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Nandan Kamath Interview: India’s Paralympics Success Testament to The Abundance of Talent That Was Always Among Us

Nandan Kamath, Managing Trustee of GoSports Foundation

Nandan Kamath, Managing Trustee of GoSports Foundation

India finished with their best-ever performance of 19 medals (5 gold, 8 silver, 6 bronze), finishing 24th in the medals table at the Tokyo Paralympics.

GoSports Foundation is one of the premier non-profit ventures working towards developing the sporting talents in the country. The results are there for everyone to see, especially in the Tokyo Paralympics, where India finished with their best ever performance of 19 medals (5 gold, 8 silver, 6 bronze), finishing 24th in the medals table on gold medal rank (22nd on total medal rank).

Managing Trustee of GoSports Foundation, Nandan Kamath, has said in an exclusive chat with news18.com that India’s show at the Paralympics has highlighted the importance of the Paralympic movement at the elite level. However, he added that there is much more to be done to encourage people with disabilities to take up sports as a recreation and also at the competition level.

Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Kamath:

How encouraging and satisfying is it to see India do so well in the Paralympics, finishing with a rich haul of 19 medals?

It is more satisfying than I would have imagined possible. It feels like one of those moments when all the dots suddenly connect after years of work. I have always believed in our sporting potential. To see that belief was not misplaced is personally very satisfying. I could not be more proud of everyone at GoSports Foundation, along with each person and organisation who has journeyed along with us as teammate, donor, advisor, athlete, participating in bringing the movement to where we are today. I know how much teamwork this has needed over the years and the importance of every contribution. Our team led by Deepthi Bopaiah needs special mention here.

You said in July to be in for a surprise from the Indian sportspersons at the Paralympics. And the athletes actually have surprised us all with 19 medals so far. What made you say that? Can you elaborate?

I have been asked this question a lot in the last few days. It was very clear and predictable to me. Our team at GoSports Foundation has been working closely with Paralympic hopefuls for the better part of a decade. We have seen systematic growth in the performances of the cohort. The performances in Tokyo have delighted our team but have not surprised us. I thought giving everyone else some advance notice was not a bad idea!

Sending the most number of athletes to the Paralympics is one thing. For them to win such a rich haul of medals is another. What has gone into winning these medals?

It is a fantastic performance. From 19 strong contingent and 4 medals in Rio 2016 to 54 athletes and such a rich haul in Tokyo is an incredible arc of progress. I see a combination of things that have played a role. Each generation builds on the aspirations and achievements of predecessors. The social recognition and financial rewards the four Rio 2016 Paralympic medallists received raised awareness levels and interest in the public sphere and also among potential participants. The government also updated various schemes to bring parity to Paralympic athletes in rewards but also funding for training. Separately, as a civil society organisation, we worked with our CSR partners IndusInd Bank, Sony Pictures, AT&T and Bry-Air and designed a dedicated high performance programme for Paralympic hopefuls. This increased access to competitions, equipment, experts, career support and other forms of care for athletes. Over time, we could reduce the various gaps in the athlete programmes, enabling better preparedness. The results have ensued from these various factors, but most importantly are testament to the abundance of talent that was always among us. That it would blossom when it found platforms, support and opportunities was inevitable.

How do you gauge a para-athlete before investing in him/her?

At GoSports Foundation, we have the same selection process and criteria for all our athletes, whether senior or junior, Olympic or Paralympic hopefuls. It is an evaluation of sporting potential but equally of whether there is a good match between the athlete and us. We must feel we have something valuable to add to their journey. It involves research but also a personal understanding of each athlete’s context, personality and values. We do interviews, reference checks, meetings with coaches and family members. Each of them are human first and athletes next, and that is important to contextualise. We do not select athletes for their medal potential. We like to work with people whose journeys and conduct will be their legacy and their message, the types of ambassadors we feel Indian sport requires if it is to grow and thrive.

What is the mindset with which para-athletes go to an event as the Paralympics? What role does GoSports play in this?

