CWG 2018: Why India's athletes may struggle against Aussie money and muscle

A surfboard themed countdown clock on South Bank, counting down to the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia. Photo:
As the Commonwealth Games 2018 get set to kick off at Gold Coast, there couldn’t be a better time to compare Indian athletes with some of the fittest and richest human beings on earth. Business Standard analysed financial statements, funding data and sporting achievements of India, Australia and some other nations participating in the Commonwealth Games. And, it emerged that Indian athletes remain underfunded and continue to underachieve when compared with global peers.

The Narendra Modi administration has tried to resurrect India’s sporting glory by selecting over 100 athletes under its ‘Target Olympic Podium’ (TOP) scheme. According to the sports ministry’s latest annual report, 92 of the so-called TOP athletes received almost Rs 80 million as financial assistance from the government in 2015-16. The irony is that a significant portion of this money (almost Rs 34 million) was given to India’s shooters – the traditional medal winners for India at high-profile sporting events. Out of the money meant for shooters, two-thirds went to just three – Abhinav Bindra, Manavjit Sandhu and Heena Sandhu.

India’s wrestlers, including the Phogat sisters, Yogeshwar Dutt and Sushil Kumar together received a paltry Rs 3 million. Sania Mirza, who last won a singles match in June 2012, received as much money from the government as India’s top nine wrestlers. Also, only two of the male track and field athletes named in the TOP list have made it to the Commonwealth Games squad. These two athletes – K T Irfan and Manish Rawat – will compete in the 20-kilometre walk event at the Games.

The TOP scheme aims to identify athletes who could win medals for India in the 2020 Olympics and promises dedicated training and financial assistance to them. Even as the amount of money seems to have been spent on just a few sportspersons and disciplines, the overall allocation of money to sportspersons under the National Sports Development Fund (NSDF) established in 2001 by the erstwhile Atal Bihari Vajpayee government has increased by just 14 per cent between 2009-10 and 2015-16.

In India, where many of the sports bodies are run as trusts by private individuals, the government sanctioned almost Rs 177 million in 2015-16. Many of these were for capital expenditure and operational expenses for conducting tournaments.

The skewed and rather paltry funding of Indian sports stands in contrast to the Australian athletic ecosystem (See Graphic 1). The Australians have a nine-pronged sports funding mechanism, where government and private funds are given right down to the school level to indigenous athletes to local sporting bodies and to women athletes.

Under the Direct Athlete Support (DAS), which is the Australian equivalent of the India’s National Sports Development Fund (NSDF), 982 athletes received almost $10 million in 2016-17. While Olympic medalists like Karsten Forsterling and Paralympian’s like Amanda Reid and Tiffany Thomas Kane got more than $23,000, others got smaller amounts.

While Indian sportspersons like Abhinav Bindra and Sania Mirza got more money than many Australian athletes, India spent just a tenth of what the Australians spent on a proportionally larger number of athletes. Australia gave $98 million to various sports organisations across the country. Little is known about how India’s sports federations work, since they do not come under the ambit of the central government.

One of the most striking features of Australia’s funding mechanism is its support to ‘women leaders in sports’ and the ‘local sporting champions programme’. The latter got almost $4 million in 2016-17 as part of Australia’s athletics funding programme and over 10,000 sportspersons received money for training.

And it’s not just Australia. Nations like Britain, which topped the medal charts in 2014, have formulated a 10-year vision programme. Titled ‘An Athletic Nation’, the document sets forth Britain’s agenda to emerge as an athletic sporting powerhouse by 2026. It clearly lists a five-point agenda, stating – increase the number of competing athletes by improving the quality of coaching, increase membership of sporting clubs across Britain, deliver more accessible and appealing sporting competitions, maintain highest standard on anti-doping, and make the British population healthier for positive outcomes of its sporting achievements. Britain not just bagged the highest number of gold medals in the previous edition of the Commonwealth Games, but it also improved its Olympic performance from 13 medals in 1968 to 67 medals in 2016.

