With the Olympics underway, athletes representing India have come under intense scrutiny over the last two weeks. But in this results-oriented world of sports, it is easy to forget that the athletes finishing 5th and 6th or losing in the quarter-finals have been on their own arduous journey to get themselves there.
TNM caught up with Nandan Kamath, a sports lawyer and a managing trustee of the GoSports Foundation, a non-profit venture that helps develop some of India’s top Olympic and Paralympic talents, to discuss the support system in place for athletes and aspirants in India. Among the talents GoSports has worked with include Indian women's hockey captain Rani Rampal, gymnast Dipa Karmakar, sailor Nethra Kumanan and fencer Bhavani Devi.
Q: A lot of athletes have discussed how the cost of training and competing at world events is too high and that there is very little government support for most sports, other than few such as cricket. What is the role of organisations like GoSports Foundation?
As you say, when we generally think of sports in India we think of the government as the only source of potential support or patronage. At GoSports Foundation, our founding philosophy in 2008 was to stop being spectators, overcome the prevailing cynicism, and actively participate in athlete lives and journeys. The governance structures of organised sport, with federations and the government being the sole drivers, historically made it difficult for civic or public participation. But we found a way – getting involved directly in athletes’ lives. We have been able to serve as the bridge between talented athletes who need the support and private individuals and organisations who want to contribute their expertise, goodwill and money.
As an independent and accountable non-profit, we have been able to bring a number of blue chip corporates to sport as funders through the CSR route and also more experts, sports science knowledge, and the invaluable support of individuals such Rahul Dravid, Pullela Gopichand, Abhinav Bindra, John Gloster, Unmish Parthasarathi, Girish Manimaran and so many others when we needed it the most. An opportunity to work in this field also builds sports management capabilities in young professionals and our team, ably led by our Executive Director Deepthi Bopaiah, has grown a lot in expertise and knowledge along the way. We now have alumni working across numerous organisations, including the government. I believe that when you put the athlete at the centre of sports development and give everyone an opportunity to contribute, this kickstarts many other processes.
Q. How do organisations like GoSports Foundation scout talent?
You would be surprised at how much sporting talent is sitting in plain sight in our country. Even without systematic talent identification being in place historically the talent seems to sprout from unlikely places. The development cycle can be 10-15 years for talent to mature and this needs patience from many quarters.
So far, our role has been to enable pathways for the talent that has already demonstrated high potential. We do our selections a bit differently. We run open-call application processes and have a 100-day selection process which includes research, reference checks, family visits and interviews. We expect the athletes we select for support to have already demonstrated some of their potential. We need to keep this talent in sport and provide the tools and support structures for progression at the vital phase of a career when there are few other sources of support. Once talent pathways are in place, we can start focusing on talent identification and early nurturing. But first we need to create examples that show it is possible across a variety of disciplines. Culturally, we also need some athletes to break down stereotypes that we are only good at certain types of sports.
We operate a number of targeted programmes for high performance, long term development and skills development across Olympic and Paralympic disciplines and more. We are particularly interested in supporting athletes from sports disciplines that have not received systematic support in the past. For example, we have participated in the journeys of the gymnast Dipa Karmakar, Bhavani Devi who is our first Indian Olympic fencer and Nethra Kumanan who became India’s first woman sailor at the Olympics. We consider these big wins very meaningful for the system. Over 30 athletes we have supported are representing India at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. We believe that every athlete is changing India, one day at a time.
Q. Can you give an idea of what are the costs involved in supporting a talented athlete?
This is very dependent on the stage the athlete is at, the sports discipline and the availability of other sources of support. It can range from tens of thousands per month to tens of lakhs per year and we customise our support to each athlete's specific circumstances and requirements. Once our athletes get to a certain level, they become eligible for support from other sources, including the central and state government schemes. For example, this Olympic and Paralympic cycle, a number of our athletes and most of our Indian contingent received tremendous support through the government’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme, which is both well-resourced and professionally run. This type of graduation gives us a chance to focus on another batch of young athletes and we support the elite athletes in specific areas where we can add expertise and complement the government's efforts. We do recognise that sport is also a matter of livelihood for many of the athletes and keeping them in sport, after a point, is not simply a matter of covering their costs. Staying in sport needs to make sense to them and their families financially too.
At early ages, athletes need time to grow and experiment with a sense of freedom and funding sources must remain conscious of this and not overly result-oriented. We have been very fortunate to have wonderful long term CSR partners such as Aditya Birla Capital, IndusInd Bank, Sony Pictures Networks and Tandem Allied Services and grantors such as Infosys Foundation and Dream Sports Foundation, among many others, who have helped us grow our programmes with an open mindset to athlete and human development.
Q. Is there enough competition at the school or city level to encourage athletics as a career among children? What do you think can be done to improve the situation?
In my view, we need a conscious focus on a multivariate sports policy that aligns state, markets and societal interests. We must move away from expecting the government to do everything. For sports to grow in a healthy and sustainable manner, we need the sports business models to grow and solve a number of problems. We also need to encourage and incentivise societal participation in meaningful ways. Sports For All and Sports By All must both be goals of public policy.
Sports policy must also look at things such as urban design, semi-urban and rural infrastructure, accessibility, participant safety, educational development of athletes, career risk management and key aspects such as mental health and livelihood support. It is fine to be result-oriented and to crave for medals. There is a role for that. However, results are merely outcomes of processes and systems and if we really care about the role of sport in our society we must think widely and act smartly.