Over many decades Indian sportspersons have purely rode on ‘grit’, ‘pluck’, and ‘determination’ to emerge champions – often serving us an ‘unfortunate reminder’ how they have emerged podium-finishers in big-ticket multi-sporting events ‘despite the system’ and ‘not because of the system’.
When it came to the Olympics, it was our men’s hockey team (they won eight gold medals between 1928 and 1980) that remained our saving grace for years, ensuring our country’s name figures in the Olympics medals tally, as individual Olympic medals were hard to come by at least till the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when India bagged three Olympic medals, including the country’s first individual Olympic gold medal via shooter Abhinav Bindra. The 2008 Olympics seemed to ignite a strong self-belief that Indians can ‘compete’ on the Olympic stage – something that was evident during the 2012 London Olympics where India won 6 medals (2 silver and 4 bronze medals).
Of course, the ‘handful’ of Olympic medals did call for ‘celebrations’, but could not overlook the ‘reality’ that lack of desired sporting infrastructure, adequate funding support for athletes coupled with lack of ‘strong government intent’ over the years have been responsible for many precocious talents falling by the wayside and also probably explains why India have ‘enormous catching up to do’, in terms of coming anywhere close to what sporting powerhouses like USA, Great Britain and China.
And to address the shortfalls, the Sports Ministry rolled out the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) in September 2014 within the ambit of National Sports Development Fund (NSDF) to identify and support athletes, who could be potential medal prospects at the 2016 Rio Olympics, 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and beyond.
Subsequently, the Sports Ministry entrusted the Sports Authority of India (SAI) with the responsibility of driving the TOPS. It subsequently led to the formation of the Mission Olympic Cell (MOC), headed by the Director General, SAI –the MOC was constituted based on the report submitted by the Task Force that was created by Prime Minister Narendra Modi just days after the 2016 Rio Olympics to draw up a comprehensive action plan for future Olympics. The larger focus of the Mission Olympic Cellwas to identify athletes, who could be supported under the TOPS as well as monitor and review the performances of TOPS-supported athletes for their continuance in the scheme.
To be honest, the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) was far from a near-perfect scheme, especially in its first few years. The scheme on numerous occasions had come under flak, as several athletes felt let down by delays in release of funds – one can recall the predicament of ace shooter Ronjan Sodhi, who was made to run from pillar to post to get his training funds released just weeks before his final 2016 Olympic qualifier. But then such delays in release of funds, multi-layered clearances, complex paperwork and bureaucratic red tape are nothing new in Indian sports, even before the birth of TOPS.
It won’t be wrong to suggest that the Target Olympic Podium Scheme adopted a ‘more streamlined approach’ when the TOPS secretariat was formed in mid-2018 (the secretariat comprised a CEO and 20-odd officials having a strong sports background).
The TOPS in its initial years drafted in large number of players than ‘what was probably required’ and there was a general feeling that the criteria to select athletes was ‘lenient’.
“A need was felt to cut down on the large number of athletes included under TOPs, but the year 2018 featured the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games and we did not want to disturb our country’s preparations for these events by exiting any athlete from TOPS. But after the Asian Games, the MOC conducted a thorough review and pruned the list to less than 100 athletes and now TOPS has around 86 athletes," said Neelam Kapur, Director General, Sports Authority of India (SAI).
The selection of players for TOPs is carried out through a thread bare process involving a significant amount of data analysis. “The TOPS Secretariat comprises research guys, who would closely monitor a TOPS-supported athlete’s current record/performance, compare it with the global records, identify who are the TOPS athlete’s global competitors,their age, etc,” the SAI DG reels out the approach that is followed in monitoring an TOPs athlete.
The TOPS secretariat deploys athletes’ relationship managers, who essentially serve as the ‘crucial link’ between the TOPS athlete and the MOC.
“These athletes relationship managers are in touch with every TOPS player, his/her coach and the federation. We know everything that is happening in a player’s life through these ARMs,” Kapur elaborates sporting a grin.
What has worked ‘well’ for the TOPS in recent years is the ‘consultative approach’ the MOC adopts in ‘picking’ and ‘dropping’ athletes.
The MOC takes every NSF into confidence, provides data of each athlete to the federations and a consensus is reached on who should be picked and not picked under TOPS. “We meet the top-brass of federations over several meetings if needed, and then a final decision is taken at the MOC meeting,” Kapur says.
Another heartening feature of TOPS is that TOPS hasn’t cared much about ‘reputations.’
Take the case of two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar – the grappler was dropped from TOPS in 2017 because he was out of competitive action and was again inducted in mid-June 2018 after he won the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medal, only to be excluded from the scheme in late 2018 after his disappointing Asian Games campaign. 2014 Asian Games gold medallist and 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Jitu Rai was also dropped from TOPS in mid-2018 owing to sudden slump in form that led to him being dropped for the 2018 Asian Games. Even 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt was exited from TOPS as he was out of competitive action.
