sports person. To cite just one case, Sita Sahu, a double bronze medallist at the 2011 Special Olympics (for the intellectually challenged), had to sell street food (golgappas) in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, due to callous neglect by state officials and members of the athletics fraternity. It was only in 2014 that the state government finally fulfilled its promises and she could return to her training. But she had to miss out on the 2015 Los Angeles World Games.

 

Over the decades, many sports persons have sold their medals to meet expenses. A nation with a Sports Culture would ensure that this never happens again. 

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