Friday, November 16, 2007

Sporting Vision

Under the direction of Union sports minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, the sports ministry in India has emphasised the need for transforming India into a leading sporting nation in quick time, by combining sport development along with youth development. This vision, which has the handiwork of Mr. Aiyar, who happens also to be the Panchayati Raj (Local Government and institutions) minister, was made into a drafted sports policy document. Whether or not such a draft policy would be implemented sincerely, it must be acknowledged at least that such a vision was long needed to be arrived at, and thankfully it has been articulated now.

India's record as a sporting nation in international competition, or for that matter the internal record for sport development is in one word, abysmal. For despite being the second most populous nation in the world, the country has been simply pathetic as a performer in the Olympics or in other international competition. Sport in India today is monopolised by one game: cricket, the reasons for whose success are diverse. Other sports lack the organising strength and monetising power that cricket has, both dialectically linked to the popularity of this particular game.

Unfortunately people have tended to link up the emergence of cricket as the only monopoly popular sport as a chief reason for lack of patronage for other hitherto well liked sport, such as hockey. This way of looking at things is flawed, as the success of cricket has been due to a interlinking of various factors, primarily got to do with the organisation that goes into running the sport itself. While the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is criticised (and rightly) incessantly for being a non-transparent organisation, greedy to make more and more money, it is not well understood that despite these obvious flaws, the BCCI has created a wholesome structure for the sport of cricket to be played in the country. From school to club to age group to state to regional levels, regular perennial tournaments are played. Presence of urban infrastructure for cricket in the form of maidans and grounds is of an order much better than compared to other sports. While India's success in cricket took a while in consolidating, much has got to do with the organising strength of the sport. It also helped that India won a tournament (the World Cup of 1983) unexpectedly and despite being an underdog, which gave the popularity of the sport a major boost, in turn helping fuelling further success leveraged through the organising power. It is no wonder that cricket remains the most marketed sport in the country and it has benefitted from the economic reforms too simultaneously.

Much of the blame that is being laid on cricket for its monopolising power is based on the fact that cricket receives stupendous marketing and corporate support, something that is denied to other sport in the country. This angst is misplaced, as it is based incorrectly on the expectation that sport thrives only through corporate recognition and support. At best, in this author's opinion, corporate support would only be an add-on, for primarily such support kicks in only after the platform for the popularity of the sport has already been laid. This platform has to come from the state alone. Emphasis (as the draft document shows clearly) on state support and investment in sporting facilities and competition was already made in a 1984 vision document, but which failed to fructify simply because of the incorrect approach.

The approach previously put in was top-down and ad hoc (a stigma that was linked to dirigiste India), with little or no leeway for involvement of local institutions in development of sport. The presence of several sporting federations, each headed by bureaucratic mandarins in charge of running the particular sport without laying any grassroot emphasis on inculcating enthusiasm for sport through mass mobilisation and for sport facilities across the country, didn't help much at all. Sporting federations in India are run by unaccountable bureaucratic officials who keep retaining their posts year after year despite no sufficient accrual to the popularity or even health of the particular sport. In contrast to countries such as Cuba, where sport federations are run by ex-sportspersons and purveyors of excellence, in India, sporting federations are cash cows run by ex-bureaucrats, politicians whose knowledge and relation to the particular sport is at best insignificant. From football to badminton, sporting federations in India have been run by politicians and bureaucrats who have led these associations for years without a break either in their tenure or in the string of unimpressive growth of these sports.

It was no wonder that for example in badminton, a seasoned hero, Prakash Padukone took up cudgels against the BAI (Badminton Authority of India) chief for serious inaction and mal-efficiency in promoting the sport, a few years back. The result of such action by Padukone was dramatic. In a few months time, the structure for badminton playing and promotion was so altered that many new youngsters were getting to become international class, and badminton organisation in the country started gaining a certain degree of stability of order of functioning when a sportsperson such as Padukone was involved in authoritative running.

Yet even this correction of an anamoly is not enough. As Mani Shankar Aiyar emphasises, a whole change in vision for sport is needed. Sport has long been seen as mere amusement in the country in contrast to the emphasis that it has enjoyed across the world for centuries as an important tool and arena for development and community building. And the sports minister has been wise to redirect the vision to inculcate the essence of such emphasis in the grassroots level, at village panchayats for example. The sport ministry has decided to give large impetus to local sports in India, hitherto completely neglected. A bottom-up approach, aided by the Centre and State Governments (sports is now being considered to be part of the Concurrent List in the Constitution), apart from linking up sports development to youth development from the local institutions' level seems much more sanguine.

Mani Shankar Aiyar has rightly found the correct model to emulate, that of the socialist structures in China and Cuba, where state involvement has played a major role in sport development, as is clearly seen in the medal output of these nations in international competition. Even a capitalist society such as the United States, relies heavily on regulatory associations at the grassroots levels (in schools and colleges) for sport promotion, even as this structure is buttressed by corporate and media support in the higher levels. Sport as envisaged in the vision document, is taken up as a means to achieve wider goals of community building within the nation.

