Olympics Hockey

‘It’s my job to win India Olympic medals’

‘I used to play hockey or football with 40 other kids in Bandra’s gallis.’ Olympian and former hockey captain Viren Rasquinha.

‘I used to play hockey or football with 40 other kids in Bandra’s gallis.’ Olympian and former hockey captain Viren Rasquinha.   | Photo Credit: Prashant Nakwe

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The former hockey captain is a happy-go-lucky guy as long as the conversation does not involve Indian sport and its future

It was an unusually warm Sunday afternoon in Mumbai on December 7, 2014. The temperature was in the mid-30s, and in suburban Bandra, the city’s street shopping capital whose quaint heritage villages take Sunday siesta more seriously than the World Bank does GDP data, the roads were relatively empty. The traffic noise was contained to a whirr, and it would be a couple hours before the shopping crowd took over the narrow streets where, one night in September 2002, actor Salman Khan’s car had run over homeless people sleeping on the pavement on Hill Road. Around 650 metres west of that infamous accident spot is Mehboob Studio, founded by Mother India director Mehboob Khan in 1954, and the go-to haunt for such filmmakers as Guru Dutt, Dev Anand, Chetan Anand, and Manmohan Desai.

It is here, on that December afternoon, that Viren Rasquinha sat with former India football captain Bhaichung Bhutia, entertainment industry giant Ronnie Screwvala, and journalists Rajdeep Sardesai and Ayaz Memon, as part of a literature festival to discuss the future of India’s Olympic sports. Rasquinha, former India hockey captain and current chief executive of Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), a non-profit set up by eight-time world billiards champion Geet Sethi and former badminton World No. 1 and All-England champion Prakash Padukone to develop Indian athletes into Olympic medal winners, spoke with cautious optimism on how he and his team were putting together plans for future sporting glory.

Soon after that session ended, another was to begin. It featured, among other people, advertising professional Suhel Seth, who, as soon as he was ushered onto the stage, said, “I don’t know what that bald guy was doing on a panel on sport. What has he done?”

The bald guy Seth was condescendingly referring to was Rasquinha, an Arjuna Award recipient who has played 180 international matches for India and represented the country at the Athens Olympics in 2004.

This comment, made amongst a group of people that Rasquinha calls a “cosy club”, would have died a natural death, had it not been for social media. As soon as the day’s events ended, Rasquinha took to Twitter and gave it back to Seth. “It’s so disappointing when I am invited... to speak and get dissed on stage by a guy who doesn’t even know who I am... I really do wonder though how Suhel Seth holds forth on everything under the sun and what exactly is his domain expertise.”

At a coffee shop in Bandra, Rasquinha, now 36, recollects how he did not want to be seen as submissive to “well connected people like Suhel”. He says he never gets scared of people like Seth. “I never got affected then, I don’t think about it now,” he says. “Whenever I am in the news, people still tag Suhel on Twitter and thumb their noses at him,” he laughs.

Against the Netherlands in the finals of the Naval Tata Memorial Trophy in Hyderabad in 2004.

Against the Netherlands in the finals of the Naval Tata Memorial Trophy in Hyderabad in 2004.   | Photo Credit: K. Ramesh Babu

While Seth trolled Rasquinha on stage at the literature festival, thousands of Indians trolled the silver-haired socialite on Twitter, leading to him apologising on the microblogging site. “But he never apologised to me,” Rasquinha says. “I never expected him to. Frankly, it does not matter whether he does or not.”

Medal hunter

This anecdote is important to understand what Rasquinha is all about. He is a happy-go-lucky guy as long as the conversation does not involve Indian sport and its future. When conversation veers toward Indian sport, the smile is gone, and he becomes stern, like a school principal dealing with a bunch of unruly kids. “It’s my 24-hour job... to win India Olympic medals.”

Back in Mumbai after formal discussions with the Prime Minister’s Office as part of the elite Olympic Task Force (OTF), Rasquinha, CEO of OGQ from 2009, has his goals set on India winning gold medals at the 2020, 2024, and the 2028 Olympic Games. He has paired with two other Olympians—All-England badminton champion Pulella Gopichand, and India’s first (and only) individual Olympic gold medal winner, shooter Abhinav Bindra, for OTF, a committee that will publish a report on India’s Olympic medals plan in two months.

“It’s been seven months since the Rio Olympics,” Rasquinha says, “and every day is important. We can’t be training for the Olympics six months before the Games. We have to start now.”

There is a reason for Rasquinha’s hunger for Olympic medals: he hasn’t won any. “When I was a kid, I had three dreams. To play hockey for India and captain the team; to represent the country at the Olympics; and third, win an Olympic gold. I achieved the first two, I could never do the third.”

In the past two Olympics (London 2012 and Rio 2016), India won eight individual medals. Five of those were won by athletes supported by OGQ: Gagan Narang and Vijay Kumar (shooting), Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu (badminton), and Mary Kom (boxing). But a gold could not be won (Bindra’s gold was at Beijing 2008). Rasquinha says he wants to change this. Soon.