You could argue that our Paralympic athletes went in largely anonymous and this meant they did not bear the weight of public expectation. This may not be the case again, even three years from now in Paris. Overall, we have seen the athlete mindset change. Our athletes do not see qualifying for the Paralympics as an achievement in itself. They are there to compete, perform, excel. They are confident and ambitious. Much of this comes from knowing there is support and a team backing you, basically the creation of environments that are supportive of performance.

What can the performances of para-athletes in Tokyo do to everyone including the able-bodied people?

Sport has the potential to move us and to provoke us to action. The Paralympics have provided everyone an opportunity to watch athletes in action and experience commonality that trumps the apparent ‘otherness’. This experience must lead to introspection and commitment to build a better society and lived experience for those we may not identify with automatically. This requires the dismantling of systemic and social barriers in the everyday lives of our fellow Indians. The universality of sport gives us an opportunity. We must use it to build better lives for everyone grounded in our shared understanding, identity and rootedness. This needs each of us to take a good hard look at our environments, our social wiring and discourse around disability among other things. More collaborations at the governmental level are also possible, for example between the Department of Sports and the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities.

Do you think para-athletes have been recognised well? Are they talked about in the same wavelength as the able-bodied athletes?

There is a growing recognition of the role and importance of the Paralympic movement at the elite level. In terms of government policy, there is a sense of conceptual and administrative parity. However, we have much distance to travel in participatory and recreational sports for people with disabilities. It isn’t surprising that we are not represented in any team sports (other than a few doubles events) at the Tokyo Paralympics. The athletes competing are those who have been able to navigate the system and find a way to compete and excel. So many other talented athletes are in the system but lacking access and opportunity.

On the one hand, there is Avani Lekhara, who became the first Indian woman to win gold at the Paralympics and on the other, there is Devendra Jhajharia, who has been winning since the 2004 Paralympics and all the others in between. What does this mean for sport in general in India and para-athletes in particular?

They are both key figures for the movement. Devendra’s achievements over three decades are amazing and remind us that we always had the talent pool. Avani, Manish Narwal and so many others exemplify the exciting depth of talent, reminding us of how much more work there is to do to unlock the potential of sport for those who do not have opportunities and support.

Performances in Tokyo – both Olympics and Paralympics – have been nothing short of extraordinary. This shows the real progress for the nation on the sporting front. Your take on this?

The overall performance in Tokyo is a good indication of the progress made at the system level but also now has the potential to have an irreversible, positive impact on Indian sport. Olympic and Paralympic sports have the opportunity to become more mainstream. They are part of drawing room conversations. State governments are rustling up new schemes to make their unique contributions. Hundreds of academies could bloom, buoyed by the wide scattering of sporting dreams. This is the type of change we need and elite sport plays an ambassadorial role in all of this. For us at GoSports Foundation, Tokyo has provided an affirmation of everything we have believed in from day one – the importance of putting the athlete at the centre of the sports ecosystem. The rest will follow.

GoSports Foundation supports a host of para-athletes and many of them have won medals at the Paralympics. Can you talk a bit about how in terms of support has GoSports played a part and has there been collaborative efforts from the government, national sports federations, private non-profit organisations?

When we began supporting para-athletes there was practically no institutional support for them. Being a para-athlete involved massive obstacles, both functional and financial, some of which still exist. Both classification procedures (which determined the events one could participate in) and competition required athletes to travel abroad at great cost, either spending personal funds or desperately trying to raise money themselves from sponsors who got little in return. Initially, our work was in understanding the system and bridging financial and basic gaps. Over the years, we were able to respond to athletes’ customised needs and provide wholesome support, high performance management, sports science interventions, etc. We have also supported injury rehabilitation and medical procedures for many of our athletes when that has been needed. We were able to drive change in the Paralympics space in the same way we have been able to open opportunities in Olympic disciplines that were previously ignored – Bhavani Devi and fencing, Dipa Karmakar and gymnastics being two obvious examples. In this cycle, TOPS opened up completely to Paralympic prospects and other organisations have also recently started supporting para-athletes. That is a very positive development, which ensured that the contingent India sent this time was quite well resourced and supported.

