Olympic medal aspirations for India

Indian Aspirations of Olympic Medallion : Tokyo 2020 (Part 1 of 2)

Indian performance at the Olympics ever since its inception, has been abysmal. Among other factors, the absence of desired genotype & anthropometric considerations in the selection and not following science-based trainings have been significant. The national sports policy 2001 did bring some changes in the thinking at the highest level. Among other measures, it broadened the base for the sports, linking it to education, creation of sports federations, new facilities better coaches and also introducing a scientific footing in sports. However, performance in 2004 Olympics only revealed that not much foot-hold could be gained by the steps taken for varied reasons. Modi Govt in 2016-17 constituted a Task Force to recommend adopting new measures esp directed to the next three Olympics. The govt did not delay implementing those measures but the efficacies are not truly convincing. This article highlights some of such issues which apparently are on the other side of the coin…...

Indian Steps on Olympics Podium…an overview

India’s tryst with Olympic medals have always been circumspect : Lot of enthusiasm and hypes created before the events invariably culminating in to disappointments. An occasional flicker of hope on to the podium doesn’t speak much for our country of >1.3 billion. Thanks mainly to Hockey in early decades that India got a medal. The emergence of Shooting, wrestling, boxing and badminton events in recent times has been saving India from embarrassments, giving us few medals since 2008 Olympics. Our abysmal Olympic medal tallies (G-gold, S-silver, B-bronze) over seven decades are shown in Table-1.

Table-1 : Olympic Medals won by India

Olympics medals for India

In the entire history of Indian participation in Olympics both before and after our independence, India has participated 24 times and won a total of 28 medals. It is beyond imagination how track & field and water sports having so many medals at stakes, have been eluding us. The total events/sports wise medals won by India is shown in table-2.

India Olympics medals by Sports

This indirectly means that India possesses significant talents and skills in those sports/games. Hence its participation in those events in future too will remain well justified. However, the sports in which the Indian team has not progressed beyond the 1st heat stage, one may have to review participation. The number of total events in the Olympics have increased from 9 in 1896, 26 in 2012, 28 in 2016…. to 33 events scheduled for 2020 where it features 5 new sports (Baseball/softball, Karate, skateboard, sport Climbing & surfing) of which one is familiar in India too. In all future Olympic team selection, one question of ‘winning ability’ must also be asked. Winning ability is decided by performance levels in international competitions having reasonably higher standards of participating athletes. A personal best record comes the next. In track & field, water sports as well as weight-lifting personal best records of Indian athletes, lag far behind and possibilities of getting medals are rather bleak unless the selection & training methods are improved drastically and the personal best records are brought very close to the Olympic records.

The way sports were viewed earlier…

The sports in India were traditionally considered ‘recreational’ with very few having professional aspirations till the last few decades. We lacked advanced infrastructures & facilities of competitive sports and its promotion in rural / small cities were very limited. As a result, the selection was from among who showed-up in the national games who were unable to be trained optimally for a medal prospect. Last year however, a national sports policy has been initiated on a wider platform of promotion and selection through “Khelo-India” involving all schools (rural & urban) with some added incentives that showed the immediate result in 2018 Asian games but many of the games records are much too short of Olympics medal aspirations.

Indian Performance records in Track & Field events

Past performance of athletes in sports are seldom useful but for the ‘event records’ which though always subject to be broken by a new one, are of immense value as a yardstick for training goals of the athletes. A look at our Indian records vis-à-vis Olympic records (Tables 3 & 4) reveal wide gaps and explains why we are unable to even qualify beyond elimination rounds, semi-finals or finals, leave alone the podium finish. It is no surprise that we seldom stood a chance in the past and if our selection & training continues as it is, there are hardly any scope for sudden jump in the medal tallies in near future too. These performance parameters serve as a very important training goal.

Indian performance in Weight Lifting

This is a yardstick for the coaches to ponder how to get the training goal near the event records if not over it. The figures in red show a few events where our national records are fairly close to the Olympic records in which our athletes can hope for a medal if special (science-based) efforts in selection & training are made on the probable. Some amount of ‘spot performance surge’ do happen during the actual events (owing to high adrenalin, high stakes and a sheer motivation) but only over a narrow margin. So what are the problem areas in Indian sports?

