Anurag Thakur: ‘We’re changing the sporting ecosystem to make it conducive for our sportspersons’

Anurag Thakur foretells a meteoric rise on the world stage with more champion athletes emerging from the Khelo India system, as the Government focusses on modernising sports infrastructure at the grassroots while providing scientific training to young athletes, all with the help of technology.

Anurag Thakur believes India has enough world-class facilities to host events of international standards in numerous sporting disciplines.

Anurag Thakur believes India has enough world-class facilities to host events of international standards in numerous sporting disciplines. | Photo Credit: R. V. MOORTHY

Anurag Thakur foretells a meteoric rise on the world stage with more champion athletes emerging from the Khelo India system, as the Government focusses on modernising sports infrastructure at the grassroots while providing scientific training to young athletes, all with the help of technology.

Anurag Thakur is ‘happiest’ when he is spending time with the sports fraternity — fans and players. That time, though, is hard to come by as he straddles the dual responsibility as India’s Information & Broadcasting and Youth Affairs and Sports Minister.

Buoyed by India’s success at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, Thakur — an avid cricketer and a former head of the BCCI — believes that Indian sports will have even better days ahead. He foretells a meteoric rise on the world stage with more champion athletes emerging from the Khelo India system, as the Government focusses on modernising sports infrastructure at the grassroots while providing scientific training to young athletes, all with the help of technology.

He shares his plans in this exclusive interview with Sportstar.

Q. India has a packed international schedule with the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games (possibly next year) and the Paris Olympics in 2024… What are the areas of focus for your government to increase India’s medals tally at these events?

A. We have identified areas of improvement across disciplines so that India betters its performance in comparison to Tokyo 2020. Had things gone our way in a couple of more events like shooting and wrestling, we would have bagged a few more gold medals and been closer to the top 20 countries in Tokyo itself. Our job is to ensure that India’s athletes go to these competitions with the best possible preparation; my ministry is leaving no stone unturned in this endeavour. We have constituted an athlete-centric Mission Olympic Cell (MOC) under SAI to oversee all critical matters pertaining to our elite sportspersons. It comprises eminent Olympians and administrators. Recently, I chaired a meeting of the MOC and reviewed our preparation for the coming Commonwealth Games. I am hopeful that our 215-member contingent will make our nation proud and keep our Tricolour flying high.

Indian athletes still prefer to train abroad ahead of big events. Does the government have any plans to work with SAI and the NSFs to provide targeted training facilities ahead of big events?

Besides top-quality facilities and climatic conditions in these overseas locations, India’s athletes can train without the many distractions that can affect their training schedule. They also get good training or sparring partners in these locations. Having said that, we are expanding our training facilities in the National Centres of Excellence (NCoE) to make them world-class. SAI NCoE facilities across the country are home to a majority of our national camps. The highest standards of facilities such as sports science, sports conditioning, and sports medicine are made available to our national campers 24x7. A good chunk of athletes, who were a part of the previous Olympic contingent and are in the coming CWG contingent, have been products of SAI Traditional Schemes. SAI schemes have been at the forefront of identifying and grooming talent at the grassroots across India over the years.

Top athletes like Neeraj Chopra have suggested the need for regular top-class international meets in the country to generate interest. Can we expect India to hold Diamond League and events of such quality soon?

The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports backs the National Sports Federations (NSF) in the conduct of international competitions in the country. We are encouraging SAI and NSFs to develop professional capabilities to spearhead major sporting properties here in India. The Indian Open Badminton tournament and the India Open Boxing tournament are good examples of such events that ensure India’s athletes gain international competitive exposure in home events. We are also hosting the International Chess Olympiad for the first time in our history — from July 28-August 10 — and while gearing up for this event, we organised the Torch Relay for the Olympiad for the first time in the event’s history, which is a huge milestone. In October, we will also be hosting the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup after the huge success of the men’s edition in 2017. India has enough world-class infrastructure facilities to host events of international standards and in the next few years, we plan to become a destination for hosting such events.

At the recently held Civil Services Day, Rajasthan’s Churu district and Bishnupur from Manipur were awarded for “Promotion of Excellence in Sports”. How does the government plan to create accessible sports infrastructure in every district of the country?

