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  • Sai Prashant

India’s quest for Sporting Excellence

In this blog Mr Sai Prashant, another participant from the 3rd edition of the High Performance Leadership program, shares his perspective on how the intentional promotion of public-private-partnership can work very well for the long-term development of sports in India.

On 5th August 2021, Indian hockey turned a corner with a podium finish and for the first time, hockey beat cricket in Google searches in India.
On 7th August 2021, a day after Neeraj Chopra won the gold medal, the most googled phrase in India was ‘javelin coach near me.’
This was India’s reaction to the success of our athletes at the Tokyo Olympics!

The last few years were anything but encouraging on account of the pandemic but 2021 brought the nation a lot to cheer about and welcomed the dawn of a new era for Indian Sports.

The Tokyo Olympic games are an indication of the possibilities, and depth of sporting talent that India has and can nurture. The record medal-winning tally and bagging of the elusive Gold has been an inspiration for millions and has given hope to the nation, that sports is not merely an activity but has the potential to be looked upon as a serious career option - a path to fame, recognition and glory.

This “new” India for sports has brought together many organisations, not just the government, to work on sports development, and chalk out plans and policies for the improvement and betterment of sports across the country. We’ve seen the emergence of a professional approach with a focus on getting specialist advice not just on aspects of training and nutrition but also on sports science, mental conditioning & psychology, sports medicine, and funding to help athletes train and prepare better. The Tokyo games were also a good example of how a Public Private Partnership (PPP) model can take off well and spur not just the development of sports for medal-winning performances but can also probably help bring a more positive outlook to the sporting culture of this nation.

While the performances over the last few years and the direction which we have taken towards sports development are encouraging, for us to move from our best performance at the Tokyo Games to be in the Top Medal winning nations on a consistent and regular basis at all major international events requires a more broad-based approach towards the management and development of Sports. The Government needs to re-evaluate its role and move from being a controlling authority to that of a facilitator who provides the right environment for the incubation and advent of centres of sporting excellence. The federations need to re-chalk their plans and move away from looking at themselves as centres of power, to developing centres of excellence for nurturing talent right from attracting youth to sport to helping turn elite athletes into champions.

The importance and attention that the present Government has extended to Sports are noteworthy and hopefully, this is a long-term plan. The emphasis on sports and the enthusiasm of the Prime Minister himself in the area of sports infrastructure and bringing about awareness of the importance of sports is a welcome step. This is also driving some state governments and local administrations to focus on sports facilities more than ever.

A healthy nation’s foundation is at the grassroots community level encouragement of physical activity which will then translate into children getting interested in sports. Access to playing facilities, grounds, clubs, and equipment is what will keep that interest alive and finally, a culture which promotes sport as a serious career choice will then help the youth look at investing in their golden years, knowing well that there is a system which will help absorb them into the mainstream once their sporting career is over.

If we look at some of the sporting powerhouses in the world, we will observe a few common aspects - build a pool of aspirants, identify the best talent, and give them access to good nutrition, coaching, world-class infrastructure and exposure to competition. Most of these may seem logical for any success but the differentiator is to be able to do all this like a well-oiled machine day in and day out. The Olympic success of a nation is not achieved overnight or in a few years. It's a long-term plan, a plan which needs to be sustainable.

It’s like running a company - you invest in it, but over time if the company isn't able to generate revenues or requires continuous capital investment, would that be feasible? While many would argue investment in sports is for nation-building and brings the country together when it sees success. While that is true, with changing priorities and the development of sports, the entire sporting ecosystem cannot be dependent only on the support of a few institutions. Still, it should be looked at as a model for a long-term partnership.

An interesting point to note is that the United States, one of the most successful sporting nations and amongst the top medal winners in most Olympics, doesn't have a government-driven ministry of sports. Sports development and promotion of sports is the responsibility of the US Olympic and Paralympic association. There is no federal funding and the USOPC along with the respective sports federations is responsible to generate revenues, which then are allocated and granted for the development and promotion of sports.

In a country like India where the structure is driven by the centre and state governments, having a clear alignment on the goals for the promotion of sport at all levels becomes critical, especially for promoting and supporting elite athletes.

Sport is no exception to the rules of life - sweat, hard work, dedication, sacrifice, a journey that is long and arduous before one can climb the podium. The path to sports development is a long-term plan and getting professionals as key stakeholders to run the country’s sporting ecosystem through a Public Private Partnership Model should be the direction to move and develop. This is the path to long-term success, beyond short-term achievements.

Dependence on any one institution such as the Government for everything may be too much of an ask and we have seen the limitations to this over time.

The question that comes up often is, Is it the business of the Government to be in the business of sports or should it be left to professionals? What would be essential is to have a balance between policy, support, execution and governance. This in my view would help channelise the right resources to ensure there is mutual respect, acceptance and accountability for performance and results.

If we look at the journey of an elite athlete, we can observe that the initial positive impact when they take up a particular sport stays with them throughout and helps them transition from a sportsperson, to working towards medal-winning performances.

A possible collaboration involving government/federations and private organisations:

Infrastructure development:

Critical for the success of sports is not just the availability of stadia for elite athletes but also ample infrastructure at local community levels which encourages children and youth to indulge in physical activity. In addition to local community spaces, Government land can be allocated for common sporting infrastructure development which can be named after and run by the organisations responsible for its establishment. These stadia and facilities should become hubs for sports development and also provide ample opportunities to generate revenue over some time. Globally some of the biggest sporting stadia are run and managed by big corporations or by sporting clubs that are then responsible for their upkeep devising ways to generate continuous income.