The Problem areas in Indian sports

Lack of awareness of the various types of sports & games being played in a particular region at various levels among the people (all included). Very few of the rural youth are aware of many competitive events. Of late, of course, TV has made the awareness so some level.

The parents/guardians feel it a waste of time & effort of their wards. Only a few fancied sports events have captured the imaginations of the youth whereas many other sports suffer identity crisis and promotional indifferences.

Lack of Career prospects. Youth in sports often have to fall out of the higher education or leave the sports to compete the curriculum. Even if someone pursues sports, there is hardly any career prospects during or after his active phase. Therefore a mandatory sports quota in educational instt of repute are needed for the probable at the places of their training.

Lack of Sports Infrastructures. Insensitivity of successive govts in the country towards sorts had been a sad affair. Rajiv Gandhi was the first to enhance the budgetary allocation by almost 8 fold in 1987 followed by Bajpayee govt who increased it by 2.5 times in 2002. Even basic infrastructures for various sports & games were lacking at the villages, Panchayat, Schools & colleges levels. While it may not be possible to have advanced facilities at periphery, basic infrastructure can be made with reasonable investment and that has been the problem in our country. Along with the govt, even corporate sectors must take responsibilities. It was in 2016 that sports in India was given a staus of Indistry and the budget allocation of sports increased many folds in 13th 5 yr plan.. Investment in infrastructures of stadia and other facilities, sports goods manufacture, opening of sports academics, scientific training, holding of international championships etc will surely propel India's chances of gaining prominence. We only hope that India will now excell in sports.

Lack of Institutions of par excellence. The teaching institutions in sports were non-existent in our country. Sports Authority of India and a few sports federation were the sole agencies. The types of training they imparted, were evident by the medal tallies of our nations in various international champnonships. With no intention to criticise them, it must be confessed that their knowledge domain in most sports & games can be termed anything but “par excellence”. They were little receptive to new ideas, new methods, new technologies and new suggestions. As a result, as many nations progressed in their methods of selections and training, we lagged behind as evident in our achievements.

Lack of specialisd Coaches were a common factor at the districts and lower levels. Even some of the state sports bodies did not have qualified coaches as they could not afford paying requisite remunerations. Besides, availability of high quality coaches in the country having self experienced either a podium finish in Olympics / World championships or enabling/coaching participants / teams to such podium, are highly deficient. They only know what type of preparations are required in medallion aspirations and are able to exercise those coaching skills effectively.

Lack of special nutrition / diet has been equally hampering the capabilities and performance of our sports persons and probable athletes. A very rich & nutritious diet is mandatory for all physical and physico-technical sports to develop the power, speed, stamina that were hardly ever been made available to them. Some sports demand a very high calorie diet during trainings and while participating in the events.

Lack of means. A youth from poor family may not be able to bear the cost of even basic sports kits for competition. Such people, even if having extraordinary merit, will not come in to the eyes of the selectors. Of late, there was some news that a University Hockey team did not have shoes and sticks while going for competition.

Remunerations / Scholarships for those who are really medallion prospects at international levels of competition is another requirement. Of course, Khelo India has taken care of it but it must ensure that the tax-payers’ money go to the deserving ones, selected scientifically, on the basis of performance and free of any personal biases whatsoever. Here comes a riddle. Modi govt has steeply hiked the sports allocations right from its first year.

Thereafter, based on the task force recommendations there are steep hikes on almost all accounts. Hike in infrastructure development will always remain an asset in the training & promotion of the sports. Steep hike in scholarships for the selected sports-persons and their daily expenditures are also welcome provided its reaching the individuals. Steep hike in the remuneration of the coaches are welcome but are these deserving coaches who can fulfil the nations medallion aspirations? There are also pensions to the ex-sportspersons which is welcome step but one can only hope that there are no biases in their nominations. It can be hoped that India has taken a major leap in investments in sports and results should be expected in near future.

