The recent performances by Dipa Karmakar or Aruna Reddy at the Olympics and World Cups and other major international competitions have seen a huge resurgence in Indian gymnastics. With the results at an all-time high, while we celebrate our athletes and their successes, Indian gymnastics must continue to deal with a larger and deep rooted problem, that of athletes quitting.
The reason this is so prevalent in gymnastics opens up a whole other set of issues. Very little is known about gymnastics as a sport in the country, as a result of which it attracts very little attention from the government, the public and sponsors.
It is an expensive sport requiring good quality equipment, a well suited facility and its specific safety measures. Its popularity in the general public, or the lack of it, means that there is a scarcity of sponsors willing to invest into a sport they have no assurance of getting any return from.
As a result, the major responsibility shifts to the government to encourage, put funding and appoint an efficient association to handle the sport. There seems to be a major deficit in the funding allotted to gymnastics within the government, made evident by the lack of facility at SAI (Sports Authority of India) centres as well as State Government run facilities in the country.
For instance, following the success of Ashish Kumar in 2010, the annual grant awarded to the Gymnastics Federation by the Ministry of Sport in 2011-12 was estimated at 130 lakh rupees, making it very evident that the funding by the government is purely result oriented. What is even more surprising is that in 2015-16, there was no money granted to the Gymnastics Federation as a result internal fighting amongst the Federation causing two factions. The Federation was derecognized by the IOA and no grant was provided. This was the year before the Olympics, when country hoped for a medal in gymnastics from Dipa Karmakar as she bore the brunt of this dispute.
Poor management and lack of facility more often than not leaves gymnasts frustrated resulting in them quitting the sport. This dangerous vicious cycle of lack of financial support and facility leading to gymnasts quitting, leading to further reduced popularity which in turn once again reduces the funding into the sport is where the root cause of the problem lies.
For a sport as demanding as gymnastics, it requires a certain standard of equipment that can enable younger gymnasts to perform difficult skills and at the same time provide safety. There are a scarce number of clubs in the country that provide top notch imported equipment which is approved by the International Federation. A majority of gymnasts when starting out, do not train on good equipment at well-equipped facilities and must therefore face a number of issues. Lack of equipment can often lead to injuries creating a false impression that the sport is dangerous and becoming a major reason for walking away from the sport. For many gymnasts, there lies a huge difference between the equipment they train on versus that on which they must compete. This disparity causes a disruption in performance and lowered results.
There is only 1% of gymnasts who actually make it into the Indian camps and are provided with good facility, that too when they turn senior. If gymnasts are encouraged and provided what they need to improve, we may begin to see the sport and its scope in a very different light. For the 1% who do make it to the national and international stage as a result of pure hard work, perseverance and talent, they must endure the next stage of challenges.
Politics is an inevitable part of any institution in any country across the world. As small as the gymnastics community in India may be, the politics within it are anything but. Ranging from the federation being split into two factions, to no national championships being held for more than a year to last minute cancellation of athletes being sent for international competitions, the list is endless.
The sad reality of the matter is, that the gymnasts, after working incredibly hard through the years, must face the brunt of this incessant political drama. The most recent and well known example of this, is the debacle surrounding the selection of gymnasts for the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Major confusion with the selection committee, lack of clear cut instructions about the selection procedure and criteria and a clash between the Sports Authority of India and the IOA resulted in India’s top male gymnast, Rakesh Kumar Patra almost missing out on the Games. Following this nightmare, the gymnasts on the Indian team arrived only a day before the competition began which meant they did not receive their complete podium training, where they are allowed to practice their routines and get used to the equipment in the main stadium.
Ashish Kumar, known across the country for creating history by winning two medals at the Commonwealth Games in 2010, has often openly criticised the Federation and the unending politics within it as a reason for wanting to quit the sport. It is simply a matter of paying a little more attention to the needs of our athletes and respecting them.
The extreme physical and mental demands the sport placed on the gymnast’s body calls for a short lived career for most gymnasts, and losing out precious years to administrative politics is nothing short of devastating for the athlete. Then, is quitting really giving up?
Aruna Budda Reddy has scripted history by clinching India's first medal at the @gymnastics World Cup. Perhaps now is the time to start paying the sport more attention?
— The Bridge (@TheBridge_IN) February 25, 2018
Another major problem surrounding the less popular sports in the country is that of rewards. For the athletes who achieve laurels for the country are rewarded by State or the Central government with one time cash rewards. Due to lack of recognition of the sport, athletes are not offered sponsorships or endorsements from brands and other institutions in the country. Such offers are good incentives for athletes and for the sport’s upliftment as a whole.
This becomes crucial when it is seen in the general public that sportspersons are being rewarded for their achievements and that it is worth staying in sports and pursuing it at a higher level. Providing such incentives may help in breaking the stereotype that almost every Indian family is conditioned to believe, that pursuing sport is a side hobby to any child’s main focus, which should be academics. Watching older athletes quit due to politics and lack of rewards sends a false notion of the fact that it is better to quit a sport that provides no security and promise in the future.
It is about time that we take sports more seriously and provide it the attention it deserves. Nothing teaches perseverance, patience and coping with failure better than sport. Therefore we must encourage those who practice it, nurture their young dreams and provide a safe and just environment for their dreams to become a reality.
A problematic of this stature must immediately be dealt it and solved before it threatens to shut down a sport as beautiful as gymnastics.