New Delhi: An athlete puts his heart and soul into his effort once he feels valued. India, in that sense, is a lucky country. There are not many medals to show, not much support for every athlete. But the intent and the endeavour is never lacking. Still, if our athletes don't win much, it's not entirely because they aren't skilled. What it is then? You will know by the time you finish reading this piece.
The aim of this story is not to pass judgements, but provide the athletes a forum to speak, to let India know why we fall at the final hurdle at the biggest stage of all. Why a gold medal is still elusive? Why we always have to stay contend with a handful of silver and bronze?
Any win, any feat, even qualification for a big event is a moment of pride to every Indian. None of the Indians, except the one who is the source of that pride, knows the inside story. Rather, the athlete who has gone through things his fans can't even imagine is burdened to do more, to go that extra mile - the ultimate glory being an Olympic medal.
Meet Lalita Babar, India's latest Olympic qualifier in the 3000m Steeplechase event. The 26-year-old long-distance runner, for whom drought is a more common sight than water in the Mohi village of Maharashtra, has broken barriers and shifted disciplines to find herself in Ooty training for the World Championships followed by her big day at the Rio Games.
The problem is Lalita has to buy running spikes on her own. The government doesn't pay for it. And it costs over Rs. 10,000 per pair.
"The government doesn't provide us with shoes, we have to buy on our own. One pair costs over Rs 10,000 and lasts just one month. They don't give us equipment during training or competition. We have to buy shoes, which is our only equipment, on our own," she said.
And the Steeplechase specific spikes are not available in India.
"In India, we don't get special shoes for Steeplechase. We have to order from abroad. One spike lasts only one month. We order 5-6 pairs (Rs 50,000-60,000) at one time because we can't take a chance. We have to alternate between pairs. In a week, we alternate between three pairs so that they last long," Lalita explained.
The help finally came but not from the government.
"Anglian Medal Hunt has come to my help. Since last month (June), they are paying for my shoes by depositing Rs. 30,000 in my bank account," said the three-time winner of Mumbai Marathon, Asian Games bronze medallist and recently the winner of gold at the 2015 Asian Championships.
"Our government should bear it [cost of the shoes]. I have qualified for world championships and Olympics. So they should bear the cost. The government can at least do this much for us," the champion athlete said as her voice choked.
If Lalita's story is an eye opener, brace yourself up to hear the apathy of Soumyajit Ghosh, the promising 22-year-old Table Tennis player from Siliguri.
Soumyajit trains in Sweden for 6-8 months to chase his India and Olympic dreams. While that sounds exciting, you will drop your jaw hearing what the young paddler has to say.
"I train in Falkenberg, Sweden, for 6-8 months. I am here [in Siliguri] for a break. There I have a personal coach who charges Rs. 1 lakh per month. The federation just gives us the permission; they don't reimburse this amount. My parents and I have to manage these payments. My dad is employed in a job and mom is a housewife," Soumyajit revealed.
What eases some of his burden is his job with Bharat Petroleum and playing for a local league in Falkenberg, but still it's not enough to pay the coaching fee.
"I play club league during my stay in Sweden and the club takes care of my food and lodging. There is also some help from my employer. They pay for a couple of my foreign trips a year and provide ticket for training at overseas venues.
"But I would like my government to support my training and provide me a personal coach all the time since the national coach is available only if there is a training camp or a tournament India is playing," he said.
And quite understandably, Soumyajit feels weighed down.
"This is a weight on me, it's a lot of problem. There is no support from the government because TT is not on priority list," he said before hanging up.
Our quest to find a happy athlete among the not-so-popular sports in India took us to the pool, where we contacted Sandeep Sejwal, the 2014 Asian Games bronze medallist swimmer.
Sandeep is the closest of Indian swimmers to Olympics berth, just 1.5 seconds away from an A qualification and ticket to Rio. And he hopes to achieve that at the coming World Championships. But there is one lingering grudge: no help from the authorities.
"I was supposed to train in South Africa for four months before the world championships. I filed a proposal to SAI in January, but they haven't cleared it yet. The preparations that I had planned did not happen because of lack of funds.
"The government is not responsible enough because it does not take four months to clear proposal for an athlete who has won so many medals for the country," the swimmer said in disbelief.
Sandeep is training under the watchful eyes of coach Nihar Ameen in Bengaluru, but the news is that he pays his coach's fee from his pocket.
"On a monthly basis, I am spending Rs 50,000-60,000 per month: my coaching fee, my gym fee, my supplements, lodging and food," he revealed.
"Definitely I am upset. When I won the [Asian Games] medal for the country, every single official told me you will get all the funding. But nothing has come through.
They are not willing to clear proposal for national training. Nothing has come from the Ministry of Youth Affairs where all the funds lie and get sanctioned from," the swimmer complained in no uncertain terms.
Sandeep's personal coach Amin too is equally disgruntled.
"If money is available to us, sky is the limit. If we have unlimited funding, we can go all over the world to train. There is not even a physiotherapist. The athletes are paying for the physio themselves. They are paying me for training," the coach said.
He is equally amazed why Sandeep is not part of the Target Olympic Podium (TOP) scheme. "None [of the swimmers are] in TOP scheme. I don't know why. I thought Sejwal as Asian medallist should have been there," he spoke on behalf of his student.
We chose to stay with water sports and moved towards inquiring the health of Rowing. A phone call to national coach Ismail Baig reached him as he was moving out of the IGI Airport in Delhi, accompanying the junior rowing team returning from China.
For the first time, there was a voice that didn't seem burdened but still had areas of worry.
"The senior camp is going on in Hyderabad and Olympic qualification is in last week of April," he informed. "We have good equipment funded by SAI, but to hold private camps we need sponsors," he slowly moved towards explaining the problem areas.
"Private sponsors are more interested in popular sport," he said before taking excuse to move to the green channel and make his way out of the airport terminal.
Next destination was the boxing ring, and the moment the interviewee said "don't take my name", it was clear that the last stopover of our report is going to end with another unhappy lot.
With boxing, relatively the most popular of Indian sports contacted for this story, the problem is more political - which the newly formed Indian Boxing Council will hopefully address.
"We have some problem with federation....[because of which] we are missing A level competitions and combined training exposure with good boxing nations....[Otherwise] it's going on really good. Everything is moving properly at the domestic level as well," the well-placed source told IBNLive Sports.
"AIBA banned Indian Boxing Federation. Earlier, it was ad-hoc committee comprising different representative. Then there was a federation for two months and then again there was a ban, and the ad-hoc committee was there to advise SAI," he pointed at poor administration leading to lack of exposure.
"After the 2014 Asian Games 2014, we have had three competitions only. We need good competition but we are not getting invitation," he said.
Awarding performance comes easy, because you don't have to identify who to award. The difficult part is raising champions, nurturing them, harnessing their talent. For that, the first pre-requisite is building a relationship. It matters in sports. Make your athletes feel valued. Provide them with the best and in return get the best.
India needs a committed sports administration, a government that's serious towards contributing in an athlete's development, in helping him better his skills and put the country on the podium.
Once that mutual belief is in place, results will follow. Until then, we will continue to come across such stories of discontent.
Still, all the best for Rio, India!