Of School Sports and 'Sporting Culture'

Padma Prakash

Watching the lavish pomp and ceremony of the inaugural of the Khelo India School Games 2018 two thoughts popped up, one somewhat frivolous and the other might well be rhetorical. Why on earth were star athletes of yesteryears perambulating the stadium uncomfortably crunched into small golf carts? To see PT Usha, who not so long ago gracefully flew down so many international tracks now barely able to crouch in that inappropriate vehicle wasn’t a pretty sight. The second question, that one hopes is not rhetorical is this: do the Games signify, at last, the government’s intention to seriously and genuinely adopt a broad based initiative to develop sports talent in the country?

For, while sports has always been an area of note in the central government’s sweeping plans for development over successive decades, this is perhaps the first time that attention has been on creating large stocks of sportsmen and women rather than focusing only on individual scholarships and awards. Have the voices of an entire generation of sports administrators and commentators, in particular the inimitable A.F.S Talyarkhan, at last been heard?

The Khelo India School Games (KISG), the first of its kind, may well be heralding a new approach to sports development in India. The Games aims to not just showcase talent but also spot potential athletes. KISG is just one of the initiatives of the Khelo India programme set up to spot and develop new sporting talent. The programme is aimed "to revive the sports culture in India at the grass-root level by building a strong framework for all sports". These Games are to be an annual feature as will be other engagements like the Khelo India Games for Women and the Khelo India Rural Games.

India’s engagement with sports, especially in international arenas, has been patchy and sporadic, with stars shining briefly and disappearing in short order. The numbers of individual athletes has grown in recent times spanning a number of sports. Especially heartening have been the successes of youth teams as in U-17 cricket and hockey and the growing success of women in cricket and hockey. How are these successes need to be sustained and nurtured?

While India has had a sports policy since decades, it has never amounted to much in terms of implementation. In 2013 the department of sports circulated a concept note inviting comments. The note for the first time recognised critical issues in sports. For one, sports was not the first choice of careers for youth because of low rewards and no safety net in the case of injury or drop out. Second, the bench strength in most sports is small which meant that there are no second string participants to replace injured and below mark participants in sports meets. Third, skill sets of athletes lag behind any other country with poor outdated coaching. Fourth, a severe shortfall in investment with hardly any inputs from corporate entities.

The Indian government spent less than 2 per cent per capita of GDP on sports. The paper suggested long term strategies for skill development of talented sportspeople, pointing to an urgent need for block and district level competitions as well as well organised national level school meets. In order to encourage youth to continue to pursue sports it urged the government to expand employment and educational opportunities for them.

This note was followed by the National Sports Development Bill, that has unfortunately disappeared in the forest of legislations tabled but not discussed or passed in Parliament. KISG, one of the recommendations in the Bill seems however to have taken off.

Will this by itself take India on a growth path in sports? That is hardly likely. For, while India seems to be industriously setting up structures, rules and regulations, the implementation of rules and application of regulations are still haphazard. Holding spectacular sports meet does not necessarily mean that the meet will be professionally run, selections are above board and equipment to mark times, heights and lengths are accurate and records are scrupulously maintained.

The point is that while there is much enthusiasm about developing sports talent and arguably genuine interest among a good many administrators, coaches, etc, radical changes need to take place to make India’s sports organisations run efficiently and transparently. The government’s motley collection of measures to encourage participation, viz, making sports part of the curriculum, conferring five or ten marks at the highschool leaving exams, making sports participation mandatory for all students, are all being tested and if the evidence available is to be trusted, are not yielding expected results. Unfortunately we do not have much information or data on students’ engagement (or lack of it) in sports. The 2013 Concept Note in making recommendations on skill development in sports, cited just one research study, carried out by the National Skill Development Corporation in collaboration with Ernst & Young to pinpoint the skill gaps in the Sports Sector, a study that the Note acknowledges had not been published (in 2013) and likely remains unpublished.

A recent example of the kind of work we need to undertake is the US report commissioned by the Women’s Sport Foundation on Teen Sport in America: Why Participation Matters is an example of the kind of work we need to undertake. The report sampled 14,049 12 grade (16-18years) students. The report shows that even in the US with its emphatic sports culture, 25 per cent of boys and 39 per cent of girls did not play a single sport in school. Surprisingly attrition rates are high too, especially among girls, relatively disadvantaged and racial and ethnic minorities.

Notwithstanding the slew of policy documents, budgetary support has not seen a significant rise over the last two years. The Union Budget 2018, just tabled in Parliament shows only a small 30 per cent rise in budget allocations over last year for the Khelo India programme. Given that sports was transferred to the concurrent list from the state list of the Indian Constitution as recently as 2016, a sharper rise in federal government spending on sports was expected. (Both state and federal governments are responsible for subjects on the concurrent list.) Because interest in developing sports is unevenly spread across states the central government has to play an exemplary role in the matter of budget allocation, so that the states are encouraged to tweak their spending on sports upwards.

While sports spectatorship is growing well, especially with the wide spread of television, cable network and other programme providers, we don’t see a rising interest in stepping into the field in competitive sports. ‘Sporting culture’ seems an illusory concept. While the 2013 discussion note referred to earlier talks of ‘reviving’ India’s sporting culture, whether there existed such a culture is a moot point. States like Kerala, West Bengal and Goa do have historically strong traditions in particular sports.

On the other hand, perhaps the issue needs to be posed differently. Was there a sporting ethos surrounding traditional sports such as kabaddi, kho-kho, malkhamb, kushti, etc.,well before modern sports began to be played here? Were regular tournaments held? Was participation open to all castes and classes? Did the elite frown on one of their own participating in these games? What role did class, caste play in preventing the emergence of a sporting culture? We do not have any answers yet.

A great deal of exciting work has been undertaken on cricket in colonial times; as also of the early years of hockey and of the combination of circumstances that led to the grounding of football as an ‘Indian’ game. Eminent scholars have explored the influence of sports on the history and culture of colonial and post colonial India. Yet, contemporary sporting behaviour patterns and proclivities and their interlinks with society and culture continues to be under-researched

Fashioning a sports ethos and culture in India requires broad based and deep seated plans, programmes and initiatives tailored to address particular issues, supported by a nuanced understanding of sports and society and culture. We need to be able to identify and understand the issues that are preventing the emergence of sporting talent. The paucity of data and literature in this field has to be corrected urgently. One can only hope that the plans for sports development will also include scholarship on sociological perspectives on sports as well as historical studies.


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