Indian Swimmers continue to suffer. Who’s to blame?

Yet again, in another “Unlock” announced by the government, swimming pools have been left out. This was the third instance of the “Unlock” when various aspects of the economy were restarted. Gyms, malls, sports complexes, etc. have been allowed to open. Still, swimming pools continue to be disallowed much like cinema halls, entertainment parks, theatres, bars, and so on. Not surprisingly, Indian competitive swimmers who have been waiting many months for the pools to reopen are distraught. They have been let down by the government and the various swimming bodies that promised pools would be reopened.

For the past few weeks, elite swimmers like Virdhawal Khade, Srihari Nataraj and renowned coach Nihar Ameen have been beseeching the sports minister Kiren Rijjiju and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to pay attention to their plight. Numerous tweets have been posted tagging the Swimming Federation of India (SFI), MHA, the sports minister, imploring them to open up the pools for competitive training. India’s highest-ranked swimmer Virdhawal Khade has even gone to the extent of talking about retirement from the sports if there’s no headway. Their exhortations haven’t been answered, except with stoic silence. It’s almost like these swimmers have been banging their heads against the wall, or a better analogy would be they have been dumped in the Arabian Sea without a life jacket.

The predicament and the frustration of the Indian swimmers is quite understandable. It has been over four months since the pools have been closed, that is practically a third-of-the-year. For athletes, who typically spend anything from 4-6 hours in the water, perfecting their strokes, tumbles, catch, and so on, this extended break can be devastating both physically and psychologically.  This is all the more so because they were eagerly preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (which will now be held in 2021). All the preparations, milestones, timelines have gone for a toss.

Qualifying for Olympics is a tough call, especially so in aquatics. The selection process is as follows; participating countries are allowed up to two qualified swimmers per individual event and one relay team. Each country is allowed a maximum of fifty-six swimmers (twenty-eight male and twenty-eight female). Though each country is free to select the swimmers, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) establishes a standard that must be met for a swimmer to be eligible to compete at the Olympic Games. The top swimming body, FINA publishes two sets of time-standards for each of the events: the “Olympic Qualifying Time” known as the “A-Time” and the “Olympic Selection Time” known as “B-Time.” Each country may enter up to two swimmers per event, provided both swimmers meet the qualifying time or A-Time. A country may enter one swimmer per event who meets the qualifying standard or B-Time. Any swimmer who meets the qualifying time will be entered in the event for the Games; a swimmer meeting the B-Time standard will be eligible for entry, and their entry will be allotted/filled in by ranking. A country that does not receive an allocation spot, but has at least one swimmer who meets a qualifying standard may enter the swimmer with the highest ranking. If a country has no swimmers meeting either qualifying standard, it may enter one male and one female in total.

Thus, B-Time qualification will only ensure an invitation to the Olympics if the total available quota slots (878) are not filled. So far, six Indian swimmers have attained the B-Time, Virdhawal with a timing of 22.44s in 50m freestyle. Sajan Prakash (1:58.45 in 200m butterfly), Srihari (54.69s in 100m backstroke), Kushagra Rawat (8:07.99 in 800m freestyle), Aryan Makhija (8:07.80 in 800m freestyle) and Advait Page (8:00.76 in 800m freestyle). Yet, these qualifications count for nothing as only an A-Time can get you the position in the Olympic swimming team. For Virdhawal the target is 22.01; 1:56:48 for Sajan and 53.85 for Srihari. Rawat, Page and Makhija have to clock 7:54:31.

The time difference between 22.01 and 22.44 might not seem much to a common man, but in swimming parlance, it is equivalent to an aeon, a difference between a life-time spent in celebration or in ignominy.

While Indian swimmers struggle to attain these qualifying times, the case is pretty different for a power-house like the US. To give an idea, till August 14, 2019, over 1000 swimmers had attained the qualifying times for different events in the US. To illustrate the high-level of competition, let’s take the 50 Freestyle male event, six swimmers had achieved the A-Time, the best being Caeleb Dressel with 21.04. Some 23 swimmers have attained the B-Time. Indeed, there were 23 swimmers between the timeline of 22.01 to 22.67. Now, the US team can send only two swimmers for this event. Thus, at the US trials, all these swimmers will have to battle out, and only the top two will get to wear the stars and stripes. All these A-Times and B-Times count for little when you are in the US.

And we are just talking about the US, other swimming powerhouses like Australia, Japan, China, UK, also have their robust selection processes that ensure that they will be sending their very best for the competition.

In contrast, no Indian swimmer has ever attained the A-Time for any Olympic events. That should give an idea of where we stand in the sport, globally. Basically, we are scraping at the bottom. Period!

