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Since the day before yesterday (07 Aug 2021), when Neeraj Chopra won the Gold Medal in the javelin throw event of the Track & Field category of the Tokyo Olympic Games, the entire country is enjoying a euphoria which the country has never experienced before and why not? After all, this is the first time India has won Gold in Athletics in Olympic Games since 1896 when the Modern Olympic games started.
Case Study of Neeraj Chopra
Three interesting things are happening. Firstly, financial rewards are being announced by individuals/ state/ corporates for him. I actually have lost count of the money that Neeraj Chopra is likely to get. Secondly, he is being offered jobs/appointments disproportionate to his current qualifications. Haryana has decided to establish a Centre of Excellence in Sports at Panchkula and offer Neeraj Chopra the position of its head as a Class-1 Officer. Simultaneously, a fierce debate is going on in the Army circles to make him an officer though presently he does not have the requisite qualifications. In fact, someone has gone to the extent to say that it is legally possible and he quotes Late Major Dhyan Chand’s case, which is factually incorrect. To place it on record, the growth of Major Dhyan Chand in the Army; Major Dhyan Chand became a Lance Naik in 1927 and in 1928 he became a Naik. I could not find the year/ date when he was promoted as havildar but in 1938 he became a Jemadar, a Viceroy Commissioned Officer (equivalent to present-day JCO) and only in 1942 a Subedar. He was granted an emergency commission in 1943. He never got a permanent commission and retired as a substantive Lieutenant and acting captain in 1956. Thirdly, there is fierce competition, to claim credit for his success. While Athletic Federation of India (AFI) and Indian Olympic Association (IOA) are claiming that his success is on account of efforts made by them to provide him with the best coaching facility, notwithstanding the statement of Uwe Hohn, the German Coach of Neeraj Chopra that his preparation was far from satisfactory. The army is claiming that they got him trained at Army Sports Institute (ASI). A perusal of facts in the open domain confirms that in Dec 2016, when he was recruited in the Army, he was already a World Junior Champion, and therefore while it is true that though for some time he did practice at ASI, but he was indeed trained under the aegis of AFI. Besides all these credit seekers, credit actually is also due to all his coaches starting from SAI Coach at Panipat, Jaiveer and his current coach Claus Bartonietz.
While it is very heartening to notice that his success is being recognised and appreciated by every Indian, but I am not sure if it is the right approach to provide so much money to him. It needs to be noted that Neeraj is just 23 years of age, exceptionally talented in his sports discipline and if not more, has at least 10 more years of useful life as an athlete. Will it not be a good idea if all this money that has been pledged to him is invested in his name and given to him with the interest accrued as and when he calls it a day. Instead of money if he is assured full support for his training under the Target Olympic Scheme (TOPS) as per his own choice whether in India or abroad, it will do good to him. This brings me to a point that instead of excessive awards to an athlete, who is still performing, this facility should be extended across the board so that the athletes have a good quality of life, post their retirement. It is my belief which is based on certain experience that as an athlete grows in stature, his training requirements also keep changing and he/ she keeps outgrowing his/ her coaches and that is why it is important that once an athlete becomes an elite athlete he should be allowed to have a team of coaches to meet his training requirements, medical requirements, bio mechanical requirement, a psychologist, a conditioner and a nutritionist. This team should be formed in conjunction with the athlete himself. Also, an analysis of the performance of some of our athletes who missed the medal by a whisker or were shocked, it would become clear that either there was a lack of rapport between coach and the athlete or poor coaching or poor mental state to withstand the big match pressure. This raises a need for a well thought comprehensive plan wherein every element that contributes to the growth of the athlete needs to be formalised for each and every elite athlete in consultation with the athlete and the team of coaches. The training should be with fixed timelines to do an appraisal of the growth of the athlete to arrive at mid-course correction if required. Here is a small suggestion that the entire training be planned on D day (Day of the event, even if that is four years away) basis so that the athlete peaks at the right time. Such an approach needs to be adopted not only in Neeraj’s case but in case of all elite athletes and that will provide rich dividends.
A point about making Neeraj head of training Centre or making him an officer in Indian Army, likewise making Meera bai Chanu a DSP should wait, till the time they are still practicing athletes and these supports be thought of only once they are in the twilight of their active sports career.