The SAI DG offers her perspective. “We have exited big-stature players from TOPS when we felt that they are either past their prime or are out of international action for a long time or are going through a slump in form. We take such a call when we are convinced that the performance of an athlete is not good enough to make it to the Olympic podium.”
But there are murmurs as to why the likes of sprinter Dutee Chand, 2018 Asian Games Heptathlon gold medallist Swapna Barman, and men’s 800 metre 2018 Asian Games gold medallist Manjit Singh have been kept out of the TOPS radar.Dutee Chand's omission from TOPS has raised eyebrows for a long time now.
“We are happy to see these athletes, but you also have to analyse things in the Indian context as well as in the global context. We don’t think Asian Games reflect the world’s best competition in these events – can these athletes qualify for the Olympics and if they qualify, can they come anywhere close to making it to the podium? We have to factor in all these things,” Kapur explains the rationale behind keeping the trio out of TOPS for now.
TOPS has largely focussing on supporting individual sportspersons, but there are calls from federations from time to time to include team sports under the scheme. For the record, the national men’s hockey team was part of the TOPS and was subsequently exited. “It’s a huge financial commitment to make to include team sports in TOPS. As far as hockey is concerned, it is well funded by SAI through other schemes,in terms of facilitating foreign coach and high performance manager. None of the other team sports are in Olympic medal reckoning,” observes the SAI DG.
There will a kind of ‘policy shift’ as the future roadmap of TOPS is concerned –the scheme going forward will only focus on Olympic medal prospects and not on other multi-sport events such as Asian Games or Commonwealth Games, as those are substantially funded through various other government schemes. The SAI has already put in a development policy in place and has identified athletes in a certain age group, who are expected to peak during the 2024 and 2028 Olympics.
The Target Olympic Podium Scheme may have stoked controversies, especially in the first few years of its implementation,but one cannot take away the fact that the scheme has richly benefitted our athletes. The likes of shuttler PV Sindhu (lapped up a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics), wrestler Sakshi Malik (clinched the 58-kg bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics), Bajrang Punia (won gold medals at the 2018 Commonwealth and 2018 Asian Games, besides bagging a silver medal at the 2018 World Championship),Vinesh Phogat won gold medals at the 2018 Commonwealth and 2018 Asian Games),weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu (won the 2017 World Championship gold medal as well as the 2018 Commonwealth gold medal)and javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra (won gold medals at the 2018 Commonwealth and 2018 Asian Games have been the biggestbeneficiaries of TOPS.
The TOPS support for athletes helped India turn up its best-ever medal haul at the 2018 Asian Games winning 69 medals (15 gold, 24 silver and 30 bronze medals) – even at the 2018 Asian Para Games, India finished with its best-ever haul of 72 medals (15 gold, 24 silver and 33 bronze medals(improving on their medal haul in the 2010 and 2014 editions). India was also among the medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games bagging 66 medals (26 gold, 20 silver and 20 bronzemedals). Of course, India has a long way to go in terms of matching the world’s best –nations like China, Japan and South Korea in the context of the Asian Games and Para Asian Games; nations like England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada in the context of the Commonwealth Games. But the fruits of TOPS are there to see.
Some of the national sports federations have accentuated the ‘importance’ of TOPS for Indian athletes. Boxing Federation of India (BFI) Secretary General Jay Kowli said, “Whatever shortfall BFI used to experience in our preparations has been catered to by TOPS. The scheme is very vigilant and fixes accountability on the athlete and ensures no one can be taken for a ride.”Neelam Kapur with the Indian boxing contingent ahead of the World Championships. (Delhi, 2018)
Indian weightlifting has hugely benefitted from TOPS – its chief coach Vijay Sharma said, “TOPS is the best thing to have happened to Indian weightlifting. Earlier, if we requested for any equipmentneed, it will take months but now with TOPs any request is processed promptly and delivered within a week to ten days. We had also requestedfor enhancing our diet in NIS, Patiala and even that was promptly addressed. The likes of Mirabai Chanu winning the 2017 World Championship gold medal and Jeremy Lalrinnungabagging the 2018 Youth Olympic gold medal are largely due to TOPS support.”
A Hockey India official on condition of anonymity said, “The support from SAI has been fantastic so far. We just hope our men’s and women’s hockey team are included in TOPS.”
The Target Olympic Podium Scheme has benefitted not just Olympic medal prospects, but also athletes preparing for Asian and Commonwealth Games as well as major internationals competitions like World Championships etc. For the betterment of Indian sports, one hopes that the TOPS will not just ‘survive’ in the years to come, but also grow more robust and raise the ‘improvement bar’ of Indian athletes – help India move away from garnering a handful of medals at the Olympics and be an Olympic powerhouse, if not in the immediate future but at least four-five decades down the line.