How does this TOP spin?

Though the name of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme does suggest Olympics and medals there, the accent of late seems to have been on the Asian Games and, to a lesser extent, the Commonwealth Games. It sounds odd to have a scheme targeting an Olympic medal and yet not having enough athletes chosen for the global event while packing it with Asian Games probables.

How well can the Minister of State for Youth Affairs and Sports (I/C), Col. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, bat on the TOP wicket? He has already increased the monthly stipend of those in the scheme.   -  PTI

Is the Target Olympic Podium (TOP) Scheme meant to support sportspersons for the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games?

Though the name of the scheme does suggest Olympics and medals there, the accent of late seems to have been on the Asian Games and, to a lesser extent, the Commonwealth Games. It sounds odd to have a scheme targeting an Olympic medal and yet not having enough athletes chosen for the global event while packing it with Asian Games probables.

Of the 152 sportspersons named last month by the Union Sports Ministry to receive financial assistance through the TOP Scheme, a large majority has been chosen only for the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games or both. Several badminton players and shooters, among others, have not been categorised at all but it is being taken for granted that the top stars would be available for all the three games.

The TOP Scheme is the successor to OPEX (Operation Excellence) that was launched by the then Sports Minister, Ajay Maken, in March, 2011 in preparation for the London Olympics. London proved a huge success for a country that did not have a decent past in the quadrennial games. India doubled its three-medal tally of Beijing in 2012 but it ended up with just two medals in Rio, those won by P. V. Sindhu (badminton silver) and Sakshi Malik (wrestling bronze).

A crore of rupees was spent over two years on discus thrower Vikas Gowda, but he disappointed at the Rio Olympics.   -  PTI

 

Neither in 2011 nor in 2014 when TOP Scheme-1 was launched towards moulding potential medal winners in the Rio Games, did the question of an immediate Asian Games or Commonwealth Games come up.

It is logical to presume that whatever be the preparations for the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games next year, those games would provide a natural course of progression towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But then there can be little logic in making resources available from the National Sports Development Fund (NSDF) or from the more routine head of “assistance to NSFs” through the TOP Scheme for these two games. Why not directly from the NSDF or from the Sports Authority of India (SAI) as had been the practice in the past?

TOP was started with an idea of supporting “elite athletes” towards their specialised training in preparation for the Olympics. The idea was to provide additional funding towards “customised training” at institutes having “world-class facilities”, among other things.

How to make it really tops!

According to the 2017 guidelines conveyed to the athletes, training under “reputed coaches”, participation in international competitions and purchase of equipment could be funded by TOP. An athlete could engage physical trainer, mental trainer, physiotherapist etc. under the scheme. The scheme would not deprive an athlete of his/her right to avail of the facilities being provided by the Government through any other scheme, it was stated.

Pertinently, athletes were being advised that a preferred option could be to undergo training as a group, which is what most of the track and field athletes do. But if it is group training, why have personal coaches? And why have funding from TOP; why not just get a proposal sanctioned by SAI to have a camp in India, with a set of foreign coaches, physiotherapists, doctors etc?

Though the idea behind individual funding may have been to encourage training abroad for several months, coupled with participation in competitions, the stipulation of the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) that 85 per cent of national camp attendance would be mandatory for selection to Indian teams, runs contrary to the basic theme of TOP.

When money and performance didn't go hand in hand

Athletes were not fully familiar with either the format of TOP or how to go about getting assistance from the scheme when it was started. There was much confusion, delays and bickering because of this communication gap in 2015 and 2016. Proposals were held up, athletes alleged, for months together, thus scuttling their plans. The ministry could not be faulted since government procedures had to be followed. When pressure mounted close to the Rio Games, the ministry agreed to release as much as 90 per cent of the total amount sanctioned up front.

The scheme suffered in 2015 and last year for want of a clear-cut selection policy. Too many athletes, especially in athletics, were picked early — the mistake is being repeated this year — without apparently assessing their potential or their prevailing form. This happened with the women’s 4x400 probables with as many as 11 being chosen initially in 2015, part of that list being picked under the ‘development’ batch for the Tokyo Olympics.

That there were athletes who had not even run a 400m race in 2015 who managed to get into that list of beneficiaries, reflected poorly on the selection process and on the wisdom and clout of the Elite Athlete Identification Committee. That such athletes were later dropped from the scheme mattered little.

Private players in a public cause

A top athlete like discus thrower Vikas Gowda, based in the US, eighth place in 2012, was given an assistance of nearly one crore rupees over two years based only on his Olympic qualification and without verifying whether he was fit or not. Eventually, he did not compete in any known meet before coming to Rio and failing miserably.