Let us just examine it a little deeper. Will Neeraj be able to devote time for the Centre of excellence and if not, what good will it do to those who would be training there. Take the case of Rahul Dravid. Everyone will agree that as the Director of coaching for juniors he has done wonders but just imagine if he had still been a regular player, could he have done that? No way! Firstly it takes a lot of exposure to become experienced and secondly certain maturity comes with age and then only the transformation becomes successful. Similarly, Saurav Ganguli is doing a wonderful job as the BCCI President, only because he knows cricket quite well. Similarly, though making him an officer in the Indian Army, after Presidential sanction as advised by the former JAG Maj Gen Nilendra Kumar, AVSM, VSM , may boost his social status which he, in any case, does not need, but neither Indian Army will be benefitted nor he will be comfortable. It would be better that towards the end of his career he is prepared to take up an assignment related to sports so that he remains useful even after his retirement from the active sporting career. It is also felt that after a successful career in sports the best career option for an elite sportsperson would be in the domain of sports management either as a coach or as a sports administrator.
Now about credit. I feel the first person to get credit is Neeraj himself who appears to be having great self-belief. Also his dedication to excellence and his focus to continuously work to keep improving. His devotion and faith in his successive coaches helped him to improve. As he kept growing in the domain of sports, the set of support staff also kept growing so that from meters he could continue to add millimetres in the distance of his throw. Be it strength, be it body’s biomechanics, be his Psychological build-up, be it injury avoidance, be it physical conditioning to withstand rigours of his sport or finally the diet he is supposed to take, they all have added to his performance. Second set of people to get credit is his family where not only his parents but his two uncles also contributed and sacrificed to help him to grow in the field of sport. Third-person is his first coach who saw potential in him and helped him to get introduced to a facet of his persona which was not known to him. Fourth, is organisational support, from PM , to sports minister to SAI , AFI, Army and his own Regt. Finally, it is the people of India whose hero he is now. It is a pleasant surprise that today the consensus in India is only in the sports field.
It is recommended that the sports establishment of the country provides Neeraj Chopra and all other potential medal winners the best facilities to train for further improving their prowess in his chosen sports discipline and not to distract them from their respective objectives, by giving him money/ position. All these things can wait. In this connection, it is relevant to note that there are very few sportspersons who can remain focused despite the money, power positions or have a support system to manage their rewards so that they continue concentrating on their performance. Also, there are some who get swayed due to the rewards and in worst-case scenario may go to the extent that not only their career gets destroyed, they also go wayward. That flags the need for a system which can help the sportspersons neither to get worried about the money they get as a reward and also they are well looked after retirement.
The list of potential medal winners should be periodically reviewed so that all those who show improvements are added and some of those who do show stagnation/ deterioration are downgraded from the list.
These sportspersons are treated as national assets who needs to be nurtured and helped in a manner that they continue to bring glory to the Country in future too and remains a role model for many more budding athletes.
Funding for sports can be given a de-novo look. Government funding has its limitation therefore funding from corporates and also a system of revenue generation from sports infrastructure should also be considered. In this connection, I will give an example which many years back I had the privilege to see. The Water Sports Centre at Shanghai has created certain tourist attractions and these are used to generate revenue and as such that complex was totally self-financed. It is recommended that all housing societies in urban areas and schools and colleges should have statutorily sports infrastructure. In villages, every Panchayat should be asked to create sports infrastructure. A very large number of sports equipment is imported, it is felt that as a part of ATMA NIRBHAR Programme indigenisation of equipment should be taken up. Funding of programmes like Khelo India, Fit India and TOPS in no way be reduced. Another recommendation is that like educational loan schemes a sports loan scheme from banks can help individual sportsmen to buy equipment which they want. This scheme will help sportspersons of discipline like Shooting, Fencing. The National Sports Development Fund should be built up to a bigger corpus and contribution to it should be on the lines of PM CARES Fund and it should be used for funding sports activities. Professional sports leagues like IPL will help in improving the financial health of the federations and also will improve the availability of aspiring sportspersons for better selection. Dedicated sports-based TV Channels will also contribute to improving the financial health of the federations.
During an interaction with a very knowledgeable sports administrator, it emerged that SAI which is meant to manage sports is not doing enough for the promotion of the sport, Similarly, Khelo India, as per him, is a defunct programme. It is recommended that more number of former sportsperson should be associated with these programmes so that the bureaucratic response of the SAI improves and the monitoring of the Khelo India programme should also be improved. With better professionalism and enhanced systemic efficiency, the sports administration needs to improve. In this connection, it should be stipulated by a government order that all sports federations should also be managed by the sportspersons. More academies, more colleges, and more sports universities should be established as that would help in capacity building.
Finally, the mindset of people needs to change. Presently most of the parents insist that their children should concentrate on studies but sports should also be an option they need to consider. In this connection at the school level proficiency in at least one sport should be made compulsory for the students. It should be from class six and they should be given to attain the proficiency in next six years. Their result of 12th should be linked to attaining this proficiency.