Skip links

Is India the sleeping giant of world sport?

If the size of a nation’s population is an indicator of the talent pool for elite sporting success, then India should be alongside China on the Olympic medal rankings. But it is not. Whilst China consistently appears in the top three of medal rankings, India is painfully absent from the top 20, hovering around 50th spot for the majority of its Olympic history. This to the increasing discontent of government and a selection of proud Indian billionaires.

I had a long-held desire to travel to India since I was first caught by the travel and exploration bug during the late 1980s. Like it said in a recent advertising campaign to lure tourists to the country – ‘the thousand colours of India’ had a magical attraction on me. It took another two decades for me to get there, where the multitude of colours and sometimes shocking contrast between beauty and poverty got me hooked on the country.

Six months before the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games (CG) I got my first dose of India, speaking at a conference that celebrated and debated the upcoming event. It was going to be the biggest sporting event ever to be hosted by India. On the dedicated Games website, it was noted by the organisers that “hosting a sporting event at a scale such as the Commonwealth Games is a matter of international prestige for the country, and is bound to boost brand India”. They (the CG organisers) further argued that “improved infrastructure and appearance of the host city, and global media exposure will serve to transform the image of the city” and that “another legacy of the Games will be the social, economic and physical regeneration of Delhi. The Games will help to boost urban renewal, create jobs, increase investment and transform the landscape of the city”.

Today, in 2018, those who ran the event and were responsible for its legacy will probably have come to the realisation that those objectives were laudable, yet completely out of sync with the conditions that such objectives can be achieved in. Delhi and its governors found out the hard way that “the Games will [not] leave behind dramatically improved, world-class sports facilities that generations of Indian sportspersons can use in the future”. And also, that “the establishment of an Olympic-size pool as well as a gym in the Delhi University will [not] boost sports among the youth of Delhi” ([not] added by me). The final and overriding objective for hosting the Games, that “… the legacy of the XIX Commonwealth Games 2010 Delhi will be to boost the sports culture as a part of the daily life of every Indian, particularly the youth”, made me realise that the Commonwealth Games turned out to be the cart before the horse for Delhi and for India. It further sparked my desire and ambition to not only study sport infrastructure and delivery systems in developing economies, but it also made me realise that India was the perfect ‘happening in real life’ case study.

One of the prime conditions that is required for a major international event such as the Commonwealth Games, to achieve ambitious objectives such as those formulated by the Delhi organisers, is to have a vibrant community sport culture. A culture that is enabled by another condition: basic community sport infrastructure so that opportunities to play are abundant and accessible for all, but in particular for the young people. Beyond a natural desire to play and compete in purpose built facilities, one needs a large cohort of coaches who have received proper training and who can advance their skills via a well-developed coach accreditation track. Finally, if a nation is to advance its elite sporting success, it is also important that the young and talented can test their skills in well organised competitions – some of which played and paid at the professional level so that it can be watched on multi-media platforms by (paying) spectators.

I have been back to India many times since 2010. One has to realise that although India is one nation, it consists of 29 States and 7 Territories, all in their own right could be (and in some ways probably are) separate nations. If the Delhi Commonwealth Games had long lasting outcomes, than at least it ignited a burning ambition for India to be successful on the world stage. The great challenges that came with organising the event also created a sense of realism amongst a small group of government insiders – that you can’t just expect that hosting a major event, hiring some foreign coaches and building a pool or a biomechanics lab automatically leads to Olympic success.

Greatly facilitated by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (@dfat) and Austrade (@AustradeIndia ) there has been an influx of foreign experts aiming to help build India’s elite sporting system(s), including myself and a number of my colleagues, and some State governments have started to realise that sport (participation) system foundations come before advancing the elite sport development and delivery system. Our work with the State government of Kerala (population 36 million) started with thinking about how Kerala athletes could win more medals at National and International events. However, our Kerala colleagues came to realise that working to create participation opportunities at the grassroots level was equally, if not more important. We are now about to start working with 50 former Kerala athletes every year who will receive training in various disciplines such as community event management, local facility management, foundational coaching, and marketing communication, before they enter into a guaranteed government job in local sport. The sporting system is built from the ground up rather than from the top down. Of course, working at the foundation does not stop one working (and translating knowledge) at the elite end of the spectrum, but for the system to grow as a whole, the young represent the future. A hugely important side effect of this approach is that it grows the skills base and employment opportunities in a nascent industry where parents still are reluctant to let their kids play sport because of the perceived lack of economic opportunity.

In the State of Punjab we are working on another project. Here we are focusing on young coaches across a number of (high potential) sports for Punjab, including hockey, athletics, volleyball, football and wrestling. These coaches have had basic training in India, but can benefit from more advanced coach education, and importantly, are young and open to approaching the coaching profession from a less traditional authoritarian perspective.  They learn how to better enthuse, engage and even market high level participation in sport to young Indians and how to use up to date sport science to manage training load, recovery and peak performance.

We have also engaged with the commercial part of the rapidly developing sport industry in India. During the past decade, multiple professional sporting leagues have been set up, to start competing with the once monopolistically powerful sport of cricket. Although cricket still rules the waves in India, kabaddi, football, hockey, tennis and badminton, to name a few, have all started professional competitions with various levels of commercial success. Our engagement with the owners and organisers of the Mumbai Marathon – Procam – has been an eye-opening success and delight. Procam (@procamrunning) worked with our team of 30+ student researchers from Mumbai-based ISSM (International Institute of Sport Management@info_iism )to collect insights from marathon participants of all ages about their history of sport and physical activity participation. It provided us with a first insight into the physical activity behaviour of predominantly middle-class Indians, and it allowed us to triangulate this information with data from our other State based projects.

There is so much more to tell and so much more to say about India, but for now, can we answer the question if India is the sleeping giant of world sport? Some early signs speak to the affirmative. Sports other than cricket are breaking spectator ground and elite sport facilities are being constructed to host them. Although there is no direct correlation between passive spectatorship and active participation, watching sport does educate young and middle aged Indians about the beauty and pleasure of engaging in sport. It also generates economic activity in and around sport that allows for reinvestment and employment. Our own work as a group of University researchers and consultants, even when this is at a small scale, bodes well for a broader realisation that the development of coaches, community facilities and participation will help build a sporting culture. This in turn will increase the pool of better prepared talented youngsters who in the near future, might become more competitive at the international level. However, as many other nations that have tried to ‘buy’ themselves sporting success by importing coaches and naturalising elite athletes have found out the hard way, there are no shortcuts to elite sporting success. There is no substitute for a culture of active community participation in sport, and where the wider community knows the benefits of and therefore practices a physically active lifestyle. If Indian policy makers can find a way to mobilise large cohorts of its massive population base, then indeed, a giant will awaken.