India’s NITI Aayog also formulated a similar plan in September 2016. The document proposed “a 20-point action plan highlighting some key areas that require improvement. These action points have been divided into a short-term vision (four to eight years) and a medium to long-term vision (eight to 15 years). The action points identify the initiatives required to be undertaken by the country to achieve a target of 50 medals in the 2024 Summer Olympics.” Among other things, it involves identifying priority sports where the chances of winning medals are high, identifying young talent and developing a grading system for coaches. While the NITI Aayog’s document might look good on paper, achieving its stated objectives could be a different ball game altogether.

This difficult path ahead is exemplified by the performance of India’s athletes at the Federation Cup Senior Athletics Championships held between March 5 and 9 this year at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala. India’s contingent for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games was primarily selected on the basis of performance of athletes in these games.

A close look at the performances of India’s track and field athletes paints a distressing picture (See Graphic 2). Only a handful of Indian track and field athletes put up performances at the qualifying games at Patiala that were on a par with the best performances by all athletes at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014.

Most of the others who qualified by the virtue of finishing first at Patiala wouldn’t have even made it to the top 10 at Glasgow. For instance, among male athletes, Muhammed Anas Yahiya came out on tops at Patiala in the 400 metres' event with a timing of 46.13 seconds. With his timing, Yahiya would not have finished in the top seven at Glasgow.

Similarly, Rakesh Babu, who will be representing India at Gold Coast by virtue of winning the triple jump event at Patiala with a distance of 16.31 meters wouldn’t have even made to the top six at Glasgow with his record.

On the brighter side, Babu’s team mate Arpinder Singh, who had won a bronze medal at Glasgow in triple jump, bettered his own record at Patiala this year, raising hopes that he could beat Nigerian Oke Tosin’s record of 16.84 metres set at the last edition of the Commonwealth Games.

The brightest star for India at Gold Coast will be young javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra – possibly also the most under-rated athlete in the contingent. Chopra threw a distance of 85.94 metres at Patiala which would have been good enough to win India the gold at Glasgow. Other than Chopra, Tejaswin Shankar who got selected for Gold Coast CWG Games 2018 after achieving first position at Patiala with a distance of 2.28 metres in the High Jump event would have won a silver beating Kyriakos Ioannou of Cyprus in the Glasgow Games.  

Despite getting limited facilities and nutrition, Indian women athletes might bring more medals this time as their performance at Patiala was much better than men athletes' when compared with medal winners of Glasgow CWG games. For instance, Nayana James, who will be representing India at Gold Coast after winning the Long Jump event at Patiala with a distance of 6.51 metres, can easily win a bronze by beating the record of 6.49 meters set by Nettey Christabel of Canada in Glasgow. In the Discus Throw event, Seema Punia, who came first at Patiala with a distance of 61.05, can easily repeat her Glasgow achievement of a silver medal.

With more to play for than just pride, Indian athletes will be hoping that they make their mark despite being out-moneyed and out-muscled by many of the other participating nations at the XXI Commonwealth Games down under. 

Performance at Patiala vs Glasgow, overall CWG records and World records
Seema Punia Discus Throw 61.05* 64.88* 65.92* 76.80*
Navjeet Kaur Dhillon Discus Throw 57.75*
Nayana James Long Jump 6.51* 6.56* 6.97* 7.52*
Neena Varakil Long Jump 6.28*
Hima Das 400m  51.97 50.67 50.1 47.6
Poovamma Machettira 400m  53.38
Suriya Loganathan 10000m, 5000m 32:23.96/15:46.96 32:09.35/15:07.21 31:27.83/14:31.42 29:31.78/14:11.15
Rakesh Babu Triple Jump 16.31* 17.2* 17.86* 18.29*
Arpinder Singh Triple Jump 16.61*
Tejaswin Shankar High Jump 2.28* 2.31* 2.36* 2.45*
Vipin Kasana Javelin Throw DNS 83.87* 88.75* 98.48*
Neeraj Chopra Javelin Throw 85.94*
Tajinderpal Singh Toor Shot Put 20.24* 21.61* 21.24* 23.12*
Dharun Ayyasamy 400mHurdles 49.45 48.5 48.05 46.78
Jinson Johnson 1500m 03:39.7 03:39.3 03:32.2 03:26.0
Muhammed Anas Yahiya 400m 46.13 44.24 44.52 43.18

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