15 Feb 2017 20:21 IST

How can India break into the Olympics big league?

As member of an expert panel, tell the IOA how India can win more medals at the 2024 Olympics

In August 2016, badminton player PV Sindhu and wrestler Sakshi Malik won silver and bronze medals respectively for India at the Rio Olympics. Sindhu became the first Indian woman to win a silver in the women’s singles badminton and the fourth Indian to win a silver medal at the Olympics, after shooters Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore (2004 Athens) and Vijay Kumar (2012 London), and wrestler Sushil Kumar (2012 London). Malik was the fourth Indian woman to win a bronze medal at the Olympics after weightlifter Karnam Malleswari (2000 Sydney), boxer Mary Kom (2012 London), and shuttler Saina Nehwal (2012 London).

The Telangana government declared a cash award of ₹5 crore, a piece of land and a job. The Andhra Pradesh government was quick to offer a cash award of ₹3 crore to Sindhu and ₹1 crore to Pullela Gopichand , Sindhu’s coach and a former Indian badminton player, for his badminton academy. Sakshi Malik was offered ₹2.5 crore by the Haryana government. Sindhu and Sakshi received cash awards from other States too.

While these two sportswomen received appreciation for their success at the Olympics, India’s otherwise dismal showing at the Games was a real letdown. After the six medals won at the 2012 London Olympics (in shooting, boxing, badminton, and wrestling), India was hoping for more medals at Rio. To achieve this, India sent its largest ever contingent to Rio in 2016. However, the participants failed to shine at the Olympics, sparking a debate on why India, one of the world’s most populous nations, with over 1.2 billion people, finds it so difficult to win more medals while countries like China and the US walk away with several golds.

Poor medal tally

India has been participating in the Olympics since the early 20th century, but has won only 28 medals till 2016. In 2008, it bagged just one gold medal, when shooter Abhinav Bindra became the first individual to win a gold for India in the 10-metre air rifle event. Earlier, from 1928-1980, all the gold medals for India were team medals, won in field hockey games ( see Graphic).

 

In 2015, the Ministry of Sports had launched a programme called the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) with the stated goal of identifying potential medal winners and funding them. Under TOPS, the Ministry sent more than 100 athletes to the Olympics to participate in several sports such as hockey, track and field, archery, shooting, wrestling, and badminton. In Rio, India’s Olympic squad did rack up a few firsts ( see Chart).

 

Optimists projected that India would bring home at least 10 medals as it had sent its biggest-ever Olympic contingent to Brazil. However, the large group came back with just two medals, taking the country’s total Olympics medal tally to 28 ( see Table for total number of medals won by India at the Olympics).

 

System overhaul needed

Commenting on this performance, Injeti Srinivas, Director-General of the Sports Authority of India, said: “The present system requires thorough overhauling, especially in the areas of sports science and monitoring.” ( see Figure for organisational structure of Sports Authority of India).

 

In Rio, the US won a total of 121 medals, Great Britain and Northern Ireland 67 medals, and China 70 ( see Table for total number of medals won by each country at Rio). Many wondered why, when India was a superpower when it came to cricket and also had a track record of developing some of the world’s greatest brains and business leaders, it has tasted so little success at the Olympics.

 

Lack of funding, infrastructure

Several reasons were cited by experts for India’s poor performance at Rio. A major factor was lack of adequate funding by the government. Most Indian athletes struggled to receive funds for the training they needed to compete at the Olympics. Some athletes complained about having no easy access to facilities, equipment and coaches needed to train at the level required to beat world champions. For instance, Malleswari said she had funded herself for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where she won a bronze medal. She said that, even after winning, the weights she was given for training for the next event did not meet Olympic standards.

Another major reason cited for India’s lacklustre performance at the Olympics was that the nation was cricket-crazy and cricket received the lion’s share of government funding and private sponsorship. Yet another reason was that, while India’s media companies covered everything from cricket to soccer to hockey to kabaddi in a bid to attract millions of sports fans and advertisers, they failed to show the same enthusiasm about the Olympics.

Few sponsors

Since funding was cited as the major issue, several corporates had backed the Olympic contingent and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) for the 2016 Rio Olympics. The IOA General-Secretary, Rajeev Mehra, reported that nine corporate sponsors had invested ₹10 crore. The IOA also signed up sports management company IOS Sports & Entertainment as its exclusive agency for generating sponsorship revenues. According to Neerav Tomar, CEO of IOS Sports & Entertainment: “The target was ₹10-12 crore. We are almost there already. While we have signed contracts with nine, talks are on with four more advertisers. I am pretty sure we can close ₹15-20 crore.”

The IOA had the backing of advertisers such as financial services group Edelweiss, Li-Ning (sporting goods company), Amul (dairy), Tata Salt, and Herbalife (nutrition).

Despite bagging several sponsors, a report by the Parliamentary panel showed that the stingy spending on sports was costing India Olympic medals. The report said the Centre and States together invested a meagre 3 paise a person per day for sports. In contrast, the UK spent 50 paise a day on each person while the US spent a whopping ₹22 a day per person.

The Sports Authority of India has been persuading both public and private sector companies to make contributions to the National Sports Development Fund (NSDF) and sponsor athletes. The sports department also said India was lagging other countries on parameters such as technology, skill, state-of-the-art equipment, support, sports medicine, and so on. The department observed that many public sector undertakings were not even aware of the NSDF.

Pathetic upkeep of stadiums

The Parliament report revealed that lack of funding had led to stadiums being poorly maintained. Many looked dry and ill-maintained and some had deep potholes that were injury-traps for athletes, they reported.