Aiyar has also pointed very correctly that the belief that conducting major tournaments and competitions (Asian Games/ Commonwealth Games) and concurrent heavy investment to build facilities for the same (nearly 500 crore of public money is spent for the 2010 Commonwealth games in Delhi) would spur on popularity and recognition for the nation is fairly inadequate a means for promoting sport. It is necessary to build sportsmanship and competitive sportspersons and not just look at short term benefits of conducting competitions and building short term sport infrastructure. Unfortunately not all share this well elucidated opinion, within the ruling party in India.

Many a youngster friend of mine, which whom I grew up, who had outstanding potential for taking up sport as a career, gave up owing to lack of support and encouragement. Hopefully this vision articulated by the sports ministry in India would create more opportunities for the huge chunk of younger generation people in the country, which could be a templar for other third world nations too.
Article to be published in The Post


Soccer Mania said...

Dont know whether you will care to respond to this. But most of your comments here seem to be pretty vague and off the mark. A few instances :-

First you make a case for the state to popularize a sport. If you really look back into the way football has popularized you will know the state has done very little. An example - Nike and Brazilian NT or Adidas and ARgentine NT.
In fact the rise and dominance of what is today called the Champions League is really in political words triumph of globalization. The state and in this case the induvidual FAs are powerless in comparison to these clubs. A case in point is the frequent dispute btw the FA and clubs whenver a player is injured or needs to play in friendlies.
The way some of these clubs run the scout is additionally a point. Even if you take the Nt, a team like Ivory Coast produces such high quality players despite the football assocn being literally absent. In contrast, teams like china cant even hold a candle to the likes of Ivory Coast, Ghana despite having massive investments in the game by the state.

Or how about Kenya, Morrocco, Ethiopia in T & F. How do you explain the success of the likes of Haile Gebrasaliase, kenesia Bekele, Hicham El Gerrouj, Bernard Lagat, Frank Fredericks, Kemboi, Paul Tergat (If you happen to know who these are).
The names above are absolute legends in their field.
The likes of Haile in fact achieved such greatness despite the shoddy assocs.
Further, this years worlds (2007) also shows the same.
I can go on and on but I will stop here for now :-).

The state in all these instances has done precious little but the passion that was there among these sports persons helped them rise to the top. The passion coupled with, in many of these instances, sport being the only way out of poverty (feel bad to mention it but that is the truth). This desperation was the real motivation for these athletes and explains partly their achievements.
Now what is the way forward for India in these sports - well,well if you read this we can continue :-).

Srinivasan Ramani said...

Well.. First things first.. Cut the condescending tone. You might not know how much the other guy here knows about sport :-).

Next, its innately stupid to say that football was popularised by Adidas and Nike in Argentina and Brazil.

There wasn't Nike or Adidas with its advertisements which brought football to the Brazilian/ Nike shores, but British expatriates. THe game got a fillip because of the anger of the local creole population for being excluded by the exclusive Brit expatriate clubs. The game just got popular when Argentine nationalism got a boost through the performances of the Argentine team in the first World Cup and history goes on from there.

Same goes with Brazil. The story is pretty much similar here too.

As I have pointed out in my article, the foundations for sport and its structures are laid out only by the institutions of the state. Private support kicks in only after the basic foundations are laid in.

I don't know which country you base yourself in, but in India atleast, there is zilch interest for major sports in the world such as football in particular, because of the neglect for sport as a form of youth development in schools, in townships and especially in villages. It is not as if we lack talent or people to take part in such sport.

Thats the gist of my argument. If you find it vague, I would suggest that you clear the density of fog out of your thinking please :).

Next, the Chinese team might fail against Ivory Coast in Football..but the sheer number of gold medals that the Chinese athletes win in international competition spread across different sports, from athletics to aquatics to indoor sports etc is mind boggling for a nation that was structurally weak when it was born out of colonial rule. All kudos to the state institutions which moulded athletes out of poor peasants and world class sportswomen of previously home-ridden Chinese women. Not Nike or Adidas are the ones to be credited.

The Champions League and other tournaments are of course great triumphs, but such supra-national competition kicked in only after the popularity of the sport had been established. By that, one should talk about the role, local institutions of the state played in generating the spirit of youth development and sport inculcation. Something that hasn't happened quite well in third world countries, because of the indifferent structure of the state here.

Leaving it to the passion of the sportspersons who have no infrastructure to train, no training facilities to put forth their efforts, no institutional support for monitoring progress, is a foolhardy approach. It might create a Milkha Singh or two, but the success will never endure. The sad story of African atheletics is for all to see. Take for e.g., George Weah of Liberia (I am sure you MUST have heard of him). He was a class act, a Balland'or winner (or was it World footballer of the year?) and a Super AC Milan player.

He did inspire a lot of people in Liberia to take up football as a passion. It helped create some form of interest mechanisms in the sport, but what was the use of such passion alone, without state institutional support eh? They have barely managed to qualify.

