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It’s happened again – we’ve failed to provide support to yet another Indian athlete; we’ve failed to equip her with all that an athlete needs to represent their country to the best of their ability. When para-swimmer Kanchanmala Pande departed for Berlin to represent India in the para-swimming championship, little did she know she was headed towards what would soon turn out to be, in her own words, ”a horror story”.

Nagpur-based Pande, who alongside five others participated in the para-swimming championship between July 3rd and 9th, was left clutching at straws as the government funds earmarked for their stay did not reach them. This meant Kanchanmala had to borrow money from strangers in Berlin to make ends meet, manage her own food and accommodation, and travel on the back of a 5 lakh loan, as the coach designated by the PCI to assist the para-swimmers was allegedly of no help whatsoever.

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As embarrassing and inconvenient as it seems, the awkward situation did not stop her from performing well. Pande successfully qualified for the world championships, bagging a Silver medal along the way. We couldn’t be more proud of her. “Athletes, especially the disabled, are meant to be treated with respect, and such incidents shouldn’t be tolerated. Now that I have qualified, I want to train hard and win medals,” she said, when asked about her Berlin stint.

This brings us to the problem at hand – why does India fail to lend support to its athletes, time and again?

The first and arguably most critical mistake is this — sports is still not considered a ‘socially acceptable’ career in India. Social motivation is limited in a country like ours. Most parents do not endorse the athletic ambitions of their children – nudging them in the direction of less risky, conventional career paths. The high risk high reward ratio of a career in sports paired with the uncertainty of a sustained income dissuades athletes and their loved ones alike.

Those handful of aspirants who can maneuver their way without social motivation run into other major hurdles. Infrastructure, equipment, support and technology, are all seriously inferior in India as opposed to our counterparts. Let us consider the investments of three other nations – USA, UK and China – into sporting events. UK invested a whopping 5.5 million pounds into getting gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016. They ended up 2nd on the leaderboard. The Chinese government takes the onus of the entire investment in sports on its own shoulders, investing heavily in coaches, sport centres, advanced equipment and even the incentive of a comfy government job post-retirement. Moreover, they take the responsibility of creating and nurturing talent on their own shoulders, as opposed to the western mentality of localising it. The government in USA has a dedicated USOC (United States Olympic Committee) that looks into managing affairs in sporting events. Funding for athletes and infrastructure comes from private enterprises, philanthropists, TV broadcast rights and income.

India’s governance with regards to sports has been appalling. Despite a population of over a billion individuals, India ranked a measly 67 out of 78 countries at the Rio Olympics — no surprise there. While a designated amount of Rs 46 crores was supposed to reach our 118 athletes, only Rs 6 crores made it through to them. Also, rather than enabling a sustained financial support system, the government and sporting authorities only incentivise winning for Indian athletes. To cap it off, the general attitude is one of carelessness and recklessness. The struggles of our athletes lacking support have been widely talked about on countless occasions.

How do we redeem ourselves?

Coming back to the latest fiasco around Kanchanmala Pande, the PCI vice president, Gurucharan Singh, claims that money was not even sanctioned for the athletes. However he did state that the athletes would be refunded for their expenses.

”We will hold meetings with SAI officials to discuss this matter. So, a fix to all this will be done once the London meet is over. The swimmers will be given back their money. As for the coach problem, I am not aware of it. As soon as I get back to India, we will talk to the swimmers and carry out an inquiry if needed,” he said.

It’s apparent that right now, India is in reactive, as opposed to proactive mode as far as sports is concerned. If we are to really succeed on a global front in sports, here’s how we need to redeem ourselves:

– Organised investments: The government should either take responsibility in totality, or delegate responsibility to a reliable stakeholder, one that is capable of lending full support (both financial and non-financial) to our athletes.

– Support the sports culture in society: It’s about time we learnt that social motivation is key to ensuring that our next generation of athletes aren’t disheartened before they have even tried. As a nation, it’s up to us to encourage those interested in representing the country in sporting events, to get behind them, rather than chastise them.

– Move to a sustenance model as opposed to a rewards model: Athletes are also professionals and need the risk they take to be paid off consistently.

– Bring in support from outside: Get expert coaches, facilitate construction and maintenance of better equipment and ensure our athletes have the best possible infrastructure to work with. This in turn will enable better training, which will gradually transition into victory.

It’s clear that we have our work cut out for us – but with a little nudge in the right direction, and with the raw talent we know is at our disposal, we could truly become a force to be reckoned with on the global sports scenario.

Image Credit: Nikhil Mudaliar

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