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Beyond the gold and glory

Given the socio-economic diversity of India, the only way to change the game for sports inclusion is to institutionalize and legitimize sports at the very basic level, enabling an entire sporting ecosystem to work in the favor of those who need it the most.

As Indians the world over cheered the historic win of India at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, the record-breaking 7 medals brought with them a lot for us as a nation to think about. The conversation revolved around inspirational stories of the Indian athletes from humble backgrounds fighting the odds, overcoming socio-economic challenges, defying set gender norms, fighting hard to excel at their respective sport, eventually donning the blue jersey and winning distinctions and accolades for the country at arguably the most coveted podium in the sporting world – the Olympics. 


But what next? How are we taking the learnings of these athletes’ journeys and using it to blaze new pathways for future generations of athletes? 


Once the excitement around their accomplishments diminished, as it inevitably would, we find ourselves where we started  – a nation with no real sustainable strategy on how to nurture and hone world-class talent. If India’s representation at major sporting events has taught us anything it is that rural areas, often those mired with socio-economic inequality are also powerhouses of sporting talent and immense potential. 


What we see so often is the singular factor that seems to separate those who are and are not presented with the chance to don the blue jersey, is nothing but opportunity and access. It all comes down to creating a sporting culture that can then eventually develop into a vision for social change and development. While it can be understood that this is the ideal way forward, it can also be rightfully argued that this approach is more centered around sport for excellence rather than using sport as a tool for development. 


But what if sport could straddle both sides of the argument – be a tool for social impact but also push for sporting excellence, thereby changing the course of the lives of so many marginalized communities? The only way one can see this happening is with involvement at an institutional level – starting with governance at the grassroot to the highest levels. 


If we look at a state like Jharkhand, for example, we see sporting excellence being born out of rather challenging socio-economic and conflict ridden fragile conditions. The state has produced some of India’s most celebrated athletes in recent times, especially young women and girls. From Salima Tete to Nikki Pradhan, from Sumrai Tete to Deepika Kumari who can be counted amongst the top 5 archers of the world today. This list only seems to be growing as the years go by, as more and more athletes from Jharkhand join the global sporting ranks. 


But it is important to note here that no matter what factors one attributes to success in sports – be it an enhanced and/or increased investment in sport or pushing for more robust advocacy around sport – nothing could even closely compare to the effectiveness of building sporting capacities and capabilities than a robust governance model around sports in states. And that is where the effectiveness of Jharkhand’s Sport for Harnessing the Aspirations of Youth (SAHAY) initiative, for example, plays a key role in enhancing those capacities at the grassroot level. 


What an initiative like this has done is officialize and democratize sport down to even the panchayat level (the lowest level of governance in India) by involving the state administrative machinery in every level of sporting activity, thereby also enhancing and furthering local sporting leagues and making it easier for those in backward regions (in Jharkhand’s case, that would mean primarily indigenous communities) to take up sport in a serious manner. 


It is common knowledge that local leagues provide an invaluable opportunity for home-grown sportspersons to rub shoulders with the best international players, thereby increasing their exposure and tactical ability. And yet, in India, there are not more than 25-30 states with their own football leagues, and even fewer for women’s football – a sport that is the easiest to play, with little or no infrastructure as a base for its execution.  


Another reason why this is important is that an initiative like SAHAY, for example, can also aid in preventing the age-old technique of ‘throwing sport at a problem,’ a technique often used to divert the attention of youth, especially those from marginalised communities by engaging them in sport (the often criticised ‘Midnight Basketball’ in the US is a great example of this). The issue often seen is that once athletes are no longer competing or have reached the pinnacle of their performance, there looms a huge risk of them falling right back into the cycle of poverty – the same life, the same socio-economic challenges and in conflict zones, the looming risk of taking up arms and becoming anti-state actors. Therefore, the road to sport for development or social impact needs to be well thought out and sustainable. 


While we talk about a sports culture in countries, we often have little understanding of what it really means – more often than not, it is considered as just an interest in sport among communities leading to high performing players being represented on national and international podiums, when in actuality if taken seriously, can contribute immensely to the physical, mental and socio-economic wellbeing of not just the most talented and exemplary athletes but also those who could not make it to the top, the latter of which is actually where sports governance needs to set its eyes. 


A sporting culture would include going beyond just providing jobs at public service undertakings and other government jobs – states need to work on an ecosystem around sports which includes a life beyond just sporting performance, but that which can involve an athlete in its auxiliary functions as well, such as coaching, academic courses for sports, sports medicine, sports nutrition, mental health for sports, etc. 


If there is a buy-in from various stakeholders – the government, the private sector, community organisations as well as the players themselves – the above would not just strengthen scouting for talent and sports in India in general, but would also help leverage priorities set by the government as well as adhering to so many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations. Given the socio-economic diversity of India, the only way to change the game for sports inclusion is to institutionalize and legitimize sports at the very basic level, enabling an entire sporting ecosystem to work in the favor of those who need it the most.

Shahana Joshi is the head of Sports Partnerships at the Policy and Development Advisory Group (PDAG), where she works on bringing on board and engaging with public and private sector stakeholders to promote sport for social impact in India. In her spare time she likes to read, watch historical documentaries, exercise her vocal chords and is currently attempting to perfect her golf swing.


The blog was originally published here.