Indian Olympics Association president Narinder Batra with Assistant Editor Mihir Vasavda in The Indian Express newsroom. Amit Mehra
After a disappointing performance at the Rio Olympics in 2016, where India won just two medals, the country’s athletes will enter the Olympic year with the hope of finishing on the medals table in double digits for the first time ever. As the president of Indian Olympic Association and International Hockey Federation, as well as being India’s representative in the International Olympic Committee, Narinder Batra will oversee the country’s preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Games and lead the bids for the multi-discipline events in the next decade. Batra will also play a crucial role in the formation of policy decisions, including the National Sports Code.
MIHIR VASAVDA: What is the Indian Olympic Association’s medal projection for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
As of now, about 61 athletes have qualified. A lot of competitions are yet to take place — badminton, tennis, boxing, wrestling, weightlifting. Even if we don’t qualify, there is a quota of two (athletes in every event)... The number (of qualifications) should be between 100 and 125. Then there are support staff and officials. The number of support staff is 25 per cent of the total number of athletes who have qualified. So, the contingent size should be about 150-160 people.
It is more difficult to interact with federations than with governments. I have had no problem in communicating with governments... It’s difficult to convince the federations to change their habits and ways”
(As far as medals are concerned), we want to hit double digits. It’s a tough ask but I am trying to focus on events from where the results can come from.
MIHIR VASAVDA: Do you see an improvement in terms of where we stand at the competitive level across various sports?
In a few sports, we have reached competitive level. In shooting we can give anyone a run for their money. We are making our presence felt in wrestling. With regard to boxing and weightlifting, we are knocking on the door. These are sports in which we are hopeful... Participation is not the only important thing. It’s also how you plan and build up. When do you peak, when are you not supposed to peak... it’s high time we left these decisions to high-performance directors and coaches. We, the sports administrators, should take a back seat...
In hockey, before the London Olympics (2012), the team was sent to Spain to play for three weeks. I think they peaked there and could not peak in London. The same happened to some extent in Rio (2016 Olympic Games)... You go to the same climate, altitude... but what is the right time to go? This is important when planning for Olympic medals and that’s how other countries plan. So we are working along those lines and it is not an easy task.
MIHIR VASAVDA: There is a lot of hype surrounding the hockey team but it fails to perform in important tournaments.
To a major extent, Indian men’s team has crossed that hurdle. Yes, I am looking for a medal from them... The women’s team should not have finished in the twelfth position (in Rio) — they should have been in the top six or eight because they have reached that level of fitness and confidence. The top four (women’s) teams — Argentina, Holland, Australia and England — are a little bit above. It will not be easy to cover that gap in the next six months. But again, on a good day, they have held top teams. And if that spirit is maintained, the women’s team may be in the top four.
“Earlier, administrators could decide who would be included in the team and who would be dropped. But such incidents have reduced significantly. Today, you can see good athletes coming forward."
MIHIR VASAVDA: We have not focused much on the women’s team in terms of the number of matches at home. They have lesser facilities and funding compared to the men’s team.
There is absolutely no difference between men and women. The only regret is that I could not start a league for women. Other than that, there are no facilities that women lack in terms of camps, tournaments etc. New facilities are first introduced for women and then for men.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: How difficult is it to interact with governments for funds?
It is more difficult to interact with federations than with governments as the latter are more supportive. I have had no problem with governments in the last two years. It’s difficult to convince the federations to change their habits and ways. If you have a blueprint (of the roadmap), there is nothing called ‘No fund’ from the government. Most of the top federations have everything in place. But the others need to now get into the system... The maximum medals in Olympics come from aquatic sports. No Indian athlete has ever qualified for these sports. We have always gone under the two free quotas... Then comes athletics which has 40 medals. Then there is judo with 12 medals and fencing with 10 medals. The only presence (in individual sports) we have is in wrestling, boxing, weigtlifting and shooting. In team sports, it is hockey, badminton, tennis...
“To host international games, you need a clean stadium... Delhi has an entertainment tax, 20% on the sponsorship amount... If you have problems with cricket, don’t kill Olympic sports."
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: India’s seven gold medals in hockey won it world recognition. But now, even hockey is slipping. In other sports, we are nowhere. So what is India’s sport identity?