Therefore, OGQ has adopted 52 young sportspersons (the Foundation supports 93 in all, including seniors), the youngest is eight-year-old Sampriti Pal, a badminton prodigy discovered at the Prakash Padukone Academy. The world’s top-ranked junior badminton player, Lakshya Sen from Almora in Uttarakhand, is also an OGQ product. He is 15, but was discovered at 10. Sen’s elder brother, Chirag, a former World No. 2 in juniors, is part of OGQ’s senior programme, along with Nehwal, Sindhu, and Parupalli Kashyap.

“People, including sports fans, see only the end result,” he says. “They don’t see the journey.” For example, OGQ began supporting Sindhu, who won the badminton singles silver at Rio, at 14. Before that, Gopichand trained her for three years. “When she was 15, we funded her first four international tournaments,” Rasquinha recalls. “She would lose consistently in the first or second rounds, but we, Gopi, her parents, and OGQ, stood by her. Every athlete has to go through this journey. That is how you build mental toughness.”

When I was a kid, I had three dreams. To play hockey for India and captain the team; to represent the country at the Olympics; and third, win an Olympic gold. I achieved the first two, I could never do the third. — Viren Rasquinha

But mental toughness is not tangible; there are no points for remaining calm when the world around you is crumbling. “You cannot define mental toughness. How can you? But if you are able to make the right split-second decision when the world is looking at you and 50,000 fans are screaming in the stadium or you are 19-all in the decisive game, you will appreciate the difference between an ordinary player and a world-class athlete. But for that decision to take place, that one second that will define whether you are destined for sports immortality or forgotten, you need to work for years.”

Thus, the difference between winning and losing medals boils down to what Rasquinha calls “the one percenters”; athletes who do that 1% better than the rest. “Apart from sheer skill, they have better equipment, better physical and mental toughness, better nutrition, better physiotherapists and trainers, better recovery, better coaches, and they are just that 1% smarter than the rest when it comes to taking split-second decisions. I want to create such one percenters.”

Aligning goals

To put India on the Olympics map is a challenge many times over. Sports federations in India are mostly managed not by sportsmen or qualified sports administrators, but by politicians who tend to run such institutions as their family business. India’s football federation, for instance, was run by Congress MP and former minister Priyaranjan Dasmunshi for two decades. He continued to be president even after he was hospitalised in 2008 following a massive paralytic stroke that left him with a severe neurological deficit, including losing his ability to speak or recognise anyone. The current Indian football chief is Praful Patel, another politician.

“Our goals (the national sports federations, the Sports Authority of India and non-profits such as OGQ and GoSports Foundation) are the same,” Rasquinha says. “The challenge, really, is to find a feasible way to get all of us together on the same platform without egos clashing. Our singular goal should be to create those one percenters.”

That phrase again—“the one percenters”.

“It is not rocket science,” says Rasquinha. “We need to be disciplined, and we need to be professional in our approach, with commitment to efficiency and strict monitoring of an athlete’s progress. We have had a casual attitude towards our Olympic goals for far too long, and we need to change that today. We also need to bring accountability into the system. At present, there is only buck-passing. For this to change, we need to bring in professionals. Let’s do away with the honorary approach to running sports bodies.”

Then, there is fear. Indian athletes, scared of being left out, do not communicate well with either coaches or federations. “It is an environment of mediocrity,” says Rasquinha, pulling no punches. “Players should be able to speak without fear. We have to respect that once athletes reach the national or international level, they are responsible, mature, and skilled enough to be given freedom. They wouldn’t have got there had they not been disciplined.”

It is the small things that need to be done well, he says. “Ticket bookings, visas, disbursing money, or even the physiotherapist being there for the athlete every single session.”

Olympian and former hockey captain Viren Rasquinha watches youngsters play in St. Stanislaus High School, his alma mater in Bandra.

Olympian and former hockey captain Viren Rasquinha watches youngsters play in St. Stanislaus High School, his alma mater in Bandra.   | Photo Credit: Prashant Nakwe

Why? Because the difference should not be what gymnast Dipa Karmakar faced in Rio—a heartbreaking loss in the Vault final, an event an entire nation was hoping she would win a medal in, Simone Biles notwithstanding.

Culture of winning

What Rasquinha is really looking for is a change in culture. He admits that the tide is changing in Indian sport, but it needs consistent monitoring at both the highest and grassroots levels. “There is no culture of college sports in India, like there is in the U.S. where several world-class athletes are developed in schools and universities. In India, we have none. Besides, in school and college, we lay greater emphasis on academics, not sport (even though this was never a problem for Rasquinha; he was one of the city’s toppers in the Class X State Board exams as well as a school hockey champion). This is one reason OGQ and GoSports Foundation (founded by Bindra, Gopichand, and cricketer Rahul Dravid) are important to Indian sport.”

In one of the many narrow lanes of Bandra, where Rasquinha grew up in the ’80s and still lives with his journalist wife and infant child, school and college students used to play either hockey or football. “We were never into cricket. Bandra isn’t. I used to play with 40 other kids in those gallis. Now, the same gallis have 40 parked cars. Where will any kid play?”

With those five words, the Olympic talent scout extraordinaire has perhaps encapsulated what is really wrong with Indian sport. If he manages to change that, the country will owe him a bit. He will be, like the athletes he grooms for Olympic golds, a one percenter.

sachin.kalbag@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2020 11:26:09 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/hockey/its-my-job-to-win-india-olympic-medals/article17441828.ece

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