But then swimming is a critical sport for any country wishing for Olympic glory. There are a total of 37 events in swimming discounting the other aquatic events like diving, etc. That’s a good 111 medals on offer; gold, silver and bronze. Even the union minister of sports Kiren Rijiju understands the importance of swimming, stating, “India will have to focus on aquatic sports, especially swimming if the country wants to excel in Olympic Games.”

The minister went on to add that, “Historically, the top countries in the Olympics have bagged a large number of medals in swimming. In the last five Olympics, the  US won about 31 per cent of their total medals in swimming. There is a great opportunity for any country because of the sheer number of events that take place in aquatics. Today, we don’t stand anywhere in swimming at the Olympic level, but there is a huge potential in the sport if we act with dedication, proper planning and adequate resources.”

Simply put, if a country desires to be an Olympic power-house, it can’t without paying attention to aquatics, especially swimming events.

So, why are we failing badly? Why is it that a country of 1.3 Billion can’t find talent to attain an A-Time?

The answer to this is a bit complex, and there are multiple aspects to it. Let’s begin with the characteristics of the sport itself. While swimming as a hobby is quite affordable, competitive swimming is an exceedingly costly affair. Competitive swimmers require an ecosystem to be fit to compete, right from proper diet, to physiotherapy, to advanced training, to expensive pieces of equipment. All this comes at a steep cost, something only a select few in India can afford.

Take the case of Srihari, his family has spent over 30-lakhs in the past couple of years on the sport, and while he gets some support in terms of scholarships, it does not match the outflow. And we are talking about the best Backstroker in India, an athlete with multiple national records. If his family has to think twice before attending an international event, imagine how grim the scenario will be for the rest. Most Indian swimmers tend to drop off when they are around 16 years, at the peak, simply because they have to pursue academics for a stable future. Even the elite swimmers have to choose between a stable job or pursuit of sporting excellence in their lives. Virdhawal took a break from swimming as he had to focus on his career with the Maharashtra government. Olympic swimmer Nisha Millet decided to give up on her dreams for another Olympic in cognizance of the financial burden it was putting on her family. Another Olympian Sajan Prakash too faces the financial burden, despite getting a scholarship from FINA, he is unable to recoup the money that is being spent on his training and competition. He is employed with the Kerala Police and depends on the salary to reduce the burden.

With little support from the government, swimmers in India struggle to make ends meet, which is vastly different for any other swimmer in the US, UK or elsewhere. The apathy from the government towards sports in general and swimming in particular, has resulted in the current sad state of affairs.

And it is not the ministry alone, the sport of swimming been let down by the administrative associations and bodies as well. The various state associations bodies pay more attention to their organizational elections than the upkeep of the pools or promoting new talent. The SFI has been caught in a time-warp. It has been unable to popularize the sports at the grassroots level and seems to be merely content at holding a few national events so that sponsors like Glenmark Sports Foundation continue to be onboard. The federation and the state-bodies are constantly contradicting each other, and in some states, these bodies spend more money on legal battles than spending on the sports itself. Unlike other sports, there has not been a long-preparatory camp for swimmers in India, like the Sports Authority of India (SAI) does.

In the end, we are left with the coaches and the swimmers. While, there are quite a handful of aware, interested and ambitious coaches, a vast majority are woefully challenged in terms of infrastructure and technology. Technology adaption is a misnomer, unlike in other countries. Take, for instance, an electronic touchpad is a rarity in India, only seen at a select few national events. In contrast, local clubs in Australia have them available for even under-8 swimmers. The issue is all the more critical at junior and sub-junior levels, where attention to technique and style are the most important.

Finally, the swimmers are not just the victims; but they also need to shoulder a part of the burden for the collective failure. Typically, Indian swimmers are a subdued and an anxious lot. Living in constant fear of losing the little institutional support they tend to make amends with the dour scenario. So far, none of the current or retired swimmers in India have raised their voice against the manner in which the sport is run in this country. While they do have their set of expectations from the administrative bodies, somehow they seem to be reticent, when they are let down.  Take the case of training in these epidemic times. Many countries are taking extra care of their swimmers, prepping them up for the Olympics. Swimmers in China have been training for months. Those in Europe have also started training in earnest.  Even Brazil sent much of its national team including swimmers to Portugal to train. Back here in India, the SFI is still confabulating on what to do and how to do it. There were some talks of creating a bio-bubble for elite swimmers or even sending them to UAE for training. But nothing has materialized so far and not one elite swimmer in India has questioned the sports body for its inability to do so.

