How can India Achieve its Olympic Goals?

How can India Achieve its Olympic Goals?

Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju says there is "no doubt in his mind" that India will break into the top-10 of the Summer Olympics medal table by Los Angeles 2028. The country has set itself the ambitious target as it looks to improve its standing in global sport.’ (Inside The Games, June 30, 2020).

Based on the 2016 Rio Olympic Games results, it can be concluded that for a country to gain a spot in the top ten, it will have to win more than 30 medals, of which at least 10 should be gold. At the Rio Games, India won a silver medal in women’s Badminton and a bronze medal in women’s Wrestling. Only nine other athletes finished in the top-eight places in their events, indicating very little depth of quality performances.

The question then arises whether Indian sport can realistically consider achieving a top-ten position at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 2028.

Following the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, where Great Britain won 28 medals, UK Sport dramatically modified its national sport goals and programs to win a record 65 medals at their 2012 London Olympic Games, and further improved on that result at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Canada achieved similar improvement between 2005-2018, as it increased its Winter and Summer Olympic medals tally from 30 to 50 medals by creating a new high-performance sport leadership agency called Own The Podium. Canada modified its traditional policies, set high performance goals, introduced detailed individual sport planning, strengthened existing sport institutes, improved athlete support, strengthened coaching, and undertook many other initiatives for improvement.

I believe that Indian sport can achieve their stated goals but only with a significant modernization of its current national sport system. Moreover, this system needs strong and knowledgeable high-performance leadership, cooperation of the national government and the sport community, and a fully adequate new financing.  Indeed, there have been some recent improvements in the Indian sporting ecosystem, such as the extending of contracts of foreign coaches, increasing coach salaries, and support to 258 junior athletes from twelve sports via a new Target Olympic Podium Scheme.

However, to reach a target of 30 medals by 2028, many of them to be gold, much more needs to be done.

First and foremost, there needs to be a clear commitment by the Indian government and sport leaders to considerably modernize the current sport delivery system and to act immediately to make this a reality.

The first step would be to create a realistic and comprehensive national sport plan (2020-2028) to express the many specific goals to achieve modernization and the means by which to achieve it. This plan should assess the weaknesses in all areas of port development (coaching, athlete support, sport science and medicine, daily training environment, facilities, athlete commitment, financing, etc.) and to set realistic goals and strategies for each area over the next 4 and 8 years. The overall goal must be to achieve world-standards in all these areas so that the gap between what exists and what needs to exist to meet top international standards is identified and closed. Such a plan for 2024 and 2028 needs to be developed in 2020, which means starting immediately so that there is time to begin implementation in 2021.

The plan would identify many changes in the current situation and practice, and thus it will require cooperation and collaboration within the sporting community and the government funding agencies to make the necessary improvements. For example, policies for funding high-performance sport are not the same as the policies for funding domestic sport  development via a government agency. Coaches and High Performance Directors--the key to achieving international success--must be trained to be world-class. Coaches must be well paid and provided with work conditions where they can concentrate on coaching a small number of athletes in world-class training programs. Athletes must commit to world-class training, usually 30-40 hours a week. They must be financially supported too. Each selected National Sport Federation must formulate realistic national plans that detail the steps to winning Olympic medals by 2024 and 2028, and they must be constantly evaluated on their progress.

Most importantly, to ensure all changes in high performance initiatives are coordinated and advanced, a High Performance Agency needs to be established to provide national leadership as well as programs, policies, discipline, encouragement, sport funding and standards required for international success. This leadership agency needs to be nimble and independent of the government and sport federations (to eliminate political interference or conflict of interest). It must provide funding to the overall national high-performance program so that it has leverage in promoting the required change. UK Sport and Own The Podium were revised/created to be such independent agencies with their own funding. Their leadership model has produced world-class results. (Own The Podium recently received funds valued at $70 million CDN from the Canadian government for its high-performance sport responsibilities, with the government providing an additional $130 million CDN for domestic sport development.)

One might consider a similar approach for developing Indian sport, with the national domestic sport being developed and funded by the government, and the high performance sport funded by the government and led by a new high performance sport agency.  The longer-term ‘domestic’ approach, led by the government, involves strengthening the existing foundational elements or creating new ones to better serve the national sport community. These elements include improving the professionalization and capacity of the National Sport Federations; developing a robust national coach education system; training and supporting sport medicine and science professionals; ensuring adequate sport facilities and high-performance training centres; strengthening the development pathways for junior  athletes; strengthening school and university sport; developing and promoting the values of “True Sport” and anti-doping; creating competition opportunities in the country; funding and improving professional work opportunities for those needed in sport; and implementing a comprehensive multifaceted athlete support program. All these factors have to be part of the national plan, which should ideally be developed by sport and government together. Only the government can make the implementation of the plan happen, and it will require considerable new funding. While the sport development solution will be unique and appropriate to India, its essentials will be universally common. Both the UK and Canada have been running such development programs since decades, and their high-performance initiatives benefit from this foundation.

One immediate initiative, led by a new high performance agency or interim pilot mechanism, could be to provide select Indian sports the necessary opportunities, resources, and leadership to collectively achieve improved Olympic performances, starting with the Tokyo 2020 Games. Each selected sport, with considerable external assistance, will need to develop their own comprehensive plan and successfully implement it. Their plan will have to address many weaknesses, some of which will be unique to the respective sport. The gap from where they are now to where they need to be is considerable and daunting. From my experience, each sport will not be able to create the plan on their own or successfully implement it if simply given a pile of resources. A high performance agency, staffed with high-performance consultants, can help them develop a realistic and comprehensive plan, monitor their progress, ensure a disciplined approach and help them where needed. This “hot housing” of a few selected sports needs to be planned this year and implemented early in 2021, so that the new high-performance initiatives can be tested at the Tokyo Games. Thus, each selected sport should develop a comprehensive Tokyo plan by December 2020, addressing the quality of coaching, comprehensive athlete financing and other support, access to medical supervision when needed, quality of full-time daily training regimes, and sport science, strength and conditioning, nutritional and other support. In sports where there is only one or two individual medal prospects, athletes and their coaches need to be fully supported as well. There can be no compromise in their preparation or financial support. Following the Tokyo Games, an assessment of the 6-month “hot-housing” of these sports needs to be undertaken and longer-term plans for the 2024 and 2028 Games developed.

Both goals – longer-term goal for strengthening the Indian national sport system, and immediate-term support for selected sports to achieve Olympic success – can be  established concurrently. Both are part of the much-needed national plan.

I hope that the Indian government and the national sport leaders in India accept such a challenge and cooperate and provide the necessary leadership and resources to modernize and change Indian sport delivery. The stated ambitions should be acted upon for the health benefit of Indian society, and for the prestige of the country and the pride of its citizens. It will take leadership, vision, cooperation and commitment.

About the Author

Dr. Roger Jackson is an Olympic Champion, former director of the Canadian government sport program and the founding CEO of Canada’s high performance sport agency “Own The Podium”. He is currently assisting the Japan Sport Council to create a High Performance Sport Centre and to help prepare the Japanese athletes for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Roger was one of the eminent speakers at the inaugural High Performance Leadership Program, and conducted a webinar on Planning For High Performance Sport Success. Given the tremendous response we received from participants for his session, we invited him to write an op-ed for our newsletter. In this op-ed, Roger highlights the need for India to have a comprehensive national sport plan so that the country realizes it’s true sporting potential