National Sports Teams are Built in Villages of India

Rajesh Tandon

“Everyone plays hockey in my village.”

“We had a torn fishing net for playing volley ball in our village.”

“We all grow up playing football on the beaches.”

As Indian sportspersons are shining on the grounds of Tokyo Olympics, the country, and indeed the world, is beginning to hear their amazing stories. These are stories of struggle, passion, aspiration and stunning talent. Whether boxers or hockey players or wrestlers and javelin throwers, these men and women come from hitherto unheard of locations on the map of India…Nongpok Katching in Manipur, Simdega in Jharkhand, Sundergarh in Odisha, Golaghat in Assam.

When we celebrate these performances, victories and medals, we need to look at the map of India a bit historically. Different regions of the country had different traditions of outdoor activities. Many tribal youth…boys and girls… have been shooting arrows while growing up in Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh. Village level football clubs have been places for animated conversations and learning in West Bengal, Goa, Kerala.

Every village of Punjab has a dusty field for hockey, and most boys and girls grew up lifting the stick there. The villages of Haryana and western UP continue to hold ‘dangal’ (wrestling competitions) in market grounds of rural mandis (agricultural markets); most youth grew up there practicing ‘kushti’ (modern name is wrestling).

Youth and adults playing volleyball vigorously can be found during a cursory drive through rural India in early evening in any part of the country. Kids in Himalayas….from Kashmir to Himachal to Uttarakhand to North Bengal and Sikkim….have always been running up and down hills carrying loads of school bags ( and other household necessities), building up strength of their lungs in low oxygen altitudes (no wonder runners from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya win medium-long distance races and medals).

Rani , Lovlina, Dahiya, Manpreet, Mirabai, Neeraj..….stars shining in Tokyo Olympics grew up in such communities, in such geographies of this vast, diverse and vibrant country. 

However, in post-independent India’s regimes, the rulers in Delhi adopted a centralising world-view in all matters of human endeavours. Sports was no exception. Public investments in local facilities, coaches and events at district and below levels did not happen. Grassroots sports as an integral part of growing up for all children and adolescents was neglected.

Formal schooling began to devalue sports as a source of physical, emotional and social development. Pressures to study in schools (and vast mosaic of coaching centres) deprived kids and adolescents of time and space for athletics and sports over the past 3-4 decades. Doing well in studies was juxtaposed against doing well in sports, a false dichotomy of ‘either-or’.

As high performance centres for sports began to be set up over past two decades through philanthropic investments, resources (public and private) for grassroots sports in the villages and small towns relatively declined. Governance of sports through various federations and associations has also become unaccountable and politicised, largely because of highly centralised nature of control over decision-making at national level.

Professionally trained sports administrators and coaches are not motivated and deployed to improve participation, quality and inspiration to youth at the grassroots levels to support existing everyday sports activities already being practiced in different regions.

Despite all this, a culture of sports and outdoor activities continues to exist in India’s villages and small towns. This culture needs to be strengthened and nurtured through devolved decision-making about resourcing and administration of sports activities and associations locally. District level philanthropists, mayors of small towns, Zila Parishads and state governments, through district associations, need to be mobilised to support grassroots sports on a large scale.

Such an approach will galvanise talent and motivation for larger and larger numbers of local youth to participate in sports. A vast and broad-based local platform of sporting youth can lay the foundation to provide strong and perpetual support to a thin ‘high-rise’ band of elite performers. For them to shine with medals in Olympics and other international competitions periodically, everyday grassroots sports players have to shine locally in every village and town of the country, every day.

As curtains fall on Tokyo Olympics tomorrow,  it may well be a good time to recognise that widespread sporting culture still exists in India’s villages, awaiting to be  nurtured by Delhi’s rulers.

This article first appeared in National sports teams are built in villages of India August 7, 2021.

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About the Author:

Dr Rajesh Tandon

Dr Rajesh Tandon is Founder President of PRIA, New Delhi. He is also a Guest Speaker with IMPRI, New Delhi.

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