Don’t link India’s identity only with sports. A lot of other things are associated with the country. Everything counts on sponsorship, numbers, viewership... I think the population of 1.3 billion gives a lot of eyeballs to Olympics. They (the International Olympic Committee) are very much concerned and that is why they are looking at India, and India-centric policies are being formulated... India is looked upon as a country which means business. They are happy with the way things are moving in terms of ethics, good governance and transparency. Systems are being adopted. That’s why we are now trying to bid for the 2023 IOC session, 2026 Youth Olympics, 2030 Asian Games and 2032 Olympics.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: We are a sports hosting nation and not a sport playing nation. Our only strength is one billion people who watch sports, not the few thousands who play it.
If you want to become a sporting nation, then you have to get sporting events here (in India). The involvement begins when people are able to see (the games). And with the government enacting policies such as Fit India, and introducing youth games, a movement that died in the late 1970s or early 1980s has begun. I used to play All India School Games... I got admitted to schools and colleges on the basis of sports... Now these Khelo India University Games has started. The base of the pyramid is now being built. And how I take advantage of this base will depend on the federations. The federations now have to become open and that is where high-performance directors, coaches and chief coaches come into the system...Within the next two-three years, we will have eight or 10 high-performance centres across the country.
NIHAL KOSHIE: In 2010, India hosted the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. We won a number of medals across disciplines and there was hope that this would translate into medals in the Olympics. But that didn’t happen. A prominent former athlete has said that unless we get 20 or 30 medals, we shouldn’t think of hosting big events. Don’t you think infrastructure does not always translate into medals?
Most of the administrators are former athletes. There should be criticism but these athletes should also visit the field. We have analysed the whole thing. We discuss with the government and other stakeholders and then come out with a blueprint. Earlier, administrators could decide who would be included in the team and who would be dropped. But such incidents have reduced significantly. Today, you can see good athletes coming forward. I have been advocating high-performance centres because injury management is not carried out in a proper way. Recently, a boxer was charged with doping. So, are we giving proper education on these fronts? We have to synchronise all these things and move forward. In a year or two, all these systems will be in place. That is why in 2024, I am looking for over 20 medals and in 2028, more than 40.
MIHIR VASAVDA: But current athletes don’t criticise because they are afraid of losing their place....
This is false. Players are listened to even in private. So I disagree with you. Anybody can pick up the phone and speak to me.
MIHIR VASAVDA: Last week you said that one of the three cities — Bhubaneswar, Mumbai or Delhi — can host the event, with regard to the 2032 Olympic bid. You added that there were major problems in hosting events in Delhi....
To host international games, you need a clean stadium... The Delhi government has implemented an entertainment tax. You have to pay 20 per cent tax on the amount received from sponsors. The problem was noticed when we hosted hockey games. We are not cricket. If you have problems with cricket, don’t destroy Olympic sports. The money paid as tax should be spent on the game. That’s why we moved out of Delhi. And such a tax structure is only present in Delhi, nowhere else in India. And this tax has not been implemented by the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party government but by the earlier Congress government, when the IPL started.
However, my preference will be Delhi or Bhubaneswar as infrastructure exists in both these venues. We need accommodation and Bhubaneswar has Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology University, which has a hostel capacity of 20,000. So all these things will be analysed. In Delhi also, we have hostels. In Mumbai, things have to be started from scratch.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: The per capita investment in sports in India is lesser compared to smaller economies. So there is a problem of investment given the size of the population. Have you identified any state or pocket where there is a sporting culture, as it is not possible to focus on the entire country?
There are differences among sports. Like athletics, football can be played anywhere. So there are games which do not require much infrastructure. But some games have specific needs and we try to identify their limitations. In hockey, I focus on Punjab, Haryana, Jharkhand, Odisha, Manipur, Coorg, Pune and Bhopal. So we are concentrating on certain pockets. For power games like wrestling, boxing, weightlifting, we have to identify the pockets where they are played. The identification process is underway for the last one-and-a-half years and is likely to be completed by the end of 2020.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: But where is the funding by the government?
Sports is a state subject. Punjab and Haryana are doing good in sports. Apart from these two, there is Jharkhand, Odisha, Manipur, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, the only state to include sports in the education curriculum. In the South, Tamil Nadu used to be good... There is not much response from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana now. Karnataka was also good but the graph is now down there. There are problems.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which have a bulk of the population are not there. Rich states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are also not there. So how is your interaction with state governments?
