Indian youth wants to play, but fears falling down

Capstone Sports

Youth in India can be termed as sport-fanatic. But years later, they turn into doctors, engineers, chartered accountants, or business consultants.

K. Golahalli is a small village on the outskirts of Bangalore with a total population of less than 8,000. On a sunny morning, several children would be found on their bicycles. “Ready, Steady, Go,” one of them, acting as a referee would announce. Thus, their race would begin.

Fast forward the time to a cloudy evening. A few kids and teens would be seen playing street cricket with an old cricket bat and a worn-out tennis ball. There are no runs to be scored, no wickets to be claimed. They would just play the number of balls they want and then change the roles. Occasionally, a few students from the nearby educational institutions join them for a short game.

Travel a little north in the country to Mumbai. Hundreds of teenagers and youngsters in 20s would be seen training for cricket at almost any point of time in the day at the Shivaji Park.

These examples portray the picture for any corner of the country.

A group of neighbours playing cricket under lights in Santacruz, Mumbai

Youth in India can be termed as sport-fanatic. Any street – in a tier-one city such as Mumbai or a small village on the outskirts of Bangalore – will witness children and teens playing one game or the other.

But, twenty years later, these children might have turned into doctors, engineers, chartered accountants, or business consultants. A few from the village might take up the plough and cultivator and manage vast acres of their land growing different vegetation.

Children who would not leave their ground, day in and day out, suddenly drop bat and racket from their hands, and pedals leave their legs. Very few continue to play the sport. Even if they do, it would be nothing more than for leisure or as a fitness regime.

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Pragnya Mohan won the Triathlon South Asian 2022 championship, held in Nepal in April. Not many people in the country know the sport of triathlon. Fewer know that Pragnya Mohan won the championship. And even fewer people know that she is a Chartered Accountant (CA).

Mohan celebrates the 2022 South Asian Championship victory (Credits: Pragnya Mohan/ Instagram)

She had been into running, swimming, and cycling (the three sports that combine to make triathlon a sport) right from her school days. But being a professional triathlete was never her objective.

She had won an under-14 state championship in swimming in her fourth standard, when she was 9; and won four consecutive state championships in different age-groups from 14 to 18 years of age.

Mohan, belonging to a middle class family from Ahmedabad then, had also picked up competitive running in her fifth standard.

A few years later, her father shifted to Ankleshwar in Gujarat for work while Mohan was in Ahmedabad with her family. Earlier, her father would drop her to swimming classes in the morning. But now she was on her own. “At that time, there was no concept of Uber or Ola. The only viable option was that I had a cycle. So I started cycling to and fro my swimming practices in the morning. That was almost a 20 k.m. cycle ride. And in between I had that three to four k.m. of swimming.

“It was not a very informed decision that later on it will help me, but just what fit the best in that situation.” Mohan had no thoughts of taking up competitive cycling back then.

Similar to Mohan, fewer people have a clarity around their career decisions at a young age. “You need to train very hard, and people do not realize this at 17, 18 or 19,” said M. Satyanarayan, Secretary at the Karnataka State Football Association (KSFA). Sometimes it would be too late when a person is interested to consider sports as a profession.

Similar confusion and impatience is also observed in a sport as elite as cricket. Karnataka Institute of Cricket (KIOC) is a prestigious cricket training institute in Bangalore. Yet they see several young aspirants dropping out every year. “They are not patient. They leave after sometime to pursue something else. We see 10 to 20 dropouts every year,” said Salman Sait, owner of the KIOC.

Mohan explained, “I think, for attaining a career in sports per se, they have to start out very young and you have to be competitive at a very young age. Then only it is possible that you become a very good sports person, because it is a very gradual learning curve. You can’t expect to do wonderfully well within one year of starting to train.”

Tarapore believes that none of the players that play at the school level or in youth competitions are professionals. They might win several accolades, but do not earn money out of it.

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Albeit, Mohan participated and performed well at the national, South Asian and Asian triathlon championships over the years.

Simultaneously, she also qualified as a Chartered Accountant (CA) in 2017, but didn’t want to pursue it as a profession.

However, after all the years of putting hard work in triathlon, it was only in 2019, that she was comfortable considering triathlon as a full-time profession.

“I quit [the profession] the day I received my [CA] result.” But a part of her mind was always confused about the financial instabilities in triathlon. “It was in 2019, after multiple successful competitions that I believed, I can consider it a profession and it can help me earn a good life.”

“How would you define a profession? A profession is something wherein you earn money. You don’t see a young player in India that is professional,” said Tarapore who was also an international umpire earlier. “Financial returns at grassroots are very less. How would a young person want to continue to play a sport if he doesn’t see any [financial] return?”

Highest number of under-19 shuttlers were registered at the All India Junior Ranking Badminton Tournament -2022
Under-11 paddlers in action at the Annual state ranking table tennis tournament

Financial insecurities is only one of the reasons for Indian youth, hesitating to consider sports as a profession. In Mohan’s instance, her parents did support her throughout the journey, but there are times when parents prefer academic career for their children. Also, Mohan herself was sceptical about her career choice until she had achieved a certain height.

