(from left) Abhinav Bindra, Sjoerd Marijne and Mustafa Ghouse. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)
After every Olympics, our collective consciousness as a nation makes us question the number of medals that emerge from a population of one billion-plus. Within weeks that narrative is forgotten, only to resurface four years later.
While it’s true that we have a population of 1.3 billion, there’s only a minuscule percentage of people playing active sport. In essence, we don’t have a deep-seated sporting culture in India, except in a few pockets.
Moneycontrol talks to Abhinav Bindra (Olympic gold medal winner in shooting), Sjoerd Marijne (former coach of the Indian women’s hockey team) and Mustafa Ghouse, CEO of JSW Sports (one of the primary corporate backers of Indian sport), to record their perspectives and recommendations.
Abhinav Bindra is the first Indian to win an individual Olympic gold medal. He has also won nine medals at the Commonwealth Games and three more at the Asian Games. He is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan, and is regarded as one of the top influencers of sports-related policies in the country. He runs the Abhinav Bindra Foundation, which works to integrate sports, science and technology. He also runs the Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance Centre in five cities across India.
Use sports as an essential tool for nation-building
Most sporting powers are economic powers too. Sport helps in building a culture of excellence, teaches you to respect the opponents, makes you realise what it takes to win, helps you to become resilient in the face of adversity and builds character, integrity and honesty. So, as you can see, sport helps in creating a value system. It also teaches you the spirit of friendship and helps you to form various perspectives. Sports should remain apolitical.
Collaborate and co-operate to win
In India, sports tend to develop in silos. We need greater synergies between sporting federations and ministries. Also, the various sporting bodies in the country should find and connect with their fans, as the CSR model alone will not be sustainable in the long run. Just see the way Odisha has supported sport. The Odisha government is so nimble-footed when it comes to decision-making. My Centre there came up in just 39 days.
Build better structure for collegiate sports
Inter-collegiate games need to be encouraged and taken to the next level. USA does so well in the Olympics because its colleges act as the feeder system for talent. India is a country of the young. I’m sure the next decade or two will see rapid development of the sporting ecosystem in the country, if we get our act together. There are events like Khelo India that can be used more effectively as a feeder system.
Help athletes build a life beyond sports
In India, athletes have singularity of approach; our athletes should build dual capabilities outside their careers to prepare for life after sports. There has to be a system which helps the athletes upskill for a career beyond sport. Essentially, the athlete has to restart life after his/her playing career, and most athletes are ill-equipped to handle that. No one is going to hire you just because you have won medals in a sport.
Invest in community sports centres
We have to think beyond podium finishes. It shouldn’t be just about how many medals were won. Let’s look at how many people managed to qualify for the Olympics. Medals alone shouldn’t be the benchmark of development. We have to change the ecosystem and build from the grassroots. Over the next decade, we have to develop a system wherein sport becomes a way of life. India’s intent should be to build a complete ecosystem that helps us generate good physios, fitness trainers, doctors, psychologists and nutritionists in large numbers.
Sjoerd Marijne was a Dutch hockey player and coach of the Indian women’s hockey team which reached the semi-finals at the Tokyo Olympics. Since then, he has quit the position and moved back to the Netherlands.
He has played a major role in reviving women’s hockey in India, with his innovative training methods to make the team fitter, stronger and faster. He was instrumental in changing the diet plan of the players, who were consuming a carbohydrate-rich diet at that time. He turned that into a protein-rich diet, got the players to move faster and easier, thereby helping them to get into great positions to execute the drag flicks.
He also runs a company named Peopleonfire, which aims to bring out the unknown qualities in people which they can use in corporate life. The company aims to match the job-seekers’ competencies to the employer’s needs.
Always invest in specialist coaches
There is this debate in India about whether coaches should be brought in from other countries or not. For me, this is very simple. Always depend on specialists and experts who are bound to bring results faster. It should not matter where they are from. If you look at Belgium, they had a coach from New Zealand. The important thing is that the chief coach should share his knowledge with the other coaches. In my case, it took me 15 years of coaching in the Netherlands to become an international coach.
Do early preparations for an event
When I say early, I mean four years ahead. Do the preparations preferably in conditions that mirror the climate/environment where the event will be held. The Dutch sailing team, for example, trained in Japan for four years to get used to the conditions. The Dutch delegates had visited the Olympic Village in advance to assess the conditions. They wanted to be sure that athletes felt comfortable when they arrived at the Village.
