Kiren Rijiju: Return of sports will mean return of normalcy

“I have already spoken to all NSFs and told them to prepare a roadmap for competitive events, possibly September onwards,” says Union Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju in this exclusive chat.

“Athletes at different levels of training need different levels of motivation to stay with the game. Our priority was to ensure that our elite athletes, especially those bound for Olympics next year, could be kept in top form, and all their requirements were fulfilled,” says Union Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju.

As Union Sports Minister, Kiren Rijiju has had a hectic time, keeping the morale of the sportsmen high in these tough times. “I am available for sportsmen all the time,” he has maintained, and he has indeed found time to address their concerns.

The focus has been to motivate the athletes and ensure they keep themselves in the best possible frame of mind to compete at any level. Rijiju has held regular interactions with sportsmen and their coaches, apart from discussing the way forward with various administrators.

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He has promised to resume sporting activities across the country in the next couple of months even though realistically it may yet take a longer time. A fitness freak, the Sports Minister speaks to Sportstar on a few aspects of what lies ahead as far as sporting activities in India is concerned.

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What have been the challenges resulting from COVID-19?

The biggest challenge has been to secure the health and safety of our athletes and coaches during these trying times. Therefore, one of the first decisions we took was to suspend all training and send our athletes back to their homes. The only athletes who stayed back were the men’s and women’s hockey teams at our National Centre of Excellence in Bengaluru and a few of our Olympic-bound athletes in NCOE Patiala. So, we ensured that these two centres were completely safe and sanitised. Entry of any outsider was banned on both these campuses and SOPs (standard operating procedures) were put in place to ensure that all social-distancing norms, cleanliness and hygiene were followed in both the centres. The athletes who went home also needed to continue with their training, so we started online training for all elite, junior and sub-junior athletes, which is still on.

What has been the government’s approach to resumption of competitive sport? When do you think it can be resumed?

We are in the Unlock 2 phase, and things are slowly opening up in all spheres. However, the situation is still unpredictable. It is tough to say when we may actually be able to resume competitive sport. But I have already spoken to all NSFs (national sports federations) and told them to prepare a roadmap for competitive events, possibly September onwards. These will be events conducted in controlled atmosphere and we can’t have any spectators. These events are important not just to bolster the morale of the athletes, but also to create a sense of normalcy. If sports begins, it gives the message that things are slowly returning to normal.

The minister keeps himself fit with a few yoga exercises. “I interacted with athletes across various sporting disciplines through an online video conference, I found most of them to be very positive,” he says. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement / Paras Mendiratta

 

What efforts has the Sports Ministry made to reach out to sportsmen and provide them support?

Once the on-field training of athletes was stopped, we needed to ensure that our athletes would still remain fit and mentally motivated. Athletes at different levels of training need different levels of motivation to stay with the game. Our priority was to ensure that our elite athletes, especially those bound for Olympics next year, could be kept in top form, and all their requirements were fulfilled. The Target Olympic Podium Scheme mapped 107 athletes and para-athletes for equipment and resource support. 43 athletes raised requests for equipment and other resources, and SAI (Sports Authority of India) was able to deliver it to most of the athletes despite the lockdown.

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For our athletes in the sub-junior, junior and developmental groups, we organised a series of workshops, which is still underway. The Sports Authority of India is organising the Athlete and Coaches Education Programme in 21 sporting disciplines, where top coaches of the sport are holding online training session for athletes across the country [while] stationed in their homes. Online studios have been set up in all SAI’s National Centres of Excellence from where top coaches, many of them Arjuna and Dronacharya awardees, are taking their classes. It’s a two-way video session, so even the coaches can see the trainees as they practise. A group of high-performance managers are overseeing these classes and keeping track of the progress of each athlete. To ensure the mental wellness of athletes, online sessions were conducted by sports pschycologists, who kept the athletes motivated.

How have the NSFs cooperated with the ministry?

I have been in touch with all the NSFs. I held online meetings with representatives of more than 40 NSFs and the president and general secretary of the Indian Olympic Association during the period of lockdown. The NSFs and the Sports Ministry have been on the same page regarding all key decisions regarding the resumption of sports. All decisions have been taken in consultation with the NSFs.

Rijiju engages himself in a game of badminton. He has always maintaned, “I am available for sportsmen all the time,” and indeed found time to address their concerns. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement / Paras Mendiratta

 

Do you believe it has been the most depressing phase for Indian sportsmen and how to come out of it?

or a sportsperson, his or her game, the on-field training is the core of their life. To be deprived of that for a period as long as this leads to a sense of frustration. For our Olympic-bound athletes, the situation has been tougher because they were perhaps in their best form or working towards their best form when the pandemic hit. The sudden closure of all training has hit them both physically and mentally. However, when I interacted with athletes across various sporting disciplines through an online video conference, I found most of them to be very positive. All of them took on in-room fitness regimens and tried to stay in form. This shows that they have handled the situation very well. I am confident that as they go back to on-field training, matters will improve. The ministry is standing firmly behind them to provide any assistance they may need on this road to resumption.

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Are you game for resuming sports without spectators? How much would that help sports overall?

I see that as the only way forward in the immediate future. I think it is important to make a start. We have to be innovative with sports events. If we can’t have spectators, we can surely beam the events on TV and on social media. I have already discussed with the NSFs and asked them to come up with plans of some domestic leagues around end of August or September onwards. I think to resume sporting events is crucial for the overall morale of our athletes and also to bring about a sense of normalcy in the country. Resumption of sports events will also empower the economic side of the sports ecosystem, and that is also very important right now.