Union Sports Minister Anurag Singh Thakur has set his eyes on India achieving its best medal haul at the Paris Olympics next year. India’s success at the recent Asian Games has convinced him that this is the best sporting phase since Independence and needs to be capitalised upon. In this interview, he shares his views on various aspects.
How do you look at this tenure of yours? Is it satisfying?
Like any other Indian, I’m also very happy and satisfied with the performance of our athletes at the Asian Games and the Para Asian Games. It has been a consistent and commendable performance from the entire contingent. But if you look at the last two years, it is the policies of the Narendra Modi government that have been implemented well. And that is bearing fruit from the Tokyo Olympics, Paralympics, Deaflympics, Special Olympics, Commonwealth Games, and now the Asian Games and the Federation Games. We have won the highest-ever medals in all these tournaments. And the foundation is also becoming stronger. Our player pool is becoming much larger. So, I think, in a way, the policies of the Modi government with Khelo India and the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) and the increase in the budget, which has gone up by more than two and a half times, are getting us the results. So it is a combination of sporting talent and good administration.
Have you given personal attention to this?
Yes, because I’ve seen that in my previous roles in the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association and the BCCI. In a module where I tried increasing the facilities for the players, increasing the budget, creating more grounds and equipment, and providing the best coaches, I delivered at the state level. At the BCCI level, with the under-19 and India ‘A’ teams getting more exposure, it has expanded the base—the bench strength has increased. Similarly, at the recent Para Games, we won 111 medals compared to the 72 medals last time. Even at the Asian Games, while we had 70 medals last time, now we have 107 medals with 28 golds.
“It is very important to have the right pool of coaches. There are two major factors. One is to hire the best coaches and then start a programme of training the trainer and coaching the coach.”ANURAG THAKUR
What is your point of view?
Seeing the results, I think if you give the players the facilities, they can perform well. We had the same kind of athletes earlier. But the facilities were missing. Now, they have nothing to worry about. Their boarding, lodging, and training are taken care of by the Government of India, and they also get an out-of-pocket allowance. That is with the TOPS because it comes with two components: the core and the development athlete. The Khelo India athletes, close to 3000, also get nearly ₹6,20,000 per annum, which is a good amount to look after their needs and training.
You always talk about the need to have quality coaches. How much has that contributed since you’ve ensured they have the best available coaches?
It is very important to have the right pool of coaches. There are two major factors. One is to hire the best coaches and then start a programme of training the trainer and coaching the coach. We should have a similar setup down the line—it should be a top-down approach with the top coaches at the top level, and they should train the coaches till the district level. States and districts should also follow a similar method so that the athlete working at the district level knows what is expected at the national level.
Do you believe India is on course to becoming a major sporting nation?
Yes. That is the idea behind it. And Prime Minister Modi wants India to be a sporting superpower. For that, you need to have quality events, and you need to have the best players perform well. And you need to have the best infrastructure. I think in all directions. Since I took over, I’ve had nearly 450 new coaches. We have surrendered the administrative posts and hired more coaches. We are opening 1000 Khelo India centres, and I’m not taking five years. In this financial year, we’ll complete all 1000 Khelo India centres, and 1000 former champion athletes will be hired in those centres. That means they will get job opportunities, and at the same time, they can train more than 1,000 players at the grassroots level in their home districts.
Is this the best phase of Indian sport since Independence?
If you look at the facilities, budget, and growing infrastructure, yes, we can say that in the last 75 years, this is the best period. But we are not stopping here. We have to be among the top sporting nations.
As a Sports Minister, how do you look at the doping menace? What is the government doing to curb it?
We’re trying to create awareness. Also, more dope testing is happening. We have passed the National Anti-Doping Bill. And there are effective tools to create more awareness—digitally and physically. I think more associations should come on board to create awareness at the grassroots level because, in a country with a population of 1.4 billion, mere physical classes or awareness campaigns may not help. It has to go both with the app and at ground level. So we’re trying to work on both. And if anyone is doping, all I can tell is that you may perform in one event, but you will be caught in the next. That’s not the way forward. If you want to win a medal for India, work and train hard. You should be mentally and physically fit to win more. If not today, then tomorrow, you will lose the medal you won if you are guilty of doping. On various occasions, the PM has urged youngsters to stay away from the menace of doping. When he met the Asian Games winners, he told them to spread awareness of the ills of doping.
What made you announce “Abki baar, sau paar”? Is it because of the Olympics, or were you sure of the input from your team of coaches and experts?
I think you rightly raised a question. Not many believed me when I said this. So everyone said last time you had 70. How can there be a 50% jump? But if you are connected at the grassroots and you know what is happening, what kind of facilities we are providing, and how frequently our Mission Olympic Committee meets, then you will understand my confidence. They meet every fortnight. We keep track of the players, what they’re doing, and how the training is going—all these things make a lot of difference. So, if you’re keeping track and making the right calculation, you will understand. We may get five medals, plus or minus. It could have been 95. But in the end, it was 107. With God’s grace and the athletes’ performances, we were able to achieve this.
A lot of associations want to adopt the BCCI module, which you put in place, if you remember, as the BCCI secretary and then as the president. What can the other associations learn from this?