Experts pointed out that investing in sports was a crucial factor for competing in the Olympics. China was a shining example of success at the Olympics. Resources had been poured in to make it a state-run sports system that focused on producing world champions. The same was true of the US. Both nations focused on identifying talented athletes and supporting them financially, in addition to providing world-class training facilities and coaching. Soviet bloc countries had created a centralised system in the 1960s and 1970s for identifying and training talented athletes.

The Australian Institute of Sport and Norwegian Olympiatoppen had progressive sports policies that identified talented athletes and supported them with top-notch coaches and training facilities and were, hence, termed ‘medal factories’. In 1983, South Korea set up a “Ministry of Sports”. After these actions, each country won more Olympic medals.

Strategic decisions

Sports experts explain that governments often had to take a strategic decision to specialise. After its disappointing performance in the 1996 Olympics, Britain adopted a policy that concentrated public funding on sports that were likely to win medals. This approach led to Britain jumping from its 36th position in the 1996 Olympics to fourth position in 2008 and third in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The US too chose to specialise. In 2000, the US Olympic Committee (USOC), a non-profit organisation, focused on sports where it could win more medals. Hence, the US had increased its lead in the Olympic medal count. Some of the countries either promoted sports where the athletes had an edge over other nations or supported sports that had been newly added to the Olympics.

For instance, Australia had been banking on its historic strengths, winning over one-third of its Olympic medals in swimming. In another instance, ever since Olympics had added women’s weightlifting in 2000, China had invested hugely in it, winning half of that sport’s gold medals. Ethiopia invested in running, winning all its 45 Olympics medals in that sport. Cuba focused on boxing and won 67 of its Olympic medals in that sport.

Coaching facilities

While the US, the UK, and China had excellent coaching facilities, India had only a few coaches and sports academies. As of 2016, key Indian sports academies were the Bhiwani Boxing Club, Gopichand Badminton Academy, Tata Football Schools, Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools, Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, Tata Archery Academy, and the Mahesh Bhupathi Tennis Academy.

The Gopichand Badminton Academy, managed by P Gopichand, is said to be one of the country’s best academies, nurturing talented players such as Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, and K Srikanth. Analysts say more such academies and coaches are needed for India to grab medals at the Olympics.

Cultural factors

While other nations keep excelling at the Olympics, in India, sports is not the first career choice for a majority of the athletes and other players. Analysts say that parents in India want their children to pick more ‘stable’ professions. According to the Chinese media, “Indian culture has hindered local sports development. Most families want their children to become doctors or accountants. Even talented sportspersons would be dissuaded by their families from taking part in high-level competitions. Besides, a large portion of the population is from lower castes; such people hardly get chance at education and also suffer from lack of sufficient nutrition.”

Other reasons mentioned by the media were poverty and many girls being discouraged from taking up sports. For instance, Malik’s parents in Rohtak faced a backlash from the community for encouraging their girl to become a wrestler, considered a men’s sport in India.

Sports culture

Leading sports scholar Boria Majumdar also believes India has to foster a sports culture. According to Majumdar, “India does not have a sports culture. Unless there is a synergised sports culture you will never win a string of medals. A fundamental overhaul is needed, and urgently so.” In addition to this, in India more priority is given to education and there is little support for those who show an interest in sports.

According to Arun Navaratna, senior economist at Australia New Zealand Bank (ANZ), “Public investible resources have eluded sports. This is further compounded by misallocation, lack of transparency and poor asset management. This is unlikely to change, despite the government's best intentions.”

Navaratna reported that there were endowments and scholarships for athletes guaranteeing a basic standard of living. However, the system was fraught with red tape, corruption, conflicts of interest, and political interference. In 2012, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended the IOA for electing leaders with a criminal record and coercing Indian athletes to participate and compete at the Sochi Winter Games under the IOC banner instead of the Indian flag. In early 2016, the Parliament passed the National Sports Ethics Commission Bill in a bid to enhance the integrity of the country’s sporting culture.

Investments, incentives

Sports psychologist and founder of the ALTIUS Centre for Excellence in Delhi, Madhuli Kulkarni, believes India has to improve its facilities to excel in Olympics. Kulkarni said: “Although we have the best of academic schools and universities, we do not have good sports facilities. We do not have well-maintained playgrounds; equipment is rarely available and if it is, then it is not in good condition. There are never proper support staff, and no athlete-friendly sports policies.”

Navaratna suggests that Prime Minister Narendra Modi could announce a scheme and part-fund public-private partnerships to develop infrastructure and services, such as managing a sports event or coaching athletes. Anirudh Krishna, professor at Duke University, says the Modi government has several economic incentives to improve India’s Olympic record. Krishna says India has to make investments for the long term without expecting immediate results.

After India’s poor performance at Rio, in September 2016, the Modi government roped in the National Institution for Transforming India Aayog (NITI Aayog), a policy think-tank set up after dissolving the Planning Commission, to improve India’s abysmal sporting record.

NITI Aayog released a 20-point agenda aimed at helping India win 50 medals at the 2024 Olympics ( see Box).

 

The Challenge

Now, imagine you are part of an expert committee at the Sports Authority of India and have been asked to advise the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) on how India can prepare for success at the 2024 Olympics and win more medals at the event. Prepare a brief report analysing the IOA’s challenges in identifying funding sources for setting up new academies to nurture young talent, find the best coaches for training, and provide world-class equipment.

The IOA should also focus on fostering a sports culture in the country so that more young people seriously consider sports as a career option. Give your recommendations for the roadmap the IOA should follow.

You may gather additional information on IOA’s challenges and how it can help India win more medals at the Olympics through secondary research.

(This case study was developed at ICFAI Business School by freelance case writer Hadiya Faheem and GV Muralidhara, Dean-Case Research Centre.)

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