One August afternoon, a large number of youngsters, all aged between 12 and 19, are going hard at practice. Inside the auditorium, there is a thud as a girl, maybe 13 or 14 years old, slams another to the mat. To the left, a trainer explains grappling techniques to one of his wards, while a handful of boys climb ropes up to at least 12 feet, all on the power of their own limbs. To the right, pairs of boys and girls take measured swings at each other — with protective gear, of course — in a ring, while others spar outside it.
The auditorium — the combat sports hall — is part of a 42-acre campus nestled in the red-sand hills of Vijaynagar, a town in northern Karnataka that bears the name of the Vijayanagara empire of Krishnadevaraya, who ruled most of south India in the early 16th century from Hampi, just 30km away.
The Inspire Institute of Sport, built and run by JSW Sports, is located in the Bellary-Hospet iron ore belt that is dominated by the JSW Group. Adjacent to the JSW Group’s Vidyanagar township, it is India’s first privately funded high-performance sports training institute. The aim: to send the country’s young athletes to the Olympic Games.
Parth Jindal, IIS’s founder and the director of JSW Sports, says the spark was Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal in the 10m air rifle event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “It had been countless years since ‘Jana Gana Mana’ had even played at the Olympic Games. But in 2008, on that day, in Beijing, it played, and we all cried. The dream of IIS is to make that moment repeat itself numerous times over and we can feel proud that India is not only rising as an economic powerhouse, but is rising as a sporting powerhouse,” he said at the inauguration ceremony on India’s 72nd Independence Day.
The aim of the IIS is to create an environment where no talented athlete is deprived of success because of a lack of resources, infrastructure or training support, Jindal said. So, the JSW Sports team planned extensively and conducted on-ground research sufficient to build an institute such as this.
“We visited some of the top facilities in the world, got an understanding of how they went about the business of producing elite athletes. Yes, we have learned from the best. We’ve tried to incorporate all the best practices. And we continue to pick on what’s happening globally so we can incorporate it into IIS… [I] wouldn’t like to compare, but I would like to think that we are headed in the direction of being amongst the best high-performance training centres the world over,” said Mustafa Ghouse, chief executive officer of JSW Sports.
Facilities and faculty
The construction of the institute began in 2014 and the 42,000 sq. ft combat sports hall, the 16,000 sq. ft strength and conditioning centre and the hostels — all state-of the art — were completed in April 2017. The boxers, judokas and wrestlers immediately began training at the institute, while construction of the athletics track — approved by the International Association of Athletics Federations — and the sports medicine centre continued and was completed earlier this year. The formal inauguration followed on August 15. The track and field programme is expected to begin by September, while an aquatics centre approved by FINA, the world body that administers water sports, is scheduled to be operational by 2019.
“Together with the world-class personnel that we have recruited, we believe we are on our way to becoming one of the best institutes in the world,” said Rushdee Warley, IIS’s CEO, extolling the diversity and abilities of its 40 staff members from eight countries.
“It’s easy to build buildings. But you have to fill those buildings up with the right people, with the right knowledge… This facility has all the verticals — sports science, sports psychology, strength and conditioning — and all those aspects are absolutely crucial when it comes to success at the highest level. It’s all about a holistic way of preparing an athlete, and that’s exactly what is happening in this facility,” said Bindra, who is a member of IIS’s advisory board along with 12-time Grand Slam doubles winner Mahesh Bhupathi and cricket great Sourav Ganguly, among others.
The IIS’s trainers began scouting for prospective athletes in the months leading up to April 2017. They visited Patiala’s National Institute of Sports and the Sports Authority of India training grounds in Bengaluru, in addition to state and national-level junior and sub-junior meets and tournaments across the country, picking about 120 sportspersons from 14 different states.
But the training is not everything. As the trainers and tutors say, the athletes need to develop holistically and, hence, the IIS developed its own academic programme to suit the various requirements of the students. “The primary objective to start this learning programme is the athletes also need to have higher avenues for further education, along with sports. It is essential that the athletes are empowered to go out in the world and present themselves confidently,” said Khushboo Kakkad, who heads the academic programme.
The athletes in classes 6-10 are enrolled with the National Institute of Open Schooling, while those in classes 11-12 study either under the NIOS or are enrolled with schools in their home towns, pursuing correspondence courses with the help of their tutors at the IIS. The college-age athletes similarly are enrolled in correspondence courses.
For Warley, it is very important that every athlete who walks through the IIS’s doors leaves a much better person. “We believe that a holistic person, which includes education, life skills, is going to become a better athlete overall,” he said.
Athletics head coach Antony Yaich talks about one of JSW Sports’ biggest successes. “We already have a great champion like Neeraj Chopra. He’s doing great so far… In a couple of years, he might be the best one in javelin (in the world), and I want to do the same for sprint, long jump, triple jump, 400m. So, this is something that we can do here and I do really believe in the potential of Indian athletes,” he said.
Will the institute be able to mould future Olympic champions? The IIS says it hopes to have an Olympian in 2020 in Tokyo, and has a bigger eye on the 2024 Paris Games.
The number 1.2 billion has been bandied about a lot. Despite having the second largest population in the world, India hasn’t been able to make a mark in world sports. But that’s not something to focus on, as the IIS amply implied. For now, India has its largest high-performance training centre in Vijaynagar — in the words of Parth Jindal — “built for India, by Indians, to help athletes make a mark at the global stage."
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