India’s sportspersons have returned to India after a fantastic performance at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Neeraj Chopra’s javelin throw gave India its first ever gold medal in athletics (and second in an individual event). Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu and wrestler Ravi Dahiya won us two silver medals, while boxer Lovlina Borgohain, badminton player P V Sindhu, wrestler Bajrang Punia and the men’s hockey team won bronze medals. Our overall tally of 7 medals is the highest at any Olympics. Overall, a very creditable performance the nation should be proud of.
As a proud Indian, I too am hopeful that the exposure and “big stage” experience gained by our sportspersons in Tokyo, combined with better training, practice infrastructure and facilities will help India better its 2021 performance. However, I worry about the flurry of speculative discussions in the media about how many medals India will win at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.
The media is full of expert analysis and recommendations on what the government and sports federations need to do to ensure a higher medal tally in 2024. Sportsperson I am not; nor am I a seer. Therefore, I do not know what individuals and teams need to sustainably enhance their performance and win medals for India in the future. But I do know that ad hoc actions will not suffice.
A structured, long-term approach is essential for sustaining success in sports and business
I see a clear parallel between the world of sports and the corporate world, with which I am more familiar. No matter how talented and skilled an individual athlete or player is, skills alone are not enough to win him/her a medal. They need the right coaching, top quality training facilities, regular opportunities to compete with the world’s best, the right nutrition, inputs on biomechanics, mental conditioning etc. Having all this also does not guarantee a medal-winning performance, because, on the day, anything can happen.
Similarly, individual brilliance or an innovative new idea or product alone will not guarantee success in business. India needs to strengthen its ecosystem for business, with a particular emphasis on startups and young ventures. Coaching and mentoring to give better shape to business ideas, access to risk capital, support during the early stages of the business, tax breaks, the right kinds of sector-specific laws and regulations that will help businesses become viable sooner are all elements of what our business ecosystem requires.
Just as world-class sports infrastructure cannot come up in every state or city in the next year or two, incubators cannot come up everywhere. Junior talent identification and nurturing programs too can take 8-10 years to produce top-class sportspeople who are ready to compete on the global stage. Even if physical infrastructure comes up, finding equally qualified coaches for all locations will not be easy.
Although we know that Artificial Intelligence, Cybersecurity, Clean Energy, Electric Vehicles etc. are all critical emerging areas, it is naïve to expect that overnight India will become a leader in these sectors. The same is true of our performance in sports as well. Countries prioritize participation in those sporting events that afford them their best chances of winning medals; India is no exception. This same thinking needs to be applied to business as well. The first step is to mindfully identify sectors that are critical to our future- for example, clean energy, healthcare, space, drones, defence equipment (aircraft carriers, submarines, 6th generation fighter aircraft, anti-missile systems), electronic chips etc.
Then, just as countries identify individuals with promise in the “priority sports”, the government of India (and the private sector) must identify/agree on ventures with the potential to become world-class and nurture them. Within the national business ecosystem, smaller regional ecosystems need to be created across the country, based on resource availability and other strategic considerations. Individual states must compete with each other to build such ecosystems and attract the best entrepreneurial talent. Doing all this will definitely give India a stronger and more vibrant domestic industry, besides acting as prime movers for overall socio-economic development, employment generation and GDP growth.
Spotting and nurturing young talent in various sports must be part of our education system
Also, our education system has focused on academics, with sports and other activities labeled as “extra-curricular”. This needs to change in two ways. First, right from the primary school level, children must be encouraged to participate in different sporting activities. Trained teachers and specialist staff must spot talent and at the right ages, enable specialized training. This obviously must be done with the parents’ active cooperation. Second, for super talented children who wish to pursue sports as a possible career option, specialized institutions must be set up (either by state/central governments or in PPP mode). Children in these institutions must be given extra coaching and training, while also being allowed to pursue a basic level of academics that will help them once their sporting careers end. Seasoned athletes must be invited to train at these facilities so that young aspirants can learn and benchmark against the country’s best. The National Education Policy 2020 seeks to make sports and physical fitness more central to school education, but the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Only time will tell how seriously this is taken in a country that values grades and marks over excellence in a chosen field.
Concerted action is essential not just for a US$5 Trillion economy but also a richer medal haul in the future
Winning in sports is not easy- and neither is succeeding in business. If we are not quick to act, flight of entrepreneurial talent to other countries is a distinct possibility, and in time, our businesses (and athletes) may end up competing with rivals who also had their origins in India- and could perhaps have been part of our sports contingents and GDP. What is worse, we may be ranked as poorly on innovation in critical areas as we have been in world sports.
Just as countries identify individuals with promise in the “priority sports”, the government of India (and the private sector) must identify/agree on ventures with the potential to become world-class and nurture them.