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IOA president: Need govt support till 2022 competition cycle

Some prominent athletes like Lakshya Sen rely on the Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) for financial support. Lakshya Sen

Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president Narinder Batra believes the reluctance of the private sector to fund Indian sport outside of cricket is likely to be amplified by the economic slowdown in the country due to the coronavirus lockdown. While assuring that government support for elite Indian athletes -- a majority of whom come under Sports of Authority of India (SAI) and their Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) programme -- will continue despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Batra expects private players in the Indian sports industry to have a difficult time meeting more than "60 to 70 percent" of their financial support.

"[For the] Olympics, government support is not going to dry up. We have been assured that all athletes, all trainees, everything is going on track," Batra said during a webinar on Wednesday. "If you ask me honestly, will I be getting money from private business houses for the next one year -- I have my doubts."

As of March 2020, TOPS enlists 94 athletes across 13 disciplines, including para-sport, and includes names like PV Sindhu, Neeraj Chopra, Manu Bhaker, Bajrang Punia, MC Mary Kom and Vinesh Phogat. There are a further 85 junior athletes who come under the developmental group, and SAI assists these athletes with training, participation, equipment, hiring of support staff and a monthly allowance as an incentive. Among prominent athletes not covered by either scheme is badminton player Lakshya Sen, who relies on the Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) for support.

Former table tennis player Neha Aggarwal, who heads partnerships and communication at OGQ, felt the economic impact of the pandemic would only be felt towards the end of the year. "We rely on CSR donations, and we have a list of long-term donors who are passionate about sport. We are doing our best, but we have to wait and see, because most of the donations will be moved towards COVID [relief], healthcare and feeding the hungry," Aggarwal told ESPN. "Our donors are also warm and generous. We're confident but it is the biggest challenge for us as an organisation this year."

Batra's views were echoed by Mustafa Ghouse, CEO of JSW Sports, which fields franchises in cricket, football and kabaddi leagues in India, and also supports athletes at their Inspire Institute of Sports facility. "The entire world's economy has taken a hit, and sport is no different," said Ghouse, adding that a clearer picture would only emerge once schedules for leagues like Indian Premier League (IPL), Indian Super League (ISL) or Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) are announced. "Formats are going to get tweaked, venues might get tweaked. Until we get complete clarity on all of that, we won't be in a situation to have hard conversations, but mentally we are all prepared for these tough ones. It's only normal, because the economy has shut down over the last two months. We know as a corporate house, the type of impact it has had, and we can only be sensitive to everyone around us."

Batra, who is also the president of the International Hockey Federation (FIH), spoke about how both the IOA and the FIH had been in touch with private bodies that sponsor them during the pandemic. "At both these places, we have been able to sort out around 60 to 70 percent with the sponsors, and they are very much on board. This balance 30 to 40 percent, I think they understand our compulsion that the sport has to run with their support, and this situation has developed which is neither their doing nor ours. So maybe this [association] extends a little bit, but if you are looking at any new money coming in from a private partner, I can't see it coming," said Batra, adding how difficult it is in India for Olympic sports to get corporate support the way cricket or even football does. "When you go to a private company for sponsorship, they treat you very well and serve you a cup of tea. You call them again, they never take your call. We are struggling with about five to seven percent of the money, within which we have to survive. I don't see how that will change -- as long as the government has assured us, not just till the Olympics but till the Commonwealth and Asian Games coming up in 2022. We are secure over there."

For athletes supported by non-profits and corporates like OGQ and JSW, the extent of financial support is a small fraction compared to what the centre and SAI pay for them. However, it is their contribution to daily training that makes them stand out. "We provide the physiotherapists, nutritionists and the psychologists. That forms a strong core team around each and every athlete. They are important members of the daily working of the athlete," said Aggarwal. With competitions suspended, and training just starting in spurts across disciplines, the roles of such support staff members becomes more crucial in managing workload and preventing injuries. A financial hit for such organisations could also affect their ability to retain the services of such support staff members.

Batra and Ghouse both expect competitions to begin by October as long as the pandemic's effects don't worsen in the coming weeks. "We'll have to divide it sport by sport, and if I am not wrong, we should be seeing competitions, or at least national championships, coming up from October," said Batra, though he added that resumption of competition in contact sports like boxing, wrestling or even kabaddi might need to wait till there's a proven antidote to the virus. Ghouse wanted federations to be cautious about the preparedness of athletes before they get back to competition. "They have pent up energy from being inside for so many weeks, and they are just going to want to over-exert when they get back," he said. "This is the new normal, and we're going to have to get used to the fact that there's probably not going to be too many high-level competitions in Olympic sports till the end of the year."