Every association or federation will have its own set of requirements. A few federations may have quality administrative staff. But many will be working like the traditional sports associations. They must realise the time has come for professionalism — whether your Secretary-General is effective in implementing the policy decisions, day-to-day monitoring is done by the general manager (administration), or by the general manager (sports), or you have a CEO in place. The term CEO looks fancy. But if anyone can afford a good CEO, they should. If they can’t, they should have a professional team at the general manager level so that whatever decision they’re taking will be implemented. Because implementation is the key, it’s not what you’re designing; it’s how effectively you are implementing.
The honourable Prime Minister, at the 141st IOC session, declared India’s intent to host the 2036 Olympics, which you had also indicated earlier. Do you think the absence of a professional CEO in the IOA, despite multiple directives from the IOC, hampers India’s chances?
“if you want to have the best talent in a country like India, we should not look at a limited set of players. It will help in identifying new talent.”ANURAG THAKUR ON THE TIMING OF THE NATIONAL GAMES IN GOA
The IOA is an independent, autonomous body. I think they have already decided about it. The only issue is about the experience of a CEO. You know you won’t find many with around 10 years of experience as the CEO in a senior position. So, I think they have an issue with that. It depends on what your requirements are.
What is the status of the Wrestling Federation of India? When can we expect an election, as the international body has said that Indian wrestlers will compete under a neutral flag until the elections are held?
We have asked the IOA to form a subcommittee. They have already got one, and it has already announced the election. There is a returning officer in place, too, but unfortunately, a previous association has gone to court, and there is a stay in the Punjab and Haryana High Court. That’s a challenge we have.
Do you think the National Games in Goa could have been better planned and fitted somewhere else in the calendar rather than at the end of a gruelling season while also clashing with the Cricket World Cup?
You need to look at the upcoming talent because most of the athletes will be busy with preparation for the Olympics. So, if you want to have the best talent in a country like India, we should not look at a limited set of players. It will help in identifying new talent.
Speaking of the World Cup, why weren’t the visas issued to cricket fans from Pakistan?
It is up to the government policy or the invitations, too.
Is this the most satisfying phase of your career—as a sportsman, administrator, and politician?
As a full-time Lok Sabha Member of Parliament, BCCI president, IOA vice president, Parliament Standing Committee chairman, and youth wing president for the longest time in the BJP, every role has been challenging. And if you work with a Prime Minister like Modi who wants to deliver, I think it is an uphill task because you want India to be a sporting nation. For that, you need to work 24x7 to be successful. If you look at the results, yes, I’m very happy. If you look at the aspirations of the new India and Prime Minister Modi, I think we still need to work a lot on the ground. So, for the next 12 years, until India hosts the Summer Olympics and the Youth Olympics, we should have more athletes who can win medals.
What do you have in store for sporting talent in the North-East?
A National Sports University costing ₹900 crore was awarded to Manipur. There are more than 30 States and Union territories that have more population than Manipur, but we have given it to the Northeast, which should be the hub of sports. North-East has been producing a lot of sportspersons. So, I think that was the right decision.
It is said that you have elected people like P. T. Usha (head of the IOA), Dilip Tirkey (Hockey India), and Kalyan Choubey (All India Football Federation) so that they don’t speak anything against the government.
If we don’t appoint elected sportsmen, then you have an issue. And if we do, then you also have an issue. Let me make it clear. I have always believed that administration is a very different ball game. Even coaching, too. It’s not that if you’re a good player, you have to be a good coach or administrator. Very different roles. Every individual can play a very different role. I’m a former player. But am I a good administrator? It is for others to judge whether I am a good cricket administrator, a Sports Minister, or a Member of Parliament. So, how do you move from one position to another? How do you motivate yourself to work harder? I think all of them have been elected by their respective bodies. They should deliver now.
How do you keep yourself fit, motivated, and involved? You’re not just handling sports but the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, too.
Fitness ka dose, aadha ghanta roz (Fitness dose, half an hour daily). That’s the mantra for everyone. Whatever you do, you can take 30 minutes out for yourself. Even 15 minutes will be enough if you want to work hard. In a small room, too, you can do yoga, or quick cardio, or you can do other things like sit-ups and push-ups—whatever you want to do. You can work on your physique because it’s very important. If you want to work 18 to 19 hours every day, which we do, then you need to be physically fit. Luckily, I’m able to take some time out for myself.
What will make you happy? India hosting the Olympics or winning medals at the Olympics?
My hosting of the Olympics without winning medals is not complete. So, that is why I said I was working on increasing the medal tally by 2036. For that, whatever is required at the grassroots level, we will do that. And hosting the Olympics in the manner we did with the G-20 will be a memorable event for the world to remember.
Are you reaching out to rural India?
Of course. If you look at the talent, the majority of them are coming from tier 2 or tier 3 cities or remote villages. Talent lies in rural India, and the facilities are also growing in smaller towns and cities. TOPS is helping them be trained and well-groomed by the best coaches to win medals. As a Sports Minister, my gate is open from seven in the morning until one o’clock at night.
What is your message to the youth?
I would like to tell them, ‘Let’s make India a developed country by 2047’. For that, we have to remember the words of Prime Minister Modi. Don’t ask for your rights; only obey your duties. So every Indian should contribute towards making India a developed country. Take pride in your heritage and culture.
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