In our country, it is necessary to tell the people exactly where we stand: SAI chief

Director General, Sports Authority of India, Sandip Pradhan at his office in New Delhi.

Director General, Sports Authority of India, Sandip Pradhan at his office in New Delhi.   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

SAI Director General Sandip Pradhan says it is better to make a conservative estimate of India’s chances at this year’s Olympics and surpass it rather than ‘increase people’s expectations beyond what is probably not achievable’

For Sandip Pradhan, who took over as Director General of Sports Authority of India (SAI) last August, the challenges are many: from identifying talent at the grassroots to producing Olympic medallists. In his first media interview, he details the steps being taken to develop a culture of sport and improve competitive performance. He also casts a realistic eye over the state of affairs ahead of the 2020 Olympics, where P.V. Sindhu, Bajrang Punia, Manu Bhaker, and Neeraj Chopra, among others, will be aiming to get on the podium. Excerpts:

Can you begin by sharing your views on Indian sport in general and the Olympics in particular?

At the Olympics, there are two issues — medals and prospects. Also the support to the players. I remember in 2016, the Mission Olympic Committee (MOC) and a fast-track mechanism were set up. By the time it came into existence, it was a little late as far as preparations were concerned. Under the chairmanship of [then DG] Injeti Srinivas, whatever the players wanted was given. Unfortunately, the result [two medals] was not commensurate with India’s potential. We are in the process of getting better.

How do you look at Tokyo 2020?

We want to present a realistic possibility. Because the moment somebody says ‘my expectation is 20 medals’ and it comes from a responsible person, the message that goes out is that we may get 20 medals. Then we say 10 medals, so the public expectation is 10 medals. I think, in our country, it is very necessary to tell the people exactly where we stand. Maybe we should make a conservative estimate and surpass it rather than increase people’s expectations beyond what is probably not achievable in this Olympics.

The other theory which we discuss with the federations [National Sports Federations] is of the probability of a medal. There are sports where on that particular day, even a World No. 1 may not win a medal. We have to make the assessment about what the event is, how much the probability of winning is. In the case of swimming or athletics, if somebody is top-three in the world, there is a high probability of a medal. In a sport like shooting, even if you are number eight, the probability on that day is good while [the probability of] a number 1-2-3 not getting a medal is also high.

What would you say about India’s sporting culture? How can it be developed?

Let’s understand that excellence in the Olympics and a culture of sports are different. Maybe in the long term, a culture of sports will lead to excellence in the Olympics. For example, if people in the country are interested in playing kho-kho, kabaddi, football or cricket, there is a fair amount of culture of sports, but that may not lead to excellence in the Olympics. First you need to fulfil an athlete’s basic needs, then we can talk about culture of sports.

How do you achieve that?

For that you need to make the schools and kids realise that it is important to play for fitness and a good lifestyle. They have to realise that playing can give you a livelihood. And even if there is no livelihood but there is heroism, a kid would want to emulate that. These heroes are made by the media. It cannot be done by the government or media or corporates alone, it will have to be the society’s effort.

Where exactly do the National Sports Federations figure in this process?

We have never had a problem with an NSF’s long-term objectives. The issue is of speed, which may be different. The federations have a larger role in guiding a player — where he can reach, what are the norms of the sport. The High Performance Directors (HPDs) in the NSFs work very closely with TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme). Selection of athletes in MOC is on the recommendation of NSFs or research done by our team.

How do you strike a balance between support for deserving athletes and supporting sports or teams that do not rank high enough? Like the situation with handball at the Asian Games, for instance…

These are two different things. One is long term for the Olympics and the other is participation in specific tournaments. It is the government’s decision to come up with certain norms for participation and whether to give relaxations. Also, if we have to send only the top-six or eight, that doesn’t mean we will not fund other federations. The issue of participation versus medal will always be there. Unless we ensure participation, we won’t get medals in the long term. If we had not funded hockey after finishing 12th in London, it wouldn’t have reached the current position. To clear participation in a multi-discipline competition is a government’s prerogative. In the larger perspective, we cannot say the money needed to fund an elite athlete was diverted to fund the travel of the handball teams. I don’t think that was the case.

Say the SAI talent scouts have identified a 10-year-old. What happens next?

Our Khelo India Talent Development Scheme is where the second-level preparations come in. That’s where you identify young talent and groom them for an average period of eight years. For each discipline, we have made a talent development and talent identification committee. These are not SAI committees; most of their members are Arjuna and Dronacharya awardees with one representative from the federation and maybe one from SAI. We have identified 20 disciplines and prepared a list of talented players. Then we have accredited academies — run by SAI, State governments or private [bodies]. Once a talented kid is identified, we give him an option to join an academy of his choice. The moment he does, we give ₹5 lakh per year to the academy to train that child. Apart from that, we give extra money to individual players in expensive sports like shooting. Around 2,700 athletes have already been identified, out of which about 1,300 are already in accredited academies. It’s a system we are trying to build. The Army Sports Institute, the Gopichand Academy, the P.T. Usha Academy, the JSW Foundation are all accredited. It’s a seamless process.

How do you track them over this period?

We have hired HPDs to track the performance of such athletes. We have also identified very good coaches and performance managers for multiple sports. They visit these academies and have finalised sports science and assessment protocols for every discipline. The assessment will have two parts ? physical and competition. We are also developing the National Sports Repository System, which will have separate player, coach and academy information systems. The player information section will have performance, competition and sports science and fitness. Once it is ready, players in academies will be required to upload their data and can be tracked from anywhere.

What other steps have you introduced?

We are building new hostels, have hired dieticians and chefs, and the general feedback is that the quality of food has improved substantially. Khelo India is now looking at SAI, State government, elite and private academies equally, and as an individual you have the option of which academy to go to. We are requesting private academies to increase their capacity. The Prakash Padukone Academy is coming up with a 150-bed residential hostel by April. If a kid wants to go to a private academy, it is for me or my Regional Director to wake up and try and match the facilities.

How are you protecting your athletes?

We have a call centre for all our SAI training centres and accredited academies, we get a lot of calls and we are also acting on them. Recently, we dismissed a coach. There is zero tolerance for sexual harassment.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 9:59:28 PM |

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