Sandeep Sejwal has a refreshing sense of self-confidence when I speak with him. ‘I believe I can win in 2012,’ says the 22-year-old swimmer as he talks about his preparations for the London Olympics.
Sejwal is one of a small group of Indian swimmers who over the past year have beaten the odds to become winners in a sport where India historically has had little success. At last year’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi, he became the first Indian swimmer to reach the final of the 50 metre breaststroke, and he is also the first Indian breaststroker to qualify for the Olympic Games.
Sejwal didn’t manage to win what would have been India’s maiden Commonwealth Games medal in the sport—that honour went to para-swimmer Prasanta Karmakar. Nineteen-year-old Virdhawal Khade, meanwhile, followed up this success in the pool at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, when he became the first Indian since 1986 to win a swimming medal at the event.
These athletes are a breath of fresh air after the stench last year of a series of mega scams, including over the bungled preparations for the Commonwealth Games and alleged bribery in cricket’s Indian Premier League, threatened to overwhelm India’s sporting image. Indeed, Sejwal & Co symbolise the sudden and unprecedented exuberance that has started to surround sports outside of India’s national game. And they’re starting to get noticed outside India, too. ‘Foreign competitors wouldn’t have a clue about us before,’ says Sejwal. ‘Now at events, they know us, talk about us.’
India’s inefficient sporting federations, mostly helmed by bureaucrats and political appointees, are the stuff of legend. But over the past five years, a galaxy of up-and-coming stars like badminton player Saina Nehwal, boxer Vijender Singh and shooter Abhinav Bindra have defied the country’s creaking infrastructure, callousness and ill-preparedness to take small, but important steps toward putting India on the global sporting map.
India turned in its best-ever performance at the most recent Asian Games, winning 64 medals, including a record 14 golds. It also amassed an unprecedented 101 medals in the Commonwealth Games, behind only Australia and England.
‘We’ve seen a huge change year-on-year in the sports ecosystem,’ says Hakimuddin Habibullah, a former Olympic swimmer and co-founder of the GoSports Foundation, a Bengaluru-based non profit that provides financial support to athletes considered highly promising.
Indeed, Sejwal, Khade and Karmakar are all supported by GoSports, which was established in 2008. ‘Everything has grown—funding, opportunities, confidence,’ Habibullah says.
Individual successes like that of Bindra, who ended India’s individual Olympic gold medal drought in Beijing in 2008, have been catalysts for change. For years, Indians have hidden behind the widely-held belief that its culture simply didn’t accommodate the killer competitive instinct so critical for sporting success. For many, this helped make sense of why a country of a billion-plus people couldn’t produce world greats in any sport aside from cricket.
‘Some of those higher level belief issues have been blown out of the water,’ says GoSports co-founder Nandan Kamath, who says India’s growing confidence more generally has been trickling down to greater sporting belief.
But despite these glimmers of hope, huge systemic obstacles to success remain. As senior sports writer Ayaz Memon wrote recently: ‘There is utter lack of understanding of sports in several federations and the constraints under which Indian sportspersons have to perform. Indeed, so apathetic is the situation (barring in cricket) that it is a wonder that some Indians have gone on to become world-beaters.’
Early last year, just weeks before the Hockey World Cup, India’s players openly revolted against their federation to protest against non-payment of dues and to demand a salary hike. Memon wrote at the time that it was ‘not just daft, but diabolical’ to offer hockey players a measly daily allowance of less than $20. That hockey, one of the country’s national games, is forced to fight such demons highlights the underlying malaise Indian sport is in.
In India, each sport is ‘managed’ by an independent federation, with these federations recognised by the central Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and receiving funds from central government. However, the federations—almost without exception—have become more like the personal fiefdoms of administrators. Their convoluted, non-transparent governing structures have helped politicians like Suresh Kalmadi and Vijay Kumar Malhotra (the latter having held his post as president of the Archery Association of India uninterrupted since 1973) perpetuate their stranglehold over their domains.
But while the media’s glare might have made for some uncomfortable viewing for Indians in the run up to the Commonwealth Games last year, it did steer some long missing attention on the way sports is administrated in India. Indeed, in November, the Delhi High Court directed the central government to implement rules that would introduce an upper age limit of 70 and a maximum tenure of 12 years, or three terms, for national sports federation chiefs.