Speed up the processes
In India processes take time. It’s necessary to speed up sanctions/approvals and construction activities. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Bengaluru took two years to build a gym. The gym was ready five months before the Olympics. But I don’t want to point any fingers, as SAI was willing to get it done faster. It was just that the whole process of construction was so slow.
Use money wisely and identify a larger talent pool
There is now sufficient money in Indian sport. I’ve seen that with Indian hockey. The state of Odisha had backed us completely. It’s a great of example of what can be done in India. So, there is money and support. It’s about how we use those funds. India should set up a women’s hockey league, in the Indian Premier League (IPL) mould. We need to create a larger pool of players and encourage internal competition. For that we need to organise many more tournaments.
Elevate the status of sport
Corporates need to ask this one question during job interviews – have you ever played a sport? It’s important to give weightage to people who have played a sport, when they apply for jobs. The hiring manager should ask this question. These small details will make a lot of difference eventually. If like Odisha, some of the other states also come forward to support sports, things will change. Sport goes beyond winning medals. It brings joy and happiness to people. Once we know that, we will find greater meaning in playing a sport.
Mustafa Ghouse is the CEO of JSW Sports, a corporate body that has played a key role in supporting sports in India. JSW Group owns the Indian Super League (ISL) powerhouse Bengaluru Football Club and the Pro-kabbadi league team Haryana Steelers. JSW Sports has also played a role in the development of India’s Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra. Ghouse is also associated with JSW Sports’ cricket franchise Delhi Capitals. Ghouse, a former tennis player, represented India at the 2002 Asian Games, and won bronze in the doubles competition.
There are many young athletes in India who fall by the way side, as they don’t get timely professional support. At JSW Sports, we realised that there was a gap in India’s sporting system. That’s one reason why we started the Inspire Institute of Sport (IIS) in Bellary. The IIS has the complete package. We have nutritionists, physical trainers and psychologists; we even provide education for the athletes, who have to just roll out of bed, lace up and train. Providing this kind of support is crucial, as otherwise we stand to lose out on many medal prospects.
Strategically back select disciplines
JSW Sports supports athletics, wrestling, boxing, etc. Judo is on our radar as well. Swimming is the other discipline that we are backing now, considering the volume of medals it has brought in events like the Olympics. India is not known for its swimming prowess internationally but we are bullish on improving our chances. We are also working closely with the shooting federation. So, these are the areas that we are banking on now.
Develop more role models
Indians need more role models in sport. We started supporting Neeraj Chopra when he was 17-18 years of age. Even then he was throwing phenomenal distances. Before the Tokyo Olympics, we made sure all steps were taken to ensure he could take part in competitions in Europe. Now I hear kids are throwing all sorts of poles and sticks in neighbourhoods across India. So, once we have a role model in any sport, that discipline takes off. We have roles models in wrestling, shooting, boxing, etc., hence those events have become popular in the country. The other good example is badminton. We need more sporting disciplines to break the glass ceiling, so that more role models emerge.
Bring professionalism into sport
When we set up the Bengaluru Football Club (BFC) in 2013, we were clear about running it as a professional set-up. Just like how a leading corporate body would set up a new big project, we went about implementing the best practices. We spoke to a number of English clubs and other clubs around Europe, on how they went about their business. BFC has various departments that look into each and every aspect, and the managers are given specific targets to achieve. When the club was started, we came to know that the players knew very little about nutrition and strength training, which came as a surprise. Football is a game where players run 10-11 km at full tilt. Hence, we brought in a nutritionist and a strength and conditioning coach. We also changed the playing culture a bit and made sure there was no hierarchy in the team.
Back the coaches
It’s important to empower our coaches. Once we appoint them, we have to allow them to have their say in scheduling of events and bringing in changes in the system, etc. They shouldn’t be allowed to feel frustrated. Paris Olympics 2024 will be upon us very soon. We can’t be complacent because we managed to do reasonably well at Tokyo, where we worked as a cohesive unit. That cohesiveness should continue. The Sports Authority of India (SAI), sports ministry, sports federations, corporate bodies, athletes and coaches have to work together to achieve the desired results. Employing experts and professionals and holding them accountable with certain processes will go a long way in improving the sporting structure in India.