Ever since cricket got a place in the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Games programme, there has been a fear that it might overshadow the popularity and development of other sports in India. To a certain extent, the fear is not misplaced. Cricket is a religion in India. The entire country stops moving just to support and cheer for the Men in Blue. You go to any streetside chai stall, and they will be talking cricket as experts of the game. It is a culture in itself. While its popularity is unparalleled, the success and growth of other sports will face challenges and opportunities in equal measure.
Cricket’s inclusion in the Olympics would undoubtedly draw massive attention and potentially increase its already substantial fan base. The prospect of witnessing cricket on the global Olympic stage could lead to intensified efforts to nurture and develop cricket talent across the nation. This heightened focus on cricket might seem like a threat to multisport, but it also presents a unique chance to leverage the increased interest in sports in general.
Cricket can create a learning curve for the development of other sports.
India is not the only country that has a dominant sport. The UK has football, while the USA has American football and baseball, but it has not stopped the growth of other sports in these countries. In fact, they have paved the way for collaborative learning and the development of other sports, like the German Football Association, which got inspiration from its hockey development programme to structure its youth programme. The Netherlands followed a similar story.
The innovations in sports like football and American football have trickled down to the Olympic sports and have had a major impact on the development of athletes. One of such innovations is the inclusion of data science, or, in popular terms, “Moneyball.”
Moneyball is often quoted as the story that formed the basis of sports analytical science in baseball. The idea behind it was that Paul DePodesta devised a method to make use of undervalued players based on statistical variables. The goal was to create a working method that would increase the chances of the Oakland A’s making it to the playoffs.
The method is now often used in athletics and swimming to track an athlete’s progress through their development to the elite level. The method has helped countries like the USA, UK, and Australia be leaders in sports development programmes.
In India, statistical science has been integrated into cricket. Devraj Raut is currently BCCI’s analyst and works with the India U19 and A teams.
Inspire Institute of Sport has also blended data science into the programmes to track athletes. The training sessions and tests are recorded and then analysed by data experts. It gives a holistic approach to helping athletes achieve the optimum performance for big competitions.
Multisports - The way forward?
Another fear many have is that the dominance of cricket might lead to early single-sport specialization. This doesn’t necessarily hold true.
India has often had athletes specialise in an event at an early stage and eventually excel in it. The idea of early specialisation and intensive training in one sport from an early age has become increasingly common. The attraction seems obvious. The pursuit of early specialisation will lead to early sporting scholarships as well as social recognition and financial security. The tales of athletes who succeed first in sports, followed by life, have become the stuff of Hollywood movies.
The list of champions who began their sporting careers in early childhood is endless in India. Cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar made his debut for India at the age of 16. Olympic champion in javelin throw, Neeraj Chopra, had become the junior world champion at the age of 19. Their day would start every day at 4 a.m. to grab a bus to reach the training ground. It was followed by school and then another training session in the evening.
A typical early specialisation in sport is characterised by a combination of intensive, year-round training in a specific event, excluding other activities, from an early age. In short, all of this is often at the cost of a healthy, well-balanced childhood.
Olympic champion shotputter Ryan Crouser, though, thinks multiport is the best for sports development. The US national himself tried different sports before focussing solely on track and field once he turned 18. .
In fact, just because a kid starts out playing cricket, it in no way means he won’t find an interest in other sports. Tejaswin Shankar is a classic example of it. He started out as a fast bowler at school before taking to athletics to develop strength. The Commonwealth Games medalist eventually found his passion in high jump.
Multisport is a great way to develop motor skills in athletes and build a strong foundation before sport specialisation.
The inclusion of cricket in the Olympics could serve as a catalyst for a broader sports culture in India. The heightened interest in sports generated by the Olympics could lead to increased participation in various disciplines.
This could create a ripple effect, encouraging youngsters to explore and excel in sports beyond cricket. National sports federations and governing bodies would need to capitalise on this momentum by investing in grassroots development programmes for various sports.
The introduction of sports science and a structured competition model similar to cricket’s domestic calendar and the National Cricket Academy will go a long way in the development of other sports. Moreover, there should be rewards for elite athletes similar to different BCCI contracts.
Who are the key players in development?
The success of multisports in India is closely tied to the performance of athletes on the global stage. A strong showing by Indian athletes in non-cricket Olympic events can significantly boost the image of multisports. Achievements in sports like badminton, wrestling, shooting, and boxing have already garnered attention and pride for the nation. Sustained success in these disciplines, coupled with the newfound Olympic status of cricket, could contribute to a more balanced sporting landscape.
Multisport events within India, such as the National Games and Khelo India Youth Games, play a crucial role in promoting diverse sports. These platforms provide athletes with the opportunity to showcase their talents and inspire the next generation. It is imperative to enhance the visibility and prestige of such events to encourage widespread participation and interest in multisports.
Infrastructure development is another key factor in the success of multisports. While cricket stadiums boast state-of-the-art facilities, other sporting venues often face challenges in terms of maintenance and accessibility. Investing in the creation and upkeep of world-class facilities for various sports is essential to foster talent and attract a broader audience.
Onus of Media for Promotion
The role of the media in shaping public perception cannot be understated. While cricket dominates the airwaves and digital platforms, there is a need for increased coverage of other sports. Highlighting the stories and achievements of athletes in diverse disciplines can create sports icons beyond the realm of cricket, inspiring youngsters to pursue careers in various sports.
Sports such as Kabaddi (Pro Kabaddi League) and Indian Super League (football) have found their niche as TV viewership figures. In fact, the craze to watch Neeraj compete in a competition has also grown tenfold.
Coordinated efforts from educational institutions, government bodies, and private enterprises are crucial to the holistic development of multisports. Integrating sports into the education curriculum, providing scholarships, and fostering partnerships with corporate sponsors can create a conducive environment for athletes across disciplines.
In conclusion, the thriving of multisports in India, despite cricket’s Olympic inclusion, hinges on a strategic and collaborative approach. While cricket’s elevated status could pose challenges in terms of resource allocation and media attention, it also opens doors for a broader sports culture.
Balancing investments, promoting multisport events, showcasing athlete achievements, and developing robust infrastructure are key elements in ensuring a flourishing multisport landscape in India. The coexistence of cricket and other sports can enrich the nation’s sporting tapestry, providing diverse opportunities for athletes and fans alike.
Manisha Malhotra is the Head of Sports Excellence and Scouting, JSW Sports.
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