To be fair to the committees, then in 2015-16 as well as now, it must be noted that the Sports Ministry has a major say in the selection process along with the National Sports Federations (NSFs). The federations look to have more clout than before right now.

Jinson Johnson (above) and Tintu Luka (below) may be added soon to the list of beneficiaries.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

 

Should TOP be the avenue through which, say, a relay team should be trained in Poland for three or four months prior to the Olympics, with limited participation in ‘C’ grade competitions in that region, as was done last year and as may be done next year for the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games?

“Such assistance can easily be given from the routine funding that the ministry gives for similar training-cum-competition programme before major multi-discipline games,” said an athletics coach familiar with the ministry’s normal assistance pattern.

The strange part of such camps, from the days Indian athletes started going for long-term preparations to places like Kiev and Yalta, Ukraine, had been the coaches were foreigners hired by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) already based in India for months or years, plus a few Indian coaches working as assistants.

It was yet called “specialised training”!

Could it be because of better facilities and or climate at foreign locations? Ukraine offered nothing much by way of facilities, according to athletes and coaches who attended camps in Kiev and Yalta in the past. Spala, Poland, where a 38-member Indian athletics squad was sent last year, reportedly had good facilities, but the end result in Rio was poorer than in the past. A surprise visit by a team from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) seemed to have upset the schedule of the Rio-bound Indian athletes in Spala in June last year.

One added incentive to get among the TOP beneficiaries could be the Rs. 50,000-per-month stipend that Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore has announced for the elite athletes shortly after he took over last month.

Read: Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore Interview

“This is going to be the only difference (from a routinely-funded training programme) and also a major attraction for getting into the TOP list,” said an official.

Should TOP funds be made available to professional tennis and badminton players to compete in tournaments abroad bringing such schedule in as part of their preparations for multi-discipline games? This is another nagging question that has been coming up regularly. The availability of the leading tennis players for the Asian Games is also invariably uncertain, leading to controversies.

 

There is also the question of the stipend. Players earning millions, mainly in tennis and badminton, getting a stipend of Rs. 50,000 a month sounds illogical to say the least. Conversely, should they be taking it at all?

On the topic of stipend, it is interesting to recall that at the time TOP became operational in March, 2015, a monthly allowance of Rs. 30,000 per athlete was announced. It was presumably for dietary supplements and “other miscellaneous expenses” though the ministry pays separately for supplements to all campers.

That amount dramatically changed to Rs. 1 lakh per month by the time the Sports Ministry listed its “achievements” in June, 2017.

This is what it said about the one-lakh stipend in its list of achievements in 2016-2017 in a PIB release on June 3 this year:

Olympic Preparation: Out of pocket stipend of Rs. 1,00,000 per month was sanctioned to athletes while in India and $100 per day during Olympics for their critical needs.”

Who all got this one-lakh-a-month windfall, if at all someone got it? For how many months? Did it cover just the TOP athletes or was it applicable to all national campers? Did all those who competed in Rio get an allowance of 100 dollars per day? Speculations on these questions will continue until the Sports Ministry brings out the details.

It is unfair to restrict the current stipend of Rs. 50,000 a month to just the TOP athletes. If team games like hockey and kabaddi are not being included in the TOP list, then these players will be deprived of the allowance. Men’s hockey and men and women’s kabaddi teams won gold medals in the last Asian Games. Hockey was part of TOP last year though the sport does not require an individual-based approach towards specialised training.

Athletes are being told their performance would be monitored and reviewed and if found wanting they could be excluded from the scheme. Athletes will also be put through a rigorous anti-doping regimen before being finally cleared for competitions. Last year the list had as many as 167 sportspersons who benefited to the tune of Rs 22.24 crore, out of which Rs 4.54 crore was released by the NSDF and the rest through SAI.

This year after an initial batch of 45, another 107 athletes were named last month. At least another 16 track and field athletes comprising the two 4x400 relay team probables plus 800m runners Jinson Johnson and Tintu Luka, were expected to be added to the list, bringing up the athletics component to 35.

As pressure mounts on the federations, SAI and the committee, the TOP list may swell to 250 or more. The selection committee needs to have more say than the Ministry/SAI and the NSFs in picking the beneficiaries. Experts need to be consulted before a meeting is convened. At least in measurable disciplines panel members have to assess if contenders are within reach of stipulated standards. Right now, staff appointed by the government is tasked with collating data. More often than not the federations’ wishes prevail.