Indian batter KL Rahul recently said in a sports talk show, Breakfast with Champions, “My mother still gives me shit for not having a degree. Even during lockdown she said, ‘Why don’t you finish your 30 papers? Why don’t you sit and write it and get a degree?’… The happiest they have been is when I got a RBI job. I had played four years for India already. But that didn’t make them happy. This was like, now you will be stable.”

Besides financial stability and parental support, other reasons for not selecting sports as a profession are lack of qualified coaches, inappropriate infrastructure, societal norms, political intervention, and post-retirement career options.

Mohan’s family also had a short stay in Valsad – a small city in Gujarat – during her school days. She had an Olympic distance swimming pool there to practice in, but no coach to teach her the technicalities.

Source: IISM and FICCI’s Sports Development and Youth Engagement

“This township where we lived had a 50 meter, which is the Olympic sized swimming pool inside the society. That gave me access to swim every day, although there was no coach in the campus. So I used to swim on my own. My parents would come once in a while to guide me,” Mohan narrated.

Source: IISM and FICCI’s Sports Development and Youth Engagement

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Bengaluru Soccer Galaxy is a football club in Bengaluru and Kolkata. Talking about the mind-set of people, Lipika Debnath, the owner of the club said, “Sports is considered only for fitness or physical health. It is considered as an extra-curricular activity. Government job is more important for people.”

She further highlighted that the scepticism would increase more in case of a woman. “They think girls should only do household work. Parents of girls that are willing to join our club also ask us about the safety of girls.”

Mohan shared several of her own societal experience over the years. “Specially, I can speak for women sportsperson. In India there is a culture and the kind of clothes/ attire we have to wear are very skinny and revealing. So I think all that also adds to it.

“We have this fairness quotient in India. A fair girl will get a good boy for marriage. And although, this has not come directly at me, but my parents have been taunted that she stays under the sun for long. My relatives have taunted me, ‘how you will get a good guy if you get tanned.’ When they see me in professional swimsuit, they have problem in that as well. ‘These kind of clothes are revealing and doesn’t suit you at this age,’ they would say.”

Such shaming, however, is not just restricted in India or with junior female athletes. In the month before the start of world’s biggest sporting event in 2021, the Tokyo Olympics, women athletes drew attention to numerous incidents when they were shamed or sexualized for their dressing.

Mohan also explained how the mind-set of people in India is restricted towards academics. “I think somewhere being educated and being an athlete is also not digestible for the society. And a lot of people think that I am not a CA, otherwise why would I be doing this. I could not excel in academics and that is why may be I am doing this.”

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Another significant instance is of an international shooter, Priyal Keni. Keni ala Mohan is also a CA. She had put a break on her CA to excel at shooting. So she decided to continue with a graduation in commerce and focus on shooting.

“People would say, ‘you will do CA after B.Com? You will be late to the party and start earning late,’” Keni said. Students generally start CA after their school (10+2), and graduation is treated like a by-product.

Keni is another example of an international sport person who did not leave her academics behind for sports. She doesn’t give a specific financial reason for it though. “I was always good in academics. I had started CA in 2012. I was fine to take a break, but didn’t want to leave it midway.”

Once she had qualified as a CA, she had a decision to make. “After Jan’ 2020, I had multiple options. But with COVID, I had an answer that I have to go with a CA [related] job for 18 months at least.” Keni has not represented India since 2016 now.

Keni’s instance explains one more reason for lesser number of sports person in India. However, she is willing to make a comeback to the national team.

Keni also explained that there is a lack of awareness in people about career opportunities around sports, and people would decide differently if they were more aware. “People think that to make [sports] a profession, you have to play or become a coach. Railways, ONGC give jobs based on sports quota but people do not know. You can join them once you retire and need not be a coach or open an academy.”

When people are aware, we see professional players who are employed with a corporate for financial security, simultaneously while playing. “I played [cricket] for my state, but was simultaneously working for another company,” Tarapore said.

The reasons simultaneously lead to a very small Indian population taking up sports as a profession. A 2019 International Institute of Sports Management (IISM) report stated that 62 percent of youth are interested in sports in India. But only one percent of them participate actively.

This is in stark contrast to other countries such as the United States, China, or other European countries. And the difference is pervasively material.

Source: IISM and FICCI’s Sports Development and Youth Engagement

Moreover, the interested population is largely skewed towards cricket. The report suggests that Indians are largely aware of games like cricket, football, hockey, kabaddi, and volleyball. But more than 70 percent of ‘sports crazy’ youngsters are not aware of a sporting discipline like Modern Pentathlon.

Source: IISM and FICCI’s Sports Development and Youth Engagement

Less participation leads to less medals in global competitions.

A news.com.au report after the 2016 Rio Olympics stated, “India’s population of more than 1,32,68,01,000 and haul of two medals places them in last position of the 87 countries to win a medal at the 2016 Games, per capita.”