Since the inception of the Khelo India Scheme, ₹2438.34 crore has been sanctioned by MYAS to develop 299 sports infrastructure projects across the country. These include world-class athletics tracks, hockey turfs, swimming pools, shooting ranges, and football grounds, not only in urban areas but also in rural and semi-urban areas. I’ll give you some examples. A football ground and a synthetic athletic track amounting to ₹5 crore have been sanctioned in the tribal region of Bastar in Chhattisgarh, a world-class cycling velodrome has been built in Guwahati, a state-of-the-art athletics track worth over ₹6 crore is being built in Pulwama district of Jammu & Kashmir. Never before could the youth of these regions dream of having access to such sporting facilities. With the Khelo India Scheme this has become a reality. The raw talent from rural and semi-urban areas will truly be visible with these developments.

Will private players be involved in this?

Be it for infrastructure or other aspects like performance management, equipment, strategising fundraising initiatives from corporates and forging partnerships with them to further the interests of the sporting community is of paramount importance to us. Today the sports, media & entertainment sectors are thriving with successful private corporations who are keen on associating with governmental initiatives. I believe moulding strategic partnerships with corporates to benefit the interests of the ministry and our sporting ecosystem will be the key to professionalise and transform sports in India. In the hugely successful last edition of the Khelo India Youth Games held in Haryana, we had corporate sponsors coming in for the first time wherein SBI, Punjab National Bank and Dream Sports Foundation came forward to actively promote and take part in the Khelo India Movement.

The National Games were last held in 2015. Do you think its absence has robbed Indian athletes of the chance to be better prepared for international meets?

As you would be aware, the Indian Olympic Association recently announced that after a gap of seven years, it will organise the National Games in Gujarat from September 27 to October 10. This is great news for our athletes, and I am glad that such an important event will be conducted at such a short notice.

Anurag Thakur says Indians need to work on improving levels of their “physical literacy.”

Anurag Thakur says Indians need to work on improving levels of their “physical literacy.” | Photo Credit: R. V. Moorthy

The Indian Railways has recently done away with concession travel norms for athletes. Do you think this will have an adverse impact on participation at national competitions, especially age-group meets?

This issue was raised to me by various sportspersons and even in Parliament by an Honourable MP. I have taken up the matter with our Railway Minister. The issue is being examined by officials of the Railway Ministry. We should hear from them soon and I am hopeful that the sportspersons' interests will be kept in mind.

What do you think the Khelo India Youth Games and Khelo India University Games have done for the betterment of Indian sports? Do you see these two events as a restructured version of the earlier School and University Games?

The Khelo India Youth Games, the Khelo India University Games and the Khelo India Winter Games have sparked a thirst among the youngsters across the country. The ₹6 lakh annual scholarship awarded to the deserving athletes from the Khelo India Youth Games is a big draw. There are close to 2,400-2,500 identified Khelo India athletes in the country right now across various sporting disciplines who are supported financially and otherwise in various academies. The idea behind the Khelo India University Games is to encourage India’s youth to balance sport and education and to revive University sport. None of these events resulted because the Government wanted a restructured version of the School or University competitions. It was the vision of the Honourable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi to give the youngsters a taste of international standard sporting tournaments and inspire them to strive for excellence for the nation.

National Education Policy 2020 has emphasised the importance of sports and physical activity to be a vital part of our education systems. Structural changes are in the pipeline to ensure sports-integrated learning will be undertaken in classrooms.

—  Anurag Thakur

The sports ministry has been using technology in terms of online portals, apps for schemes, rewards, and details of sports infrastructure and for scientific training. Do you think the tech advancement in India will also drive a sports revolution?

I am glad you are talking about this change because, for us, the priority is the ease of living for sportspersons and ensuring that they can focus on their training and not worry about other issues. PM Shri Modi has been a flagbearer for Digital India and how to integrate this into citizens’ lives. We have taken the initiative to develop an online portal wherein any athlete — present or former — will be able to apply for their cash awards, pension, or scholarships directly. Previously, this process used to take months and sometimes even years because of unnecessary delays, but now this amount will be disbursed through DBT without any verification from SAI or the Sporting Federations. We are constantly thinking about how to improve the ease of living for our sportspersons, and the launch of the portal was one more step in this regard.

When we talk about the promotion of sports, should we talk about the promotion of medals or the promotion of sports at the basic level? How can we get more Indian children to play? Does the government have plans to make sports an integral part of all school curricula?

