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The Rediff Special/Faisal Shariff
September 04, 2003
Call it an emergency rescue by the Indian Army.
Tired of a sports infrastructure that has only managed three medals in the last six Olympics, the Army has launched Operation Olympics to win laurels for the country.
The reason why is not far to seek.
India's Olympic haul, in the period 1980 to 2000, reads: Gold in hockey at the 1980 Moscow Games; bronze in tennis for Leander Paes at the 1996 Atlanta Games; and bronze in women's weightlifting for Karnam Malleshwari at the Sydney Games.
The prognosis is equally bleak if you judge by the activities of various sports associations in the country. The Indian Olympic Association, for instance, lists 24 objectives in its official charter -- winning a medal is not one of them.
The IOA's official web site goes into elaborate detail about its functions, members, duties, and definitions; it is, however, silent on the goals it has set for its athletes, the progress it is making towards an Olympic medal.
Frustrated, then Army chief General Sunderrajan Padmanabhan decided to do something about it. In Colonel M K Naik, a former Asian gold medallist in rowing, he found the perfect ally.
Padmanabhan set up the Army Sports Institute and asked Naik to head it. The central government has chipped in with a grant of Rs 60 crore (Rs 600 million).
Seated in his spacious office in Pune, Naik thrusts a copy of an issue of India Today magazine across the table; on it is the cover picture of two obese children.
"This is the state of kids in this country," he muses. "No physical activity; just junk food, and television."
Naik blames the education system for this state of affairs.
"Sports should be a must for every child; sports produces heroes and young people want to imitate heroes, from them come new heroes. That way, we will be able to produce a generation of sporting heroes who will take the country forward.
"But with a 92 per cent cut-off system, what do you expect parents to do?"
The problem, he says, is that there is such a premium on education -- which, in turn, places the onus on getting marks in the high nineties merely in order to get into the schools and colleges of choice -- that parents actively discourage their children from 'distracting' pursuits, such as sports.
That is why, he says, sports scholarships are a must. It is the system of sporting scholarships, he argues, that has tempted young people in the US, for instance, to take to sport, and given sport in that country a major boost.
"We need to have sports scholarships," argues Naik. "A quota for students playing sports will push parents to encourage their children to take sports seriously. It needs a radical change of the Indian mindset."
The Army is nothing if not pragmatic; thus, the realization seeped in early that certain sporting disciplines are not suited to the Indian physical constitution, and therefore should not be the focus.
The Army then identified the following disciplines as the ones Indians are most likely to excel at: boxing, weightlifting, archery, diving, athletics (especially middle and long distance running), rowing, sailing, wrestling, shooting and equestrian.
Immediately noticeable is the exclusion of glamour sports such as the sprints or swimming.
"We will not win a swimming medal in 20, 25 years," Naik says.
Naik's first step was to visit all Indian sports institutes in the country, to collate information on existing infrastructure.
What he found was that there was none worth the name. He realized that existing sports institutions lacked focus; this in turn led him to the realization that a holistic, rounded approach was required if the objective was to be attained.
Reference terms, thus, were set with a proposal for a sports academy with international class training infrastructure matching Olympic standards. It was further proposed that coaches be hired from those countries that excel in the chosen disciplines.
While looking outward for technology, infrastructure and expertise, the Army group believes it should look inwards to realize its vision.
Major K S Gahlaut, who is in charge of the archery wing, believes it is important to have our own benchmarks rather than borrow blindly from other countries.
Naik agrees. "Outside templates won't work. The Indian culture is different; the body structures are different. It is important to develop our own benchmarks."
It will, he says, have three tracks -- one synthetic, one earthen, and the last one a sand and cinder track. It will have an Olympic-size swimming pool, state of the art gym, and all other required facilities for the chosen sports; it will be spread over 140 acres and will, when complete, be the best in the country.
It can accommodate 200 athletes; international athletes will be provided five star comforts and even the national level athletes picked up by the academy will live in comfort.
Then comes the question of talent; the idea, says Naik, is not for the army to be hung up on producing in house talent, but to look at civilians as well.
The process is already in motion. A 60-member team led by Naik went around the country identifying young boys who excelled at the junior and sub-junior levels.
Once identified and selected, the boys are recruited with the rank of Havaldar, and given a monthly income of between Rs 6,000 to Rs 8,000. Travel, clothes, food and other essentials are taken care of by the ASI.
Selected candidates will train exclusively in their areas of excellence. Army training is not part of the deal though they hold Army rank.
The Army's sports project takes no prisoners. Training is tough, and every six months, each candidate is evaluated for progress. If at any stage the progress is deemed unsatisfactory, the candidate is boarded out.
"We want to ensure that boys don't come here only for the job and the money," Naik says. "We want them to remember at all times that they are here to get India an Olympic medal."
To this end, the Army is prepared to spare no expense. Unlike the Indian cricket Board, which debated endlessly before finally appointing a foreign coach, the Army recognizes the worth of foreign coaches and is prepared to buy into it.
Since its inception in early 2001, thus, the ASI has recruited four foreign coaches: a boxing coach and a sports medicine specialist from Cuba, an archery coach from South Korea who had previously worked with the Japanese national team, and a general theory methodics trainer from Ukraine.
More recruitments, as per need, are in the offing.
On the theory that a carpenter is only as good as his tools, the Army is sparing no expense on the equipment front, either. "Sport is an expensive affair," says Naik.
Take, for example, the bows provided for the budding archers -- each costs Rs 1.1 lakh (Rs 110,00), each arrow costs Rs 600. The Army has provided for 26 such bows, and 200 arrows.
"Our Korean archery coach Hyon Gi Chae says our equipment today is better than what the Japanese team he trained for four years had used," Naik says.
Don't, warns Naik, expect miracles. This is the Army, not some quick-in, quick-out guerrilla operation. A medal in the 2004 Athens Games would be nice, but the real focus is on the Beijing Games of 2008.
"It is a tough and long-drawn project," the helmsman of Operation Olympics says. "Australia had set up its sports academy in 1990, and it aimed for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. That is how they got more medals than usual in the last edition of the Olympic Games."
"It is all about forward planning," he says.