Lack of transparent and Scientific selection at the peripheral levels covering the nukes & corners of our country is the root cause of suitable persons being picked-up as probables. Reasons for it are many, incl favouritism & nepotism. The new sports policy tries to address this issue by starting a pan-India school games but what if that material is a school dropout for some reason? Further, the one who stands 1st or 2nd position at the school / state / national level competitions, need to be given due scientific considerations in selection. For example, the Khelo India School competition this year shows that many boys coming 1st or 2nd in various events are 17 yrs old. The one coming 3rd or 4th may be 14/15 yrs, having better body phenotype or anthropometric constitution, have greater scope for performance improvements by training. Final Selection must be only merit based, of fit athletes only. If any person is having an injury likely to affect one’s performance, he/she must be screened out of the competition. We have seen injured competitors accompanying the team with sorry state of performance. Sports medicine specialist must play his due role, free of any admin pressures, collateral considerations or biases.

Body phenotype or anthropometric constitution are of greatest importance in the selection. It forms the ‘X’ factor for all physical sports. Leg-length becomes crucial in runs, jumps; Arm-lengths in boxing, swimming (incl palm length & breadth); some other anthropometric parameters relevant in some sports are mentioned in the table-5 below. Parameters shown in red are of higher relevance. These parameters are inclusion factors in the selection ie. if there are 5 candidates from whom 1 or 2 Olympic probable are to be selected, the anthropometric parameters become important for success. Anthropometric measurements can easily be taken on a low cost “Modified Moran’s board”. Equally important is some exclusion factors of diseases & deformities in body & limbs. Ailments limiting physical capabilities and deformities like flat-foot, knock-knees, kypho-scoliosis of spine and recurrent dislocations of joints may better be screened out during selection.

Anthropometric parameters in sports selection

Categories of Sports

The Olympic sports events may broadly be categorised as Physical or Physico-Technical as shown in the figure-1, most being a mix of the two. Table-6 below highlight the possible extent of the importance of the Physical & Technical factors in various Olympics sports as well as possible mind applications these sports as represented by the numbers of the ‘+’ marks. One ‘+’ shows the least application and four ‘+’ shows the maximum. One may however, argue whether a perticular event applies 2, 3 or 4 ‘+’ in any given event but there is no doubt that it represents the extent of one’s Physque, Technical skills of the mind application in that order.

Physical sports. In these sports, performance depends upon the physical constitution of ones’ body built with some skill elements too. The body built constitutes both the body framework (lengths & breadths) and the muscles (both types and mass). The Fast-Twitch (FT) muscles (Type-II) act in spurt (explosive) movements (short distance running-cycling-swimming, jumping, throw sports etc), whereas the Slow-Twitch (ST) muscles (Type-I) are known for its endurance (marathon/ long distance running-cycling-swimming, walk). Hence, it is very important to know the predominant constituent muscle type in a person (Phenotypes) before one’s selection for a given sport. This can be done by actual performance in the given sports, offering saliva tests to determine children's ACTN3 makeup and biochemical genetic profiling through myocyte enhancer factor 2 (MEF2) proteins and Calcium-dependent Ca2+/calmodulin kinase activity may be useful. In doubtful cases testing one’s muscle biopsy for number / density of mitochondria in the myofibril are also done. Studies show that the body's muscle-fiber production depends on which variant (X or R) of the gene ACTN3 one possesses. Two copies of X-variant of the gene produces a bounty of slow-twitch fibers having predisposition for endurance sports, while two copies of the R variant lead to an overproduction of fast-twitch fibres for speed. These muscles act on body frames which must yield optimum performance. These body frames come under Anthropometric parameters and are considered X-factor of success. For example, a person having longer legs will perform better in running than a person having shorter legs even if both are of the same Type-II phenotype muscle constitution (refer the tables on anthropometry above). Similarly, a comparatively shorter trunk & arm-length subject will have better prospects in weight lifting. A boxer with tall height and longer arm-length will have much more impact on his opponent. This is why knowledge of both phenotype and anthropometric considerations get importance in scientific selection. These physical performance based sports are mainly athletics track & field (mainly running-cycling-swimming-walking etc) having numerous medals at stake.

Physico-Technical Sports where the physique, technical skills as well as application of mind in differing proportion yields success. This category of sports forms the majority of competitive individual and team events like weight-lifting, wrestling, boxing, Shooting, Table tennis, Archery, gymnastic and so on. Water events of Diving and synchronised swimming are also physico-skilled sports having many Olympic medals at stake. Thus incorporating a logical mix of physique and technical skills in these sport will surely augment one’s performance and increase medal prospects.

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