A similar statistic for 2020 Tokyo Olympics again showed India at the end of table – comprising of 93 countries – with 7 medals and population of 1,38,00,04,385. Albeit, India was ranked 48th, simply in terms of number of medals won.

It is needless to mention the dire state of football in India. India have never participated in a football World Cup, though it qualified in 1950.

One of the primary reasons for such difference is that the sports culture and infrastructure in other countries is far better compared to India.

Mohan said, “This particular sport [triathlon] is more dominant in Northern and Western Europe, UK, USA and Australia. Best of coaches are also there. The road and the traffic is also favourable [for cycling]. And the sport developed there earlier. It’s still in a nascent field right now in India. We don’t have that kind of infrastructure, the support and the coaches and facilities that we require.”

“You see the infrastructure and systems they provide to youth football players, aged under-17 in Siberia or Spain. They have multiple football fields, to start with. They also have equipment for post-training recovery sessions to rest their body. And then you compare it with India – even the Indian Super League players do not have such infrastructure,” said Gautam Debnath, co-owner of Bengaluru Soccer Galaxy.

Tarapore had similar views. “Some countries have phenomenal training facilities at school level.” He also said that cultural barriers might also impact the players. “Players from other countries adapt to food, language differences quite earlier as compared to India.”

For the sporting environment to grow in India, the private sector as well as the government will have to put simultaneous efforts for development of infrastructure as well as developing sports personnel.

Satyanarayan said, “They use grounds for other purpose.” He considered the example of hockey in Bangalore. “There are only two hockey pitches in Bangalore. How will they [players] grow? Karnataka has been traditionally good in hockey. There should be five to six sports complex in all districts for sports to grow.”

Satyanarayan however was of the opinion that the situation can’t be compared with gulf countries or European countries. “They have many grounds and less population. If you talk about football, natural turfs need a lot of water. People don’t have drinking water here.”

The athletics track at Kanteerava Stadium took more than two years for reconstruction
The Bengaluru Football Stadium uses artificial turf

But sports other than cricket do not have significant money with them. Hence, associations as well as private institutes might struggle to provide the necessary facilities to develop the sport.

“Private organizations are not so rich to spend extensively for players,” Lipika said.

Gautam complemented Lipika. “The amount that we charge from trainees as fee is mostly spent for their accessories, food and other stuff behind them. We do not make significant money to invest in larger projects.”

Another significant step that can promote sports is more and better professional competitions. Events like Khelo India boost the sporting culture in a very young crowd. The Khelo India documents suggest that schools provide a conducive environment to identify potential sporting stars at a young age.

If professional sports at the highest level is considered, the Indian Premier League (IPL) or ISL have been game changer.

“There were no opportunities earlier. With IPL, players get a lot of opportunities. They might not play for India, but they earn very well through IPL,” Sait said.

As IPL resulted in a revamp for cricket, ISL has had a significant impact on football. However, football is not as robust at grass root level.

“Amateurs have very less opportunities to play. To ensure growth of a player, you need to keep them connected to the game. There are many teams in tournaments in other countries. We have so less tournaments and less teams in those tournaments comparatively,” Gautam said.

Satrajit Debnath, an ex-sports marketing personnel said that the Indian sporting landscape is in a transformation phase. “Transformation started after the leagues were privatized. In other countries, it started 10 years back.”

The importance given to professional athletes in a nation also plays an important role in motivating them. In India, cricketers are seen in a highly respectable manner, but the same does not hold true for other sports.

“Media focuses only a month before the Olympics. If there is no attention, motivation is reduced,” Keni said. She explains that there are other tournaments as well, apart from the Olympics or the Common Wealth Games, that media should cover better.

The efforts of government will remain pivotal in designing the future of Indian sports landscape. The Mizoram State Government gave sports, industry status to generate more employment. Similarly, the national government shall recognize the sports industry to promote playing sports and also ancillary professions around sports.

The IISM report also states that apart from playing, youngsters can also make a career in sports administration, sports media, sports analytics, or be an official. The opportunities available in the sports sector in 2022 is expected to be humungous.

Satrajit said that more job opportunities should be created to promote the industry on an overall basis.

Source: IISM and FICCI’s Sports Development and Youth Engagement

Making a career in sports is never easy, especially in a country like India. For international players like Mohan and Keni as well the decision did not come in a straight forward manner. Keni plans to make a comeback to the sport and then to the national team.

Mohan, on the contrary, has been focussing on her performances, as the tournaments resume post Covid-19 hiatus, to represent India at a higher level.

India sent 121-member strong contingent to the Tokyo Olympics which was the largest ever contingent.

“The dream of going to the 2024 Olympics, which will mark a big thing because no triathlete from India has ever been able to qualify for the Olympics, is within reach,” Mohan said.

With such athletes growing up and government taking significant measures, Indian sporting landscape will definitely see a rise.  But it definitely will not be an overnight journey.

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