Remember the nail-biting badminton finals between PV Sindhu and Carolina Marin at Rio Olympics 2016? Or when wrestler Sakshi Malik won India’s first medal at Olympics 2016 putting an end to India’s medal drought?
Dattu Bhokanal finished 13th in the men’s single sculls event at Rio. Considering that he wasn’t even aware of the Olympics a few years ago and worked as a stone-cutter in a village in Maharashtra, this was pretty much a big feat.
To show support to our sports heroes, Bollywood too has been making inspirational films like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag on former Indian track and field sprinter Milkha Singh, Mary Kom on boxer Mary Kom and Dangal on Phogat sisters.
India is witnessing a change in the sports scenario and more youngsters are keen on pursuing a career in sports.
That said, there has to be more training programmes and tournaments at the grassroots level to let the players rise and shine.
Striking a perfect balance
Arya Bhivpathaki is one of the prominent shuttlers to emerge from Pune. Apart from winning numerous tournaments at the district level, the 17-year-old has also won Junior titles at the national level.
Talking about promotion of sports from the ground level, he says, “India is not like the US or China where kids start training right from the age of two or three. Once they reach 10-11 years of age, they already have so much experience and grow accustomed to the environment, so winning comes easy to them. In India, kids start training late or even if they pursue sports from a young age, the normal tendency is to stop playing once they reach Class IX. Since academics is considered more important, we tend to focus on Board exams and sports takes a back seat.”
That said, schools and colleges are now taking sports seriously and helping youngsters fulfill their dreams. Bhivpathaki says, “Schools are supporting players and making things a little easier for them. When it comes to my attendance and exam schedules, my school allows me some relaxation. As for youngsters, the best way to go about it is to make a time-table but you also have to keep in mind that you will have to compromise a little on either of them. If you train for five hours a day, devote two hours to studies. I won’t suggest homeschooling since it is almost like isolating yourself. You need to go out, meet people and have friends you can rely on during your dull days.”
If you browse through the past one year’s results of MRF MMSC FMSCI National Motorcycle Racing Championship, Aishwarya Pissay’s name will appear on top. Such has been the dominance of the 22-year-old Bengaluru-based rider at the domestic circuit and she has represented India internationally too. She says, “Things have changed quite a lot in the past decade. There is a lot more acceptance from parents although there still is a massive need for media coverage to showcase the seriousness in sports like motorcycle racing. Personally, I did not have to compromise much on my studies as I was doing a correspondence course. If you train hard on weekends and rest of the days you study, you can create a balance.”
A 1993 Arjuna Awardee, Manoj Pingle, who won a gold medal at the Junior Asian Boxing Championship in 1985 and narrowly missed out on a medal in 1988 Seoul Olympics, currently coaches young and upcoming boxers in Pune.
Bringing our attention to the ongoing debate in our country of how a career in sports does not always mean being a cricket player, Pingle says, “People don’t really have an idea that there are other career options like sports management, physiologists, sports psychologists or even sports massage. But all this information will only reach people if schools start giving sports equal importance along with mathematics or chemistry, etc. It shouldn’t be just taught during the Physical Training (PT) period as a formality or taken seriously just during inter-college competitions.”
Also, sports players earn well nowadays, which is making youngsters choose this field. “Earlier, sports persons would not be paid well, which prompted parents to push their child towards traditional career options, but now it is different,” says Arya’s father Nitin Bhivpathaki adding, “Besides, if kids train for five to six hours, school activities don’t get disrupted. But it is the job of parents to realise if the child is good at a sport and the need to help them get professional training. Also, children should be encouraged to follow their passion and not the money. They should be motivated to make a career in a field they love.”
Abhijeet Marathe, father of 14-year-old Mallika who was partially blind for four years as a kid but is now ranked No 1 in All India Tennis Association (AITA) rankings in under-14 girls’ category, feels that the traditional job options are tried and tested, but if parents know the capabilities of the child, they should encourage him/her to explore other possibilities. He says, “For us, it was more a discovery than selection of a career. Mallika started playing at an early age and got encouraged by her coaches and that prompted her to pursue tennis professionally. That said, there is a massive need to promote youngsters who actually want to make a career in this field. We are obviously grossly under performing. Instead of constructing so many buildings, we must make more parks and playgrounds for kids to go out and play.”
There has been a constant hue and cry about the lack of infrastructure and top notch amenities for youngsters to undertake training. Talking about how players are treated abroad and here, Arya says, “Five years ago, we were struggling for basic amenities. Now, at least the National Academy is being better aided by the government. But the local academies suffer the most financially. In India, a good player has to stop practice because of studies. But if you look at China, if a person wins a gold medal in badminton, they get a PhD in Badminton which makes sports a part of the curriculum itself. Kids there don’t suffer the pressure of managing both academics and sports practice.”
The attitude of Indian parents towards sports started changing after shooter Abhinav Bindra won individual gold at 2008 Olympics. “Now, parents are giving enough freedom to their children to pursue sports as a career. Right now, it is the best time for badminton in India as we have five contenders at BWF World Championships which gives us an edge over other countries. Even tennis players are doing well,” says Arya.
Raja Mitra, lovingly called Raja da by most footballer lovers from his school, college and hometown in Bengal, has been an inspiration to many young footballers. Working as operations manager and coach at Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools, Gurugram, Mitra says, “Thirty per cent of our society is now more aware and positive about making a career in sports as compared to a decade ago when only two to three per cent would consciously consider it. But we need more schools to promote sports and treat it like a valid career option. Leagues should be organised in schools so that kids get to know about various sports and not just cricket.”
Pingle, on the other hand, says, “Only if players win a medal at the Olympics, they get access to amenities. But there is no help at the grassroots level which is why precisely Maharashtra did not have a single entry in Olympics in such a long time. So if you don’t train them from a young age, how do you expect them to win medals? If I talk about boxing in particular, we don’t really have indoor facilities or indoor boxing halls which is why we have to practise in open gyms. So, training automatically suffers during bad weather or rains.”
So along with talent, young players also need infrastructure and training at the grassroots level to excel in sports and make India proud.