With social distancing and travel restrictions likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future, a renewed focus on conducting smaller -- district and state level -- competitions has been touted as a way for Indian sports to emerge from the disruption of a national lockdown. But while some believe that holding these competitions is necessary to mitigate the challenges of conducting large-scale events, coaches and federations also feel they could not replace national-level tournaments.
The new normal
Badminton national coach Pullela Gopichand was the first to suggest that the way to conduct tournaments might have to be redefined. "[If] we have 3,000 people travelling from across the country for a tournament, it may not be feasible in the new normal. Leagues are the way forward. We might need to have more state, district, local, sub-local leagues," Gopichand suggested last week.
"Right now when you think about restarting national camps, you are thinking about having to isolate people. In such a situation, you shouldn't have a situation where hundreds of players have to travel hundreds or thousands of kilometres, risking their health and spending so much money to take part in a national tournament where they might only just play for a day. It makes more sense for more regular state and district-level competitions to be conducted. And only the very best of those players could then be required to travel," he told ESPN.
Rajiv Bhatia, secretary of the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI), agrees. "We had nearly 8,000 participants at the last national shooting championships. In the current scenario, with the travel restrictions between states and the rules on social distancing, it would be difficult to carry out a similar competition," he says.
Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju also mentioned it in an online interaction with Indian boxers. "Leagues should be there at the district and state level," Rijiju had said while suggesting that a state-level version of the Khelo India School Games was an idea he was interested in.
Outgoing sports secretary RS Julaniya says that conducting events at the state level would also be useful in unplugging a talent bottleneck in India. "The Sports Authority of India has the ability to train about 30,000 athletes in its facilities across India. But at the moment we have only about 15,000 athletes utilising them. This isn't a lack of facilities but a lack of enough talent that has been scouted. The national Khelo India Games had only about 3,000 athletes taking part, so there needs to be talent found elsewhere. The solution is to have a lot more events at the state level," Julaniya says.
"...you shouldn't have a situation where hundreds of players have to travel hundreds or thousands of kilometres, risking their health and spending so much money to take part in a national tournament where they might only just play for a day." Pullela Gopichand
National federations also admit that before sport can restart at the national and international level, it will have to begin at the district and state levels. "A tournament conducted at a district or state level will likely be a lot less challenging to organise in the likely scenario we have to live with. Unless you conduct the district and state-level competitions, you can't think of conducting any national-scale event because the participants at the nationals are picked on the basis of their results at those meets," says Adile Sumariwala, president of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI). Indeed, even while the AFI has released a tentative competition calendar beginning in September, Sumariwala feels the probability of it going on schedule depends on whether they can first carve out a six-week window in which to hold the district and state-level athletics meets.
NRAI's Bhatia agrees. "The state and district competitions of the NRAI are very important for us, because they serve as a pre-competition for the nationals," he says.
Not a replacement
While local tournaments might be a crucial step for the return of sport, organizers agree that they can't replace national-level competition. "Competitions at the state levels have a role to play but they can't replace the importance of competition at the national and international level," says Rakesh Thakran, Haryana State Boxing Federation secretary. The Haryana boxing federation was one of the only state bodies that continued to conduct competitions even while there was nothing at the national level owing to the national federation being suspended between 2012 and 2016. "Athletes have to have a goal in mind. Unless they know they are preparing for the nationals and after that the Olympics, there's no real purpose to their training," he says.
While Sumariwala says that the district and state-level competitions determine the rest of the athletic calendar, Thakran says it works the other way around too. "If you don't know when the Olympics and national championships are being held, it becomes really hard to decide when you have to conduct the state and district tournaments," he says.
However, NRAI's Bhatia says there are no concrete plans in place yet. "State governments are extremely wary of allowing any sort of competition to get started. Sport isn't seen as an essential activity so far".
"If you don't know when the Olympics and national championships are being held, it becomes really hard to decide when you have to conduct the state and district tournaments." Rakesh Thakran, secretary of the Haryana State Boxing Federation.
Maintaining sporting connect
Where Thakran agrees completely, is that while they might not be the end goal, state and district-level competitions will be critical to keep athletes connected and the sports culture alive. "Not every athlete manages to get to the national level. Competition at the state and district level is critical for them. Even just the certificates they get here are very important when it comes to applying for a job or scholarship," he says.
It is a point former badminton national coach Vimal Kumar agrees with. "Athletes who are at the national and international level will find a way to stay in touch with the sport. Athletes, especially in the age-group levels, need to participate in these tournaments. Otherwise, it would be really easy to see them drop out," he says. While state and district-level competitions don't normally attract much attention from sponsors or media, Kumar is adamant they have to be conducted. "I was discussing the same thing with the Karnataka state badminton federation just a day back. I told them it doesn't matter if you don't have any prize money to give the players. You just need to conduct a tournament even if it's for the sake of it," he says.a