Culturally, we must engage with physical activity at a very intimate level if we want to gain a presence on the global sporting stage. Across all sections of society, there is a need to have a heightened awareness and understanding of sports. As a nation, we need to work on improving levels of our physical literacy, appreciating to value and taking ownership of physical activities in daily life. The FIT India movement, aimed at being a people’s movement, has proved to be crucial in building strong awareness about the importance of staying fit and active. The National Education Policy 2020 has emphasised the importance of sports and physical activity to be a vital part of our education systems. Structural changes are in the pipeline to ensure sports-integrated learning will be undertaken in classrooms to help children develop a fitness aptitude and improved physical literacy. Its implementation by state governments could prove to be a turning point not only for our education system but also for the sports systems in India.

SAI recently recruited a huge number of coaching and support staff for all its centres. But a lot of athletes and NSFs have reservations about their expertise. Do you think India has enough qualified sports scientists, support staff and coaches for the holistic development of our elite athletes? What are your plans to bridge this knowledge gap?

SAI has set up full-fledged sports science centres in 13 National Centres of Excellence so far. Great care has been taken to engage staff to meet the demands of each centre. The idea behind this is to ensure sports science support in all regions, not just in NIS Patiala and SAI Bengaluru. Since we aim to become a sporting power, it is imperative that we invest in such facilities across the country. Moreover, we are also setting up the first-ever state-of-the-art integrated High-Performance Sports Science Centre at NCoE Sonepat at a cost of around ₹80 crore. This will act as a prototype for other such centres across the country. We believe that the staff engaged is competent to do the job assigned, especially with the development group of athletes in the National Centres of Excellence. For the elite athletes, we have continued to engage a number of support staff from overseas. A start must be made if we are to become self-reliant. We will keep evaluating to better the scenario.

SAI has a food budget rate of ₹375 per day for athletes. Do you think this is sufficient to offer nutritious meals to athletes? Do you plan to increase the allowance?

No athlete has been told to curtail his or her eating. The SAI NCoE kitchens have no restrictions. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, through the Sports Authority of India, had done away with providing diet to the athletes in National Camps through contractors. For the past two years, it has engaged in-house nutritionists who interact with athletes, coaches and support staff to draw up a specific diet for the athletes based on their event and sporting discipline. Besides, the kitchen in each of the SAI National Centres of Excellence is run by professional chefs who know exactly what is best for our athletes.

A lot of NSFs are riddled with factionalism, and a few NSFs have two parallel bodies, which affects the athletes. What is the Government’s view on this and how can this problem be solved?

The job of the Ministry is to be a facilitator and ensure that the sportspersons do not suffer. A few months ago, we decided to give provisional recognition to all the National Sporting Federations till December 31, 2022, with the condition that they have to get their constitution in line with the National Sports Development Code 2011. This was done so that our athletes going for major international tournaments including CWG 2022 do not suffer.

A happy moment: Indian athlete Hima Das takes a selfie with Youth Affairs and Sports Minister, Anurag Thakur, during the send-off ceremony of the Indian contingent for Birmingham Commonwealth Games, at Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi on July 7, 2022.

A happy moment: Indian athlete Hima Das takes a selfie with Youth Affairs and Sports Minister, Anurag Thakur, during the send-off ceremony of the Indian contingent for Birmingham Commonwealth Games, at Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi on July 7, 2022. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Many federation officials, including office-bearers in the BCCI, continue to hold office despite an end to their term according to Court mandated rules. What’s the government’s view on fixed tenures in sport?

The ministry has always directed recognised National Sports Federations to be in compliance with the National Sports Development Code of India 2011. The Code is clear that office-bearers of National Sports Federations have a specified number of terms that they can be in office. Some cases are being heard by the Delhi High Court, and Supreme Court. The government’s stand has been consistently made clear in courts.

The National Sports Code, formulated by the committee, is yet to see the light of day. Do you plan to see its implementation, or do you think the proposed Code needs changes?

I would like to inform you that 24 federations are now fully compliant with the Code and most of the other federations are almost compliant, and they will align themselves soon as well. This has never happened since the inception of the Code, and it is the athletes who are going to benefit the most from this step.

Do you plan to restructure the sports plans for talented youngsters at the district level like you have in Himachal Pradesh?