There seems to have been a systematic approach to the build-up to Tokyo and that seems to have worked, hasn’t it? Can you explain?

For both the Olympics and Paralympics, our team at GoSports Foundation worked very closely with the team at TOPS in the years leading up to Tokyo, including right through the pandemic. There was a clear information sharing protocol and a serious collaborative effort to ensure that the best interests of the athlete were prioritised with the resources in hand. The multi-stakeholder approach was definitely a plus as it provided structure and options but also flexibility in decision making. It brought many hands and heads working together in an athlete-centric manner. Some of the federations are increasingly professionally run and we found opportunities to collaborate there too.

You are associated with TOPS, in fact, you coined it and made the framework, and is being much talked about on the back of the success in Tokyo. Can you elaborate on TOPS, its working framework, the government’s role and how it is helping in changing or bettering our athletes at the world stage and identifying the crème de le crème of Indian athletes?

I had the opportunity to work on the design of the scheme in 2013-14, but TOPS itself has undergone a full operational transformation since then, especially in the last five years or so. When I was invited to work on the scheme by the Ministry, I tried to bring the best of my learnings from the GoSports Foundation journey and integrate them into system-level change. The vision was to build an Indian Olympic and Paralympic programme that was agnostic to sporting discipline and provided fair access to any talented athlete who demonstrated Olympic or Paralympic podium potential. It centralised the athlete funding decisions with the relationship with athletes being direct rather than mediated through federations. This unlocked new potential by removing some of the variables. The TOPS has been resourced with many well-trained professionals, many youngsters with sports management experience, and the practice of athlete management and high-performance management has got a boost. The initiatives such as monthly stipends and junior programmes are very positive steps. In short, TOPS was designed keeping in mind the on-ground realities and with solution-orientation and results in mind. I am happy to see the scheme produce results but believe that equal attention must be given to strengthening the governance of sports bodies that run our sport.

How is GoSports working in coordination with other bodies like OGQ and others? Do you look at others as competition or go together for the growth and betterment of sports in the country?

Last year, OGQ and we worked on a memorable programme to support grassroots participants in the hockey ecosystem during the pandemic. The Inspire Institute of Sport has hosted our athletes when they needed a home to train. We have always been open to working with like-minded and committed organisations. The Indian sports movement needs hundreds if not thousands of private sports initiatives, both commercial and non-profit. Remaining a bystander or a spectator is a choice. Becoming a participant in the sports movement is also a genuine choice. Hopefully, our journey at GoSports Foundation demonstrates that it is possible for ordinary people to contribute and for civil society to participate in our nation’s sporting progress. There is a role every one of us can play in our nation’s sporting progress.

What are the areas you think still need to be done for sports in the country? The Sports Minister spoke of strengthening TOPS to extend greater support to athletes.

In terms of our organised sports, there are three things we need to focus on first – governance, governance and governance. We should not allow the euphoria of medals to paper over the cracks in our sports administration. Improving governance standards and the quality of organisational management in our sports bodies has to be the main focus of systemic attention if we want the legacy of success to sustain. Navigating governance structures should not be a required skill for an athlete to progress at sport.

More work is also required on athlete rights, psychological and physical safety of training, accessible dispute resolution structures, re-skilling. As we build aspirations in a wider pool we must make the journeys safer, building non-sporting capabilities and securing livelihoods. Similarly, if we want to attract responsible private capital and private participation we need careful governance and management of the balancing act this involves.

At the grassroots level, we need regular local, regional and national competition schedules across a wide variety of disciplines. We also need more and more community sports centres and community coaches who can teach children to sample sport and enjoy it without prematurely pushing them to build competitive aspirations. The pathways towards excellence can then be put in place for deserving athletes to progress through.

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first published:September 05, 2021, 16:46 IST