We have good relations. They meet me but don’t take my phone call after I leave. So we can understand their seriousness. Our system is such that it is controlled either by the Prime Minister or the Chief Ministers. If the CM has interest, things will be done. I am from Srinagar. (Former CM) Farooq Abdullah was very interested in sports. So that culture matters.
MIHIR VASAVDA: In terms of investment, do you think sports can be a priority where there are other glaring issues?
You are investing in health. But if you built a good sporting culture, you won’t fall ill. Different states have different issues, we start a dialogue, two years pass, and in the next three years, the states are due for elections. So they change their tack and sports no longer remains their priority.
NIHAL KOSHIE: The high-performance director of the Athletics Federation of India has said that athletes rely a lot on supplements because the diet at most of the training centres is not adequate. The issue has also been raised by many athletes. How do you plan to address it?
This issue has always been there. Supplements play an important role. I don’t know in what context he made the comment. If you look at hockey, after playing one match, a player loses 2-4 kg. But he has to play back-to-back games. So how does one regain the lost weight? It does not come with diet. It is through supplements. We have (physiological) data of every athlete... So when a player gives his peak performance, the body should not have any deficiency. We have minute-to-minute data on heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen level etc. What nutrients should be in the diet is the job of the high-performance director... There is a special diet prescribed on match days so that reflexes don’t slow down.
MIHIR VASAVDA: Many athletes look forward to training abroad because they get meats like beef, which helps increase their strength...
I have been an athlete and I have stayed in camps. Beef has nothing to do with it (strength). You get everything from the different kinds of food you eat. If you fail to perform, don’t give such excuses.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: You have worked with many foreign coaches. What should be their role in Indian sports?
It differs from game to game. In athletics, timing and body positions matter — how an athlete should start a 200-metre race or throw the shot put. In hockey, there is no coach in the country who can run the Indian men and women’s teams... In other games, Indian coaches are doing well...
In sports, rules keep changing quickly... And we (India) don’t have any say. We are not a part of the world body. So we have to follow rules. Now, Mary Kom’s weight category has been changed. I don’t know why it was done. If we have a say, then only can we do something.
MIHIR VASAVDA: Rules are being changed in hockey too. The 11-a-side format is being changed to 5-a-side format....
We have been funding hockey calling it our de-facto national game. Maybe 20 years down the line one may think whether we should be spending so much money for just one medal or train 50 athletes who can bring 50 medals. So, in hockey, we are looking to introduce a shorter version to make it popular. And also, we can pick up the top five or six teams which go to the Olympics and hold 5-a-side tournaments — men, women and mixed. The 5-a-side format has already been introduced in the Youth Olympics... We are not stopping the 11-a-side format. Test matches (in cricket) have not stopped.
GAURAV BHATT: With the Olympics approaching, what is the Indian Olympic Association doing to help players with psychological counselling?
We are working on this front. Those who need support are getting it. In Olympics, there is limitation of 25 per cent support staff. Staff like doctors, physiotherapists, masseurs, media relations officer among others are necessary. (So these are people who stay in the Games village.) But there are others who can stay outside the village. The psychological condition of players is very important. If they don’t perform well in one round, they get disturbed. To keep such matters in control, counselling is important. Every player is receiving full support (for psychological issues). No athlete is denied any help in this regard. Some players have even taken the help of foreign counsellors and we have paid for it. PARVEEN KUMAR DOGRA: How honest has the Delhi government been in the last five years in terms of building sports infrastructure? The government proposed a sports university as well.
The NGT has opposed the construction of the university on the proposed land, they will look for a new site, so no university is coming up. As of now, they have only announced, but there is nothing on record. If they have improved sports facilities, they must name one athlete from Delhi who has entered the India camp.
MIHIR VASAVDA: Has Commonwealth Games lost its relevance?
I am not against any event. I am not asking for a boycott, but withdrawal. In Asian Games, there are nine events to qualify for the Olympics. I have analysed the Commonwealth and Asian Games from 1990 to 2019. Only twice were there gaps of 120 days and over 200 days between the two. In the rest, gaps were 30-45 days. I don’t think athletes can peak again in 45 days... For me, the Asian Games is more important. So the Commonwealth Games must correct its timing.