Olympic medal-deprived India battles poor facilities

India's hockey team, which once dominated the Olympics with eight golds, the last of which was in Moscow in 1980, finished last in London in 2012

New Delhi (AFP) – In an old ring on a dusty field India’s elite boxers are hard at work, hoping to one day end the country’s dismal Olympic medal record, despite the sub-standard training facilities.

Rohit Tokas and other national-level boxers at a temple complex in bustling New Delhi have long used the outdoor ring, but only in the early mornings and late afternoons when the sweltering heat eases.

After failing to qualify for the Olympics during a test event in Rio, Tokas is among those convinced India need to overhaul their training centres if they are to have any hope of improving their dire medal count.

“The main thing is to have better facilities,” said the lightweight boxer who works out with rusted dumbbells in a dingy weights room.  

“What I saw in Rio was an eye opener. The way they approach their training is totally different from how we go about our routine drills,” he told AFP. “Their diet and thinking is very different to us.”

The privately funded Baba Gang Nath academy is packed with boxers, wrestlers, and judo and volleyball players all determined to represent India.

But Indian Olympic Association secretary Rajeev Mehta said the government is not committed to spending on improving facilities to help develop future stars.

Obsessed with cricket, the world’s second-most populous nation has a total of just 26 medals from 23 Olympic appearances.

“Our sports suffer from lack of infrastructure. We stand nowhere in comparison to America, China, Britain, Holland,” Mehta told AFP.

The sports ministry has set a target of 10 medals in Rio after athletes brought home a modest but record haul of six from London.

The government hailed the 2012 tally as a success, but some dismissed it as embarrassingly low for a country that has enjoyed two decades of rapid economic development and has a booming population of 1.25 billion.

– Mission impossible –

Mehta said even India’s highly celebrated hockey team was suffering. A lack of international-standard facilities has stopped talented youngsters from rising through the ranks to vie for a place on the national squad. 

“There are a number of stadiums which do not have an astroturf or even an indoor stadium. So in such a scenario if we expect a good medal haul then it’s impossible,” Mehta said.

Mehta pointed to hockey masters the Netherlands who have 1,300 astroturf grounds in a country of 17 million people. 

“Now compare it to India where we have just 87 astroturfs out of which 13 to 14 are not functional.” 

India’s hockey team, which once dominated the Olympics with eight golds, the last of which was in Moscow in 1980, finished last in London — although a silver in the recent prestigious Champions Trophy has raised hopes.

A sports ministry spokesman said the government was doing more for its athletes “than ever before” including boosting spending on infrastructure. A record number of athletes, more than 100, are heading to Rio.

“We have already spent about 120 crore ($1.2 billion) on Rio preparations. The result of all these efforts is that the qualification number is the highest ever,” the spokesperson told AFP.

Concerns over facilities were highlighted at the track and field Indian Grand Prix in Delhi in April when athletes trying to qualify for Rio were hit with a power cut.

Organisers were forced to use hand-held clocks to record performances after digital timers and wind gauges were put out of action. 

But without electronic recordings or official wind speeds, the times could not be officially classified for Olympic qualification, meaning athletes had to try again at a subsequent meeing.

At other qualifying sessions at the same premier Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, runners complained that air pollution was hampering their efforts.

“The air got us breathless and even the facilities out here weren’t great,” a top athlete, who missed out on a Rio berth, told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Despite a lack of resources, those at Baba Gang Nath are finding ways of forging on.

“I understand there is a big difference in our training and how the foreign athletes prepare, but I keep abreast with modern methods through the internet,” Rahul Rathi, another national boxer, told AFP.

Coach Naveen Tokas said inspiring his young charges was just as important as desperately needed new equipment.

“We tell stories to our students about star boxers like Vijender Singh, his struggles and rise from a humble background,” Tokas said of Singh, from a poor family in rural India, who rose to win Olympic bronze in Beijing and has since turned professional.


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