The real champion at Glasgow

Indian sports fans would have been justifiably proud at the stunning entertainment on display in the ladies’ single finals at the World Badminton Championships that saw world number four P V Sindhu lose narrowly to her Japanese opponent. Moreover, despite the loss, they may have also been thrilled to see, for the first time, two Indians on the podium, with Sindhu taking the silver and Saina Nehwal the bronze. They would have been heartened by the fighting spirit of the three Indian men — Kidambi Srikanth, who lost narrowly to a Korean opponent, B Sai Praneeth and Ajay Jayaram. But the real champion of the Indian squad that turned out at Glasgow was undoubtedly Pullela Gopichand, the low-profile chief national coach of the Indian team. It would be no exaggeration to say that Mr Gopichand, 43, a former All England Badminton Championship winner, has been responsible for developing, almost single-handedly, the current generation of talent — the best that India has seen in badminton so far.

His protégés are: Nehwal, once world number one and an Olympic bronze medallist; Sindhu an Olympic silver medallist; Srikanth, winner of two consecutive Super Series titles in Indonesia and Australia this year; and Praneeth, winner of one Super Series this year. The fact that all these players are products of his academy is one aspect of Mr Gopichand’s achievements. Along the way, he has created an enabling environment for the development of badminton in India. As a result, badminton has become one of the most popular sports in India after cricket. Today, badminton “academies” flourish, mostly in Mr Gopichand’s hometown of Hyderabad, in the hope of replicating his solid track record. The striking point about Mr Gopichand’s role is that he has achieved all this with the minimum of unseemly controversies that seem to accompany almost every other popular sport in India. Cricket is perpetually mired in controversy, Indian hockey enjoys a precarious existence owing to inherent instability of the national federation, Indian football attracts more attention for institutional disputes rather than the national team’s performance, the petty squabbles among Indian tennis players have become an annual fixture of that sport and in boxing and wrestling, suspicions of doping lurk. 

Mr Gopichand’s dignity and manifest disinterest in wealth – at the height of his talents, he famously declined the inducements of a cola company to endorse a product he deemed unhealthy – have ensured that the institutional foundations of the game have steadily strengthened and enabled players to focus on their skills. To be sure, this may not last for long with the Badminton Association of India considering a proposal to introduce a panel of national coaches rather than relying on one — Mr Gopichand has been in the position since 2006 — including separate coaches for singles and doubles. Mr Gopichand’s response to this is unrecorded but he has repeatedly spoken of the need to strengthen the roots of the game and introducing international best practices. And he can be relied on to view these proposals from the point of view of the good of the game rather than any planned diminution of his personal powers.

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