India achieved unprecedented success at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, winning a record number of medals. In an exclusive to Sportstar, in New Delhi, Anurag Thakur, the Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports, talks about his Ministry’s plans to use technology, and host more international events in India to help the country’s athletes in their quest to seek more glory at the world stage. Excerpts:
Top athletes like Neeraj Chopra have suggested the need for regular top-class international meets in the country to generate interest. Can we expect India to hold Diamond League and events of such quality soon?
The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports backs the National Sports Federations (NSF) in the conduct of international competitions in the country. We are encouraging SAI and NSFs to develop professional capabilities to spearhead major sporting properties here in India. The Indian Open Badminton tournament and the India Open Boxing tournament are good examples. We are also hosting the International Chess Olympiad for the first time and we organised the Torch Relay for the Olympiad for the first time in the event’s history, which is a huge milestone. In October, we will also be hosting the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup after the huge success of the men’s edition in 2017. India has enough world-class infrastructure facilities to host events of international standards, and in the next few years we plan to become a destination for hosting such events.
Do you think the tech advancement in India will also drive a sports revolution?
For us, the priority is the ease of living for sportspersons and ensuring that they can focus on their training and not worry about other issues. PM Narendra Modi has been a flag-bearer for Digital India and how to integrate this into citizens’ lives. We have taken the initiative to develop an online portal wherein any athlete — present or former — will be able to apply for their cash awards, pension, or scholarships directly. Previously, this process used to take months and sometimes even years, but now this amount will be disbursed through DBT without any verification from SAI or the Sporting Federations.
A lot of NSFs are riddled with factionalism, and a few NSFs have two parallel bodies, which affects the athletes. What is the Government’s view on this and how can this problem be solved?
The job of the Ministry is to be a facilitator and ensure that the sportspersons do not suffer. A few months ago, we decided to give provisional recognition to all the National Sporting Federations till December 31, 2022, with the condition that they get their constitution in line with the National Sports Development Code 2011. This was done so that our athletes going for major international tournaments, including CWG 2022, do not suffer.
Are you satisfied with the functioning of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) and its impact?
The TOPS has been a very successful programme. It has been able to plug the gaps that exist in the elite and development athletes’ training and competition calendars. A substantial part of the training and competition schedule for the athletes is supported by the ministry’s assistance to the National Sports Federations under the Annual Calendar for Training and Competition (ACTC) scheme. The gaps, if any, are taken care of by TOPS. TOPS stepped in when Mirabai Chanu needed to travel to St. Louis in the United States at short notice before the Olympic Games. It was managed in a day so that she could leave before the U.S. stopped flights originating in India. Another example is that of Neeraj Chopra going to Chula Vista so that he could return to training without any distractions and prepare for the World Athletics Championships. The NSDF (National Sports Development Fund) Scheme of our Ministry supports TOPS for our core and development athletes. With top corporations and PSUs showing interest in supporting sports in India, the future is very bright for Indian sports. Just recently, we launched a new website and portal for the NSDF wherein any individual, organisation or corporation can contribute any amount towards any sport, any athlete, or any event of their choice. I appeal to the business community of our nation to come forward and adopt a game, adopt an athlete, adopt an academy of their choice and support our sportspersons.
What will you tell a youngster wanting to carve a career in sports?
We are changing the sporting ecosystem to make it conducive for our sportspersons — be it the elite athletes or the grassroots talent. We have a clear system in place. We focus on talent identification and grassroots development through our 523 Khelo India Centres at the district level and through the SAI training centres and NCOEs. We focus on their next stage of development through the 247 Khelo India Academies and 29 Khelo India State Centres of Excellence. We focus on their world-class training and support through our National Centres of Excellence. We are also organising competitions across sporting disciplines for the players to have maximum match-day exposure. For example, we are conducting dedicated Khelo India Women’s Leagues across nine disciplines — hockey, archery, weightlifting, cycling, boxing, swimming, wrestling, volleyball and judo. Through these leagues, more than 23,000 women athletes will participate in these competitions. So, our aim is to make India a sporting powerhouse in the world and our youngsters will be the ones who will excel.
When we talk about the promotion of sports, should we talk about the promotion of medals or the promotion of sports at the basic level? How can we get more Indian children to play? Does the government have plans to make sports an integral part of all school curricula?
Culturally, we must engage with physical activity at a very intimate level if we want to gain a presence on the global sporting stage. Across all sections of society, there is a need to have a heightened awareness and understanding of sports. As a nation, we need to work on improving levels of our physical literacy, appreciating and taking ownership of physical activities in daily life. The FIT India movement, aimed at being a people’s movement, has proved to be crucial in building strong awareness about the importance of staying fit and active. The National Education Policy 2020 has emphasised the importance of sports and physical activity as a vital part of our education systems. Structural changes are in the pipeline to ensure sports-integrated learning will be undertaken in classrooms to help children develop a fitness aptitude and improved physical literacy. Its implementation by State governments could prove to be a turning point not only for our education system but also for the sports systems in India.