Even before that, in June, a group of former Indian Olympians and sports enthusiasts, including former hockey team captain Pargat Singh and track and field stars like Ashwini Nachappa and Reeth Abraham, launched the Clean Sports India movement, demanding more transparency in sport.
GoSports’ Kamath says he’s ‘guardedly optimistic’ that real change is imminent. ‘Nothing breeds like success,’ he says. ‘Federations have had a sea change in attitude. The swimming federation is now extremely supportive. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports is spending a lot of money. And more players are being supported.’
Tennis player Rohan Bopanna agrees. ‘Facilities have improved and professional coaches are now being hired. Of course, we’re far from being the US or Europe. But, still, it’s better late than never.’
In November, Bopanna, 30, rose to a career best ranking of 14 in the ATP doubles standings, and his partnership with Pakistani player Aisam-ul-haq Qureshi has captured the popular imagination of the country.
Marketers have rushed to capture the brand potential of stars like Bopanna—a far cry from the days when he would have had to scurry from one potential sponsor or patron to another trying to arrange funds for travel, coaching and tournament fees. ‘There’s a good opportunity for marketers who can now get big stars on board from small sports instead of it always being the other way round,’ wrote Harish Bijoor, a sports marketing consultant, in an interview with The Hindu Business Line.
This infusion of corporate money is critical if young Indian athletes are to have the chance to develop their promise. ‘When you have somebody backing you, it helps bring your talent out,’ Bopanna agrees. ‘You don’t need to focus on the other issues.’
Ironically, many now credit cricket—so often the excuse for why others sports are neglected—with showing how the private sector can be utilized. ’Cricket itself became more professional,’ says Habibullah. ’After the Indian Premier League was introduced, a larger talent pool with a longer shelf life was suddenly created. That tipped the balance.’
Today, the Indian cricket team is the richest cricketing squad in the world, while the coffers of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) are brimming over.
Yet despite the evolving economics of sport, the reality is that the government will need to continue to be the primary driver behind infrastructure changes, for now at least. For example, although corporate endowments have been used to establish institutes like the Tata Football Academy, the government still needs to play a facilitator’s role to make it sufficiently attractive for private investors to come on board. ‘Market forces can supplement those efforts, not replace them,’ Habibullah says.
Meanwhile, although cricket’s IPL has brought with it huge injections of cash and prestige, there are worries that giving private investors a free hand can hurt a sport. Yet mired in controversy as it might be, Kamath says the IPL has still demonstrated how sports can be packaged as the ultimate entertainment. ‘Our ultimate strength is our population. All sport is run by eyeballs.’
And, while the Commonwealth Games brought with them their own fair share of shame, athletes say that even badly organised international events leave an infrastructure legacy of some sort.
‘Overseas, swimmers have competitive events almost weekly,’ Sejwal says. ‘But we managed only four or five events a year. There’s nothing like swimming in your home town.’ And he adds that quantity doesn’t negate the need for quality as far as sports facilities go. He notes, for example, that that despite Delhi boasting more than a dozen Olympic-sized pools, few are suitable for training in that they’re either poorly maintained or regularly used for public events.
But building on the increased momentum behind infrastructure will anyway require more than just upgrading and improving facilities—it will also require a change in the way sport is viewed in India.
‘The Indian psyche and Indian parent has always been deeply focussed on academics,’ says Aditya Kaura, a former management consultant who left his job last year to launch the LeapStart initiative. ‘But, the younger parents we interact with are much more open. There’s a clear shift, a definite appreciation that sport is a viable career.’
LeapStart works with 12,000 school students in five cities to focus on sports skills and fitness, including a physical education programme that starts with children in kindergartens. ‘If (parents) think their child has superior hand eye coordination, they now want to take that talent further,’ Kaura says.
And for many Indians, that’s where the hope for improvement now lies. In a sector that has been mired in inefficiency, recent achievements show the promise of a brighter sporting future. It’s initiatives like these that provide the plank from which athletes like Sejwal are taking their leaps of faith from.