Sport is a state subject and under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership, we have encouraged states to expand their sports infrastructure and appoint qualified coaches in each district. The Central Government has offered support by helping the states to establish State Centres of Excellence to augment the SAI National Centres of Excellence already in place. With regards to Himachal Pradesh, India’s first-ever SAI National Centre of Excellence for Mountain Terrain Biking and Bicycle Motocross will be set up in Shimla. The High Altitude Training Centre present in Shilaroo also helps our athletes develop superior physiological attributes and capabilities like enhanced lung capacity, VO2 Max etc.

Would it help if some of the richer states adopted one game for promotion?

Of course, it would help if all states adopted one sport each. Yet, ideally, each state should supplement the effort of the Central Government by doing their bit for the grassroots athletes across disciplines in their respective States and Union Territories. Last month, we had a two-day national conference of sports ministers of states / UTs at Kevadia in Gujarat. We had fruitful discussions on having a unified approach for the development of sports in the country. Some states are superior in some sports and weak in others, so one suggestion that came up during the discussions was that there can be an exchange programme of coaches across states.

Are you satisfied with the functioning of TOPS and its impact?

TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme) has been a very successful programme. It has been able to plug the gaps that exist in the elite and development athletes’ training and competition calendars. A substantial part of the training and competition schedule for the athletes is supported by the ministry’s assistance to the National Sports Federations under the Annual Calendar for Training and Competition (ACTC) scheme. The gaps, if any, are taken care of by TOPS. For, example, TOPS stepped in when Mirabai Chanu needed to travel to St. Louis in the United States at short notice before the Olympic Games. It was managed inside a day so that she could leave before the U.S. stopped flights originating in India. Another example is that of Neeraj Chopra being flown to Chula Vista so that he could return to training without any distractions and prepare for the World Athletics Championships. The NSDF Scheme of our Ministry supports TOPS for our core and development athletes. With top corporations and PSUs showing interest to come forward to support sports in India, the future is very bright for Indian sports. Just recently, we launched a new website and portal for the National Sports Development Fund wherein any individual, organisation or corporation can contribute any amount towards any sport, any athlete, or any event of their choice. I appeal to the business community of our nation to come forward and adopt a game, adopt an athlete, adopt an academy of their choice and support our sportspersons.

Would you like the SAI to be more professional and accountable?

In the recent past, we have brought in structural changes with respect to the Sports Authority of India and its functioning. I’ll give you a few examples wherein we have brought in changes. In the past couple of years, we have hired professional athlete relationship managers who are in touch with our elite athletes. We have brought in former Olympians and Asian and CWG medallists to bring in expertise in coaching and management, wherein their experience will have a fresh perspective. In September 2021, cadre restructuring for SAI was approved for the first time.

It will lead to a sizeable increase in scientific cadre, an increase in the entry cadre of coaches to focus on grassroots development and the introduction of high-performance coaches at NCoEs. In the period after the cadre restructuring, more than 400 coaches were hired across various disciplines. This will go a long way in benefitting our sportspersons — especially the grassroots and young talent.

What will you tell a youngster wanting to carve a career in sports?

We are changing the sporting ecosystem to make it conducive for our sportspersons — be it the elite athletes or the grassroots talent. We have a clear system in place. We focus on talent identification and grassroots development through our 523 Khelo India Centres at the district level and through the SAI training centres and NCOEs. We focus on their next stage of development through the 247 Khelo India Academies and 29 Khelo India State Centres of Excellence. We focus on their world-class training and support through our National Centres of Excellence. We are also organising competitions across sporting disciplines for the players to have maximum match-day exposure. For example, we are conducting dedicated Khelo India Women’s Leagues across nine disciplines — hockey, archery, weightlifting, cycling, boxing, swimming, wrestling, volleyball and judo. Through these leagues, more than 23,000 women athletes will participate in these competitions. So, our aim is to make India a sporting powerhouse in the world and our youngsters will be the ones who will excel. I would encourage the young budding athletes in every city, every district, and every village across the nation to come and be a part of this sporting movement. It was summed up best by our PM Modi when he said, “Khelega India toh Khilega India.”

What’s your fitness mantra and advice to fellow citizens for a healthy lifestyle?

I would say, “Fitness ka dose, aadha ghanta roz!’” I try and get 30 minutes of exercise and yoga every day and I would encourage everyone to try and incorporate the same into their daily routines.

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