Cricket may be religion, but India's gods of other sports get little more than a small corner in debris
Akash Bisht Delhi
With her long black hair tied in a bun and her tanned skin glistening in the strong Delhi sun, Sushma Vishnoi looks tired. A shot-putter of national repute, she is busy balancing the heavy shot on her shoulders at the practice lawns of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi. The stadium is in a state of disuse and chaos as it is undergoing demolition and renovation for the Commonwealth Games 2010. Amidst this dusty haze, filth and noise Sushma feels unsafe and decides to practise in the warm-up area.
The warm-up area is flocked by hundreds of busy athletes in colourful tracksuits. She greets her friends and walks towards the open-air gym to do some lightweights. The gym has two dumb-bells, three rods and some plates and there is a long queue for them. Instead, Sushma starts jogging on the synthetic track. She notices that the queue for the open gym is getting longer - this is beginning to disturb her. For athletes looking for practice, this is abject frustration.
Sushma comes from a small village near Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh. As she has won many competitions at the college level, her brother brought her to Delhi thinking that the city has better coaches, infrastructure and facilities compared to her village. Pointing towards the open-air gym she says that even akhadas (wrestling sites) in her village have had better gyms and equipment. "I never thought that it would be so bad in Delhi. I had to hire a private coach and have to support myself financially to pursue the sport. While crores are being spent to beautify the stadium for the Commonwealth Games, no thought has been spared for athletes. Forget about nutrition, we don't even have clean water to drink, a changing room or a clean restroom," she moans. Most athletes in the stadium agreed with her. They added to the list of woes, but water and non-availability of coaches topped the list.
Several athletes argue that the Indian Olympic Committee, headed by Congress politician Suresh Kalmadi for several years, splurged Rs 23 crore on an 11-minute song and drama sequence at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in which cash-rich Bollywood 'stars' were hired for huge sums. They are angry: "Instead of spending these funds on such frivolous events, can't they be invested to benefit sports and sportspersons? The amount to hold the Games could have been spent on improving the country's sports infrastructure. Only then can we win medals. But, tragically, no one wants to do that."
"When the finance minister allocated an additional Rs 624 crore for the Games, the whole assembly thumped tables but when he earmarked Rs 1,111.81 crore for the Union Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs, a hike of mere Rs 331 crore over financial year 2007-08, no one questioned it. They are just decking up the city to hold the games but doing nothing to help their players win some medals," Randeep Singh (name changed) told Hardnews.
The recently concluded Federation Cup saw 'star athletes' delivering below par performances. Most have not even qualified for the Beijing Olympics though there are other qualifying events lined up in coming months. Dinesh Rawat, a former international athlete and a coach says, "They have not been practising hard and that is one of the reasons and in coming months they should be able to qualify for Olympics." However, he is worried about the future of Delhi athletes because the stadium is being demolished and now even the warm-up area is being cordoned off.
Almost all the athletes said the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium is the only one in Delhi with synthetic tracks. When the orders for demolishing it and the warm-up area came, they couldn't believe it because they had nowhere else to go. "If we practise on normal grounds instead of synthetic tracks our performance is bound to go down," they are unanimous. "We don't know how we will prepare for upcoming events and if the warm-up area is also demolished, our performance is bound to suffer," says an athlete. He thinks officials care more for the stadium than the players.
Most players don't look fit and appear underweight and undernourished. One coach pointed towards a frail looking boy: "He comes from a very poor family. Everyday, he runs more than 10 km. But when he goes home he doesn't even have a glass of milk to drink. How do you think these boys and girls will be able to meet international standards?"
One of the athletes, a 200-metre runner, stands out. He wears a Nike sports gear and is fitter than the rest. "These sports are not for the poor. They try very hard but don't have the money to supplement their bodies or seek modern training sites. I am into real estate and I do sports for passion, nothing else. I take supplements, maintain a proper diet and hence I get good results. They depend on SAI, which helps no one," he says.
When officials are questioned about the preparations and expectations for the Beijing Olympics, they take a crack at players, India's sports culture, even parents. "Hardly five per cent of school children participate in sports. School authorities and parents don't allow children to choose sports over studies. They think sports doesn't have a future. Look at the players warming up: almost no one's from well-to-do families. The other worrisome fact is that most players are here so that they can get a financially secure government job - not for the sheer passion of the sport," says Mukesh Kumar, Secretary, Judo Federation of India.
Ashok Rangeen, an official with the Basketball Association of India and head coach of the basketball team at the Delhi Public School, (Mathura Road), said, "Ironically, sportspersons who dedicate their lives to a game are handed petty jobs - railway ticket-checkers, police constables, low level babus or peons. So why should anyone be interested unless he or she is desperate? They come from extremely poor and marginalised families. People want money. That is why the rich don't want to play these sports and stick to cricket. How can we win medals?" This cockamamie approach to sports should end.
How hard is it for our basketball teams to face international competition? "We don't have indoor stadiums or wooden courts. Players can't use leather balls: they are expensive and have a short life span if used on hard courts. Hence, when our players play with these balls in totally alien conditions, they can't perform," laments Rangeen.
He believes that if India wants to win medals we need to encourage sports in schools. Physical training with swimming, gymnastics and athletics should be made compulsory. Parents and teachers should encourage students instead of blaming sports for their poor marks. There should be a physical efficiency test when children enter schools. Then they should be groomed with proper facilities, training and good quality diet for a particular sport. "Policies should not only be on paper but should be implemented to help the greater cause."
Now, the Indian hockey team has failed to qualify for the Olympics - for the first time in 80 years. (Consider the fact that our hockey players - abjectly low on infrastructure, finances, self-esteem and confidence - were paid a paltry Rs 2 lakh after their Asia Cup victory. Compare it to what the 'five- star' rich cricket team got from the BCCI after the recent victory down under: Rs 10 crore. And this does not include the huge financial contracts and ad revenue money).
Non-cricketing sections of the sporting community believe that the much hyped IPL will divert sponsorship revenue from athletes preparing for the Beijing Olympics to BCCI or cricketers due to the visibility factor. Moreover, Bollywood stars entering the melee and buying franchises of teams will further add glamour to cricket and divert sponsorships that could have gone to other players. "This is definitely an issue of concern and now we doubt if athletes would get any decent sponsorships and that might dampen the spirits of the Olympic team, which might not do any good to India's medal tally," points Randeep Singh.
Indeed, will we always remain a one-sport nation, so terribly myopic, lopsided and one-dimensional in our professional priorities? And will other sports only get the dust and heat of a nation's debris - total rejection, no recognition, abject humiliation, low esteem and poverty?