The Government is the largest landowner with a significant part of it being held by multiple public sector entities and in many cases being unutilised, this can be a model where the facilities are provided on a long-term lease and the private establishments are responsible for their upkeep.

Some of how private infrastructure development can be explored could be DFBO – Design, Finance, Build and Operate / DBOT – Design, Build, Operate and Transfer / RMO – Renovate, Modernise and Operationalise. Many times, the Government builds stadiums keeping in mind major national and international events but after the events conclude, the biggest problem is the maintenance and upkeep of these so-called white elephants. With no direct revenue stream and the controlling authority being the state or central sports ministries, these facilities tend to decay over some time due to the lack of proper maintenance and care.

Institutionalise Elite Sports Development Programs:

The transition of an athlete requires focusing on all aspects of their development and involves bringing together varied specialities in nutrition, psychology, physiotherapy, sports science, mental wellness and much more. In addition to the facilities available, the environment in which elite athlete stays and train can have a significant impact on their progress. The availability of such establishments across the country can help not just top performers but also serve as an inspiration for those who don’t have adequate opportunities to look at sports as a serious way to bridge the gaps. These facilities can be developed by private entities and be run and managed by former athletes who are passionate about the development of sports. These facilities can be hubs for different sports that use common infrastructure for multiple sports persons.

Some of the best examples of such establishments are Abhinav Bindra's high-tech performance centre run by the Abhinav Bindra Foundation, High Performance Centre managed by Tata Steel at Jamshedpur, Inspire Institute of Sports run by JSW, Centre for Sports Science, Sri Ramachandra Institute at Chennai, Usha School of Athletics, Kozhikode, Anju Bobby George Sports Foundation at Bengaluru, Padukone Dravid Centre for sports excellence and the Gopichand Badminton Academy. Institutions run with the support of the Government such as the SAI centres for excellence across the country and the noteworthy sporting centres run by the Indian Army such as the Boy Sports Company, and Army Marksmanship Unit have been happy hunting grounds for some of India’s best-known athletes.

A wonderful example is BAT – Britannia Amritraj Tennis academy which was initiated way back in 1985 and was run by possibly the 1st family of Indian tennis – the Amritrajs in partnership with Britannia (Rajan Pillai). Ms Maggie Amritraj ran this great institution till 2005 and BAT has produced some of India’s best-known players. This is an indication that a serious intent and passion to excel with some support can be a potent mix, to achieve goals that may seem unachievable.

With the vast geographical spread that India has, a single institution alone will not be able to garner the required reach. So the possible approach could be a hub and spoke model- a primary centre for excellence which has secondary centres spread across. This way there is uniformity in delivery and access to quality guidance and support is available to everyone. These can also be feeder institutions for talent identification and development.

Sports Skill Council and Development Centres:

A student is as good as the teacher or the direction that they’re given during the early stages of their career. Sports need to be looked at as a viable and long-term career option, not just for those who have played the sport and retired, but for those who have a passion for the game and may not have had a necessarily long competitive career themselves. Coaches, trainers and those associated with sports need to be provided with ample opportunities to upskill and continuously learn and unlearn. Just like exposure to competitions is essential for an athlete, coaches and instructors need to have periodic skill assessments which will not just keep them abreast with the latest in their respective sports but will also help them with the ever-changing nuances of sports.

Aspects like nutrition, psychology, and sports medicine which weren’t considered key elements a few years ago can today make or break an athlete. The journey of learning is continuous and these centres must be run with the necessary expertise and a professional outlook which then helps evaluate the skills and capabilities of our coaches and helps them develop for the betterment of the sport and their athletes. More centres like NIS Patiala, LNCPE Thiruvananthapuram, certification programmes by respective federations and ensuring that these are taken seriously will help better a bigger and better funnel of ‘gurus’ Dhronacharyas, who will then help nurture and guide our athletes more ably.

Private Participation in Sports via CSR:

Historically the Indian sports sector has been government led with private participation limited to public-private partnerships in infrastructure development and sports academies. This balance has shifted in recent years. Some of our most successful athletes are products of support, from both the government And private establishments which have jointly understood their potential and supported them in the best possible way. While there has been a significant improvement in our performance both nationally and internationally, what's not so encouraging is the decline in the CSR spending of organisations on sports development and related activities.

The CSR expenditure on sports has decreased from Rs 295 crore in FY19 to Rs 263 crore in FY20, and the share of sports in total CSR funds has seen a decline from 1.63% in FY18 to 1.41% in FY19 and 1.23% in FY20, according to official data. This is even though total CSR spending during the same period has gone up from Rs 18,728 crore in 2018-19 to Rs 21,200 crore in 2019-20. This needs an impetus and we need to encourage organisations to support the sporting initiatives with more benefits, be it in the form of tax sops or fast-tracking their other business plans if need be to encourage organisations to channelise their CSR spending in this segment.

For us to excel and become a powerhouse, sports should get ingrained in our ecosystem, and be part of our culture and routine. It should be treated as an industry which not only churns out champions but also helps build and develop the whole ecosystem and economy by way of developing manufacturing hubs for equipment, thereby reducing dependency on imports, promoting innovation in the area of sports, creating multi-purpose sporting infrastructure, research and developing sports science.

The steps that we’ve been taking seem to be headed in the right direction. The key to long-term success is the collaborative efforts of all stakeholders including federations and Governments. This will chalk out the level of involvement and become more open to a model which allows our sporting ecosystem to be run and managed by professionally qualified individuals who have experience, are passionate about sports development and in the end are held and willing to be held accountable for the results. If the performances of our athletes at Tokyo or the historic win of the Thomas Cup are an indication of anything, it is that India has Talent. Now It’s about providing the right environment and a strong support system and we can beat the best!

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