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‘Tokyo is going to be a game-changer for Indian sports’: Boria Majumdar

In an in-depth interview with Mint, sports writer Boria Majumdar talks about India’s prospects in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the country’s blueprint for sporting success

Boria Majumdar at his Kolkata residence. Credit: Arijit Sen/Mint
Boria Majumdar at his Kolkata residence. Credit: Arijit Sen/Mint

Boria Majumdar knows the value of a bold prediction. When I ask the sports writer and academic about the importance of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics for the development of Indian sports, he doesn’t hedge. “It’s massive," he says. If India doesn’t win at least eight-nine medals, he says, it would be unacceptable. One of India’s best-known sports writers, Majumdar’s new book, Dreams Of A Billion: India And The Olympic Games, co-authored with journalist Nalin Mehta, is being released this week.

While Majumdar is fairly gung-ho about India’s chances, he takes a long view. His experience of covering India’s fortunes in four consecutive Olympic Games makes him realistic about things like medal tallies. At the Rio Olympics in 2016, despite high hopes and much hype, India could only win two medals. Most of India’s medal hopefuls crashed out, while Vinesh Phogat lost her quarter-final bout after competing with a knee injury. For the first time since 2004, not a single Indian shooter achieved a podium finish. Boxing, another big hope, didn’t yield any medals either. Rio was a big comedown after the high of the London 2012 Olympics, where Indian athletes had won six medals, the most ever.

Majumdar is hopeful that the situation will be very different in Tokyo, primarily because he believes that there are better systems in place, with greater accountability. He also has a very clear sense of the steps India needs to take to become a successful multi-sporting nation. In an exclusive interview ahead of the launch of his book, Majumdar holds forth on a badminton controversy, the Youth Olympic Games, the need for a holistic blueprint for Olympic success and much more. Edited excerpts:

How important is Tokyo 2020 for Indian sports?

Massive. Tokyo will probably determine whether Indian Olympic sports will ever take off or not. Rio had such a build-up and then there was a massive collapse. I remember wondering at the Games village, after the high of London, when we won six medals, are we actually going to go home without a single medal.

The single most important difference between Rio and Tokyo is, for one, that India has systems and structures in place. That makes me hopeful about Tokyo. Take shooting. Twelve shooters had qualified for Rio, but you know what, each one had their individual coaches, their individual trainers. There was no system in place and there was no accountability. Now there is a system in place, there are structures in place, there is accountability. There is a proper federation in place, and it’s a real professional set-up. I am extremely optimistic about Tokyo, so much so that I will say that if India does not win anywhere between eight-nine medals, I would say it’s not acceptable.

Are the prospects for Indian para-athletes also looking up?

There has been a sea change in how the Paralympics are viewed. At Rio, India won four medals in the Paralympics. I am predicting that we will win at least 15 medals in the Paralympics in Tokyo. Now, from four to 15 in the Paralympics, that would be a revolution. The Paralympians now qualify for the Khel Ratna. So there is a concrete change. Think about how Deepa Malik (shot put) is now perceived. She’s as big a celebrity as anybody else. Think about how Devendra Jhajharia (javelin) is perceived. So there has been a massive change in the last four years, both in terms of sensitization and grass-roots work. The story is no longer about discrimination.

Badminton has been a big medals hope for India in recent times. You go into great depth in the book about the sport, and also about the controversy surrounding Saina Nehwal leaving Pullela Gopichand’s academy in 2014 and then re-joining it in 2017.

There are some critical points about badminton that one first needs to question. Take Saina Nehwal leaving Gopichand’s academy. Should this be allowed in sport? There should be a structure. Gopichand is the national coach. Can an athlete, who’s representing the country, leave on his own or her own? Will there be certain things permitted or not permitted? You can’t say that I will not train under the national coach but under a different coach because according to me he is a better coach? You can have your personal coach, right? But then there is the national coach. So there’s a structure to that. The reason shooting failed in Rio was exactly this. Each of the players had their own coaches. There has to be a structure. If not, then you disband the post of the national coach. Each player can have their own system, their own coaches. Then don’t draw on national funds.

Dreams Of A Billion: India And The Olympic Games by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta, HarperCollins India, 352 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799
Dreams Of A Billion: India And The Olympic Games by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta, HarperCollins India, 352 pages, 799

What are India’s chances for badminton medals in Tokyo?

Look at Nehwal’s results post-2014. She was World No.1 in 2015, but overall, her career graph has gone downward. (P.V.) Sindhu is an exceptional athlete. Every big event she has come through and she’s a superstar. But except Sindhu, maybe Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, and maybe Sai Praneeth have a chance. I don’t think anyone else will qualify. Satwik and Chirag will be the doubles team.

