Kiren Rijiju, one of the most versatile politicians of the current political dispensation, has been chosen to lead the Sports Ministry. That he represents the northeast, one of the most active regions when it comes to sports, is more than mere coincidence. However, as they say, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. The challenges he will face in turning a not-a-very-sporting nation into a powerhouse will be daunting.
One pressing matter that might test Rijiju’s political acumen would be the visa issue.
After the Pulwama attack, India did not grant visas to Pakistani shooters for a World Cup event in New Delhi. The world shooting body removed Olympic quotas from two events. The International Olympic Committee suspended all future applications to host international events and directed world federations to follow suit as India had gone against the principles of the Olympic charter. Asian Junior wrestling and tennis events were shifted out of the country. If the minister doesn’t step in to defuse the situation, India’s chances of bidding for Asian Games and Olympics will be jeopardised.
The Olympics are just a year away. The medals tally will reflect the growth of a nation frenetically trying to be counted among the cream. Time and again, ministers have felt the pressure when athletes returned empty-handed. Though spending has increased, with elite athletes getting adequate support, the results have never reflected it. As experts point out, it’s not enough. Compared to sporting powerhouses, our budget is meagre. Even our grassroots programmes are sporadic. The Target Olympic Podium Scheme was launched in the right earnest with sportspersons hailing it in unison. However, of late, there have been a few alterations. A scheme supposed to bypass red-tapism has turned cumbersome now.
Another area that needs the honourable minister’s attention is the relationship between the IOA and the sports ministry – something that was never hunky-dory. However, over the last few months, there has been a complete lack of trust. The ministry, including the Sports Authority of India, was not accessible as it was before (even for media). The ties carefully built by previous sports secretaries seems to have gone awry. Some top federation officials feel the ACTC and LTDP are getting longer than usual to get sanctioned. Too many changes did not help either. Khelo India was another grassroots programme that showed immense promise. But implementation needs to be more meticulous.
Manipur, Assam and Mizoram are states that have produced national champions. Assam already has Sarbananda Sonowal — a former sports minister, who is keen on promoting sports — as chief minister. Arunachal, Rijiju’s state, has the potential to produce great athletes. A high-altitude training centre can be created in Bomdila because of its proximity to railway and airports.
Indian sport is no Avengers Endgame — no snaps of fingers will bring forth athletes with superhuman abilities. In reality, extraordinary sportspersons are produced through extraordinary effort — the right kind of training, diet and exposure. It takes years of extreme dedication, planning and patience to build an edifice of supreme athletes. So expecting the newly-appointed minister to transform our athletes into world champions will be a bit unrealistic. However, he can put into place blocks that will serve as a platform for future champions. Like Rijiju himself says, sports has the potential to galvanise youth.