Enduring institutional structures are the only way out to inculcate sporting vision in third world countries. Private support kicks in only after the base ground work is laid in. No one is making an argument that sport should be a state activity. But the main argument here is that without state support in atleast the initial stages, sport goes nowhere, especially for third world nations.

Care to talk more?

Soccer Mania said...

Relax!!!I never meant to talk in a condescending way. The arguments put forth did look out of order to me. It was after all a light banter at times with smilies which i did keep i guess, if you take it as some condescending types so be it.

I never said that Adidas and Nike popularized the game. What I did first off say was that the teams are almost controlled by these corporates. A case in point is when did Brazil play their last friendly in Brazil (2002 July if my memory is rite) and why hasnt it happened ever since? Who is responsible for that? Why is the FA of Brazil silent on it? Why did Argentina and Brazil have to play against each other in a friendly in England for the Emirates inaugration? Finally, why is the contract btw Nike and Brazilian FA hidden and mysterious to a large extent.

Football didnt get popular in Argentina until the great Millonarios team of River plate came . Players like Di stefano, Omar Sivori etc came. As the name implies it was the huge money of the 1940s River plate team that really set a tradition into Argentina. Though you can always state that Argentina did well in the first 2 WCs. The reason I feel that football became popular is due to the construction of the stadiums and the money pumped into the infrastructure by the respective clubs didnt happen until around 40s. I may be wrong here if you have an alternate version you can state yours.

Wrong again with Brazil, the World cup 1950 led to a drop in footballing audience. The team it was suggested that did not have talent or any ability. Joan Saldanha and Havalange have a lot to do with popularizing football with that 58 WC team. And the history of Brazil and Argentina is hardly the same.

Regarding Liberia, they are doing decently in the local football tournaments like the CAN. So to say that Liberia are not doing well is an overstatement. And for the record, the last I did read Liberia didnt qualify for any WC. but then again the WC qualification is not really the only criteria, CAN (Cup of African Nations) can be a good factor for judgement. I am not too sure abt their history in CAN.

Why i did bring in Ivory Coast was that it is a team that has little history but the players are doing an amazing job in Europe. And they gave a brilliant display in the WC as well. IC is a country that doesnt even send its youth set up for WYC (World Youth Cup) until recently (guess in 2007 or 05). The reason, and this is pure speculation from my part, is that the scouting done in IC is terrific. IC today is a feeder for clubs in France- Drgoba was picked from Marseille, the Toure brothers are again from Monaco (I mite be wrong here about all 7 of them!!!), Kone is i guess from Bordeaux. Arsenal, for example have a huge base in IC (their biggest setup outside London IIRC). The FA of IC has done precious little for the game development.

And the reason I did compare IC with a country like China, as u kept mentioning them in ur post, was that putting in infrastructure and popularizing the game by the state is not really the way out. The EPL is a huge hit in China and it is followed very closely with teams like ManUtd, Barcelona even organizing regular pre-season friendlies there as well. Even the EPL kickoff times are early to suit the asian audience. This would lead us to think that the game is very popular in China. Further, China is dead serious about doing well in Football. If iam not mistaken China has started taking steps to do better in the game even before the likes of Japan and Turkey for example. Why then are they not performing well in any phase of FIFA tournaments -i.e., Under 17, Under 20, Under 23 in olympics, and the FIFA world cup. Huge money is being pumped into this game by China but still the clubs that are dominating AFC are not from China or even from Japan (to a lesser extent) I guess this time it was Al Hilal that won the asian equivalent of the CL. This was what I was comparing.
IC with little support from state is doing so well while China with such massive support is nowhere near.
(I am not an expert in Asian football if you feel otherwise do state it.)

Take the case of Brazil or argentina. Do you really think the state is responsible for the development of the game?. When I refer to the state it is the local football federation, for example AFA in Argentina. There is a huge difference btw the clubs and the Natonal Team. It is the clubs and their scouting that has done brilliant jobs in SA. The AFA or the CAB does a process of selection, i.e., the players are there for the coach to see (say in case of the WYC) and he handpicks them. Hugo Tocalli, the coach of the WYC-2007 (world Youth cup) winning Argentine team, stated that his job was to pass a wide group of players (selected and put in a training camp) through a funnel (an analogy so to say) and get the best 22 at the other end. That kinda explains the job of Argentina FA. The clubs are not doing it for the betterment of the game or for their respective NTs to win the WC, in fact they hardly care of the national team. The reason the clubs do the scouting is that 1.) its huge money once a player is sold and the clubs can start clearing their debts with that :-) 2.) there is a lot of prestige and ego in these clubs and they want to rub it on to their local city rivals (esp in case of Argentina as there are abt 5 clubs just from Buenos Aires) by getting a better player and thereby increasing the chance of winning the league.

Lets us at least try to agree on Football, the most popular and passionately followed game on the planet.

Finally, answer only if you really want - do you follow football closely?. At least from the looks of it, it doesnt appear so. Dont take it as stating that you are ignorant and a moron- u know wht i mean.

PS: I am not from South America or even near that place, I am from India. So there are may well be factual errors esp regarding history of football or other stuff.