Probably Indian swimmers lack the fighting spirit or the hunger that is so common in competitive swimmers. For instance, swimmers in the US, when they were forced on the back-foot due to closure of pools, went on an overdrive to find new ways to train. Some swimmers were training in a pond, others rented out private pools, while others are doing so in the kiddy pools in their backyards. They have innovated and continued. That’s what makes a great swimmer. There are so many videos of international swimmers doing what we call “jugaad” to tide over the crisis.

Meanwhile, the Indian swimmers seem to have resigned to their fates, grumbling at the apathy, pleading for a break-through. Desperate times call for desperate measures. They should have been trying to hunt for a private pool to train, rather than talking about unlocking of swimming pools. Imagine, if an Olympian like Virdhawal Khade or an aspiring swimmer like Srihari Nataraj were to make an honest plea to the public at large for a private pool to train, surely there would be quite a few people ready to help out.

So, what is the solution? Can India ever be a significant player in swimming?

Remember the Herculean story of the 12 tasks; the one where the Greek superman cleans up the Augean stables in a single day by diverting the course of a river. Something like that is required for swimming in India. Namely, nothing short of a complete overhaul will do. We require long-term vision with short-term precision. Or in swimming parlance, you need to prepare for the 50M freestyle dash, and the 10K open sea marathon. To start with, a robust 10 or 20-year program to nurture swimmers (notice the plural) that will be able to stand their grounds in international competitions would be a good starting point. Junior swimming should be extensively promoted. The country needs a bank of 100s of world-class swimmers and not a few that can be counted on fingertips. On the administrative side; the composition and the structure of all the governing bodies must change. A structure that has not delivered in the past couple of decades cannot be expected to do so in the coming ones. A fresh infusion of ideas and talent is very much required.

And it is not unusual. Despite the fact that India is a powerhouse in the sports Cricket, the whole administrative system was overhauled to ensure parity and transparency. The Justice RM Lodha committee reforms for BCCI saved the game of cricket from the clutches of politicians. Now the head of the BCCI is an ex-cricketer Sourav Ganguly, not some politician like Anurag Thakur or industrial magnate like N Srinivasan.

Similarly, the administrative bodies need to be led by ex-swimmers and mind you, swimmers with repute who have gone through the grind. There are plenty of experienced swimmers like Khazan Singh or Sebastian Xavier who can be tapped for contribution to the sport.

Gender diversity is another critical issue. A serious effort must be made for the uptake of female swimming in India, right now, whatever little focus there is in the sports it is on the males. We know, who is the fastest freestyler or backstroker in India (Virdhawal & Srihari, respectively), but who is the fastest female freestyler or backstroker? And why have the six B-Times have only come from gents, why not a single female? These are some of the questions that need be asked.

Another important aspect deals with funding. Currently, just a handful of corporates like Glenmark, Tata Steel or JSW, support swimming financially. Considering the sheer lack of sporting wins, the absence of corporate support is not surprising. After all, can you recall seeing an advert featuring PV Sindhu before she had won a medal at the Rio Olympics? It is a vicious cycle; to attain glory swimmers need financial assistance, and to get the assistance they must have gained a little modicum of success, which again requires investment. There have been a few attempts made like the Khelo India scholarships, or the TOPS program that is the Target Olympic Podium Scheme, yet they have not been able to resolve the problem.  It is not the government alone that can provide the funding, corporate sponsorships are much required. India Inc. should be actively engaged, even under the aegis of the CSR spend to promote the sports.

In the end, what we need is a flash of genius, a super athlete, a miracle. Victory inspires confidence. Possibly, we are either waiting for a case like Abhinav Bindra, who was able to afford the training requirements and went on to win laurels at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Or a miracle like Dipa Karmakar or Mary Kom that shines on a global scale despite all the odds stacked against them. We desperately need an icon for swimming in India, an icon that inspires and fires up the imagination. It could be a male or female that is immaterial.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Similarly, India will not be a powerhouse in swimming in a short while. While we should actively provide support to the current batch of elite swimmers like Virdhawal, Sajan, Srihari, and on, we should also keep an eye out for Paris 2024 or the Los Angeles 2028. And, we need to start planning and preparing for that.

In that context, the current disarray caused by the COVID-19 epidemic pales in comparison to the overall malaise that inflicts the sports. If the current government is indeed serious about bringing swimming to the fore, it should start listening to people who matter. Elite swimmers typically have immense amount stamina and perseverance, now is the time for rest of the players to do their bit. How long can the buck rest with the swimmer solely? Not fair, na!

P.S. This piece has not covered Paralympic swimmers. We have done much better in that space. In fact, Suyash Jadhav, a Paralympic swimmer has already achieved the A-Time and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.

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