That for me is problematic. Because if you think back to Rio, you will see there were more people and you should have expected more people to qualify this time. Srikanth Kidambi had a high in 2017 with four Super Series title wins. There was Prannoy H.S., Srikanth Kidambi, Sai Praneeth, Sameer Verma. So we should expect at least two women and two men to qualify, right? You would expect at least two double teams to qualify? Frankly, I don’t think we will get that. That, for me, is a slight backward step. Now in terms of medal chances, in doubles, Satwik and Chirag have had a breakthrough year. Sindhu I am hopeful about, and the Japanese courts will suit her.

The Indian government runs the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), which aims to take an already-established athlete and make her into a medals prospect. But is there enough being done for younger athletes? Does India have the financial structures and infrastructure in place?

See the Jamaican system. Jamaica has one-tenth of the money India has. And you will get an Usain Bolt and Nesta Carter and a Michael Frater and Yohan Blake coming out of Jamaica every single day. Whether it is TOPS, whether it is government funding, whether it is SAI (Sports Authority of India) money, whether it is private initiatives, there is enough and more money in the Indian system. So money is not an issue.

Infrastructure is not an issue. There is enough infrastructure now in India. Whether it is SAI’s National Institute of Sports (in Patiala), or private initiatives like the Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance centre (ABTP) in Bhubaneswar, or JSW Sports’ Inspire Institute of Sport in Vijayanagar, these are fantastic facilities. What needs to happen is a mesh between TOPS, which is government, and private initiatives like the ABTP, JSW Sports, GoSports Foundation and Olympic Gold Quest. The moment there is public-private partnership, and synergy, if that happens, Indian sport is sorted.

If you look at the number of athletes in GoSports, at least 75-80% are youngsters. Their focus is to nurture young athletes. Be it a Bhavani Devi in fencing, be it a Manoj Sarkar in para-badminton. What can be improved going forward is this synergy between the public and the private. The moment the (Union) sports ministry and the Indian Olympic Association starts talking on a regular basis to private initiatives, we will have a holistic system in place.

India have been doing well in the Youth Olympics. Does that give you reasons to be optimistic?

Frankly, I am very optimistic. If you see our Youth Olympics performance, we had two medals at Nanjing (2014) and 13 in Buenos Aires (2018). So if you can go from two to 13 in the Youth Olympics, that actually tells you that come 2024, if our sports schemes are giving proper results, then we are actually in a position to make the Olympic Games our own and become a multi-sporting nation.

Now the other thing is hosting mega events. Frankly, it has to be step by step. If India really is interested, then we should host the Youth Olympics. Look at the U-17 FIFA World Cup, see the number of young players that came out of that. If you host the Youth Olympics in India in 2026, say, that is your next step to becoming a massively important sporting nation. The moment we are able to do that, all the systems will come together, and together that will give a massive fillip to Olympic sports. And the Youth Olympics is not like the Olympics, which is prohibitively expensive to host. We can host it with our existing infrastructure from the Commonwealth Games, the National Games, the U-17 FIFA World Cup. If you read the Olympic Agenda 2020 document (a strategic roadmap for reforming the Olympic Games prepared by the International Olympic Committee), it says Olympics can be hosted by the entire country and need not be based in one city. So water sports can be held in Mumbai. Football can be held in Kolkata, some sports can be held in Delhi, badminton can be held in Hyderabad. What was the fundamental problem with the 2010 Commonwealth Games? It was Delhi’s games and not India’s games. The moment you make this India’s games, problem sorted.

Is there a blueprint that India can follow for Olympics success?

We can emulate the British model. In the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Great Britain won one gold. Sixteen years later in London, they win 29 gold medals. In 2016, 27 gold medals. So it’s a 15-year story. England singled out five-six sporting disciplines and concentrated all their infrastructure there. Identify six sports, and follow the British model. They had lottery funding; well, we have TOPS. There was a public-private partnership there, we should also do that.

In field hockey, there’s just one gold. Now take rowing. It has at least eight-10 classifications. Today in Tokyo, you are participating in 21 classifications under shooting. Take fencing, can you tell me how many classifications there are? Let’s put our money there. You are saying we have all these community traditions and art forms (that involve sword play) that are traditionally practised, and we can’t refine some fencers from there? In martial arts, take judo, taekwondo, so many classifications. You’re seriously saying it won’t work? Pick sports according to your strengths. Identify and invest.

Look at cricket. In 1992, the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) posted a loss of 62 lakh. Sixteen years later, the IPL (Indian Premier League) started, and today you are the world’s richest cricket body. In badminton, there has been a 2,000% increase in the number of players in the last five years. If that is not a revolution, what is a revolution? If you have no dearth of talent in the country, you are saying you can’t harness it?

Finally, I will tell you from personal experience that in America and Canada, Olympic athletes emerge from the academic framework. In our country, education and academia on one hand and sport on the other are still delinked. So the first dialogue that should happen is between the HRD (human resources development) ministry and the sports ministry. In India, not one Olympian emerges from the university system. The moment your university becomes the kernel in the process of producing a sports champion, half the problem is solved. That is when you become a really important sporting nation.

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