In 1980, when India barely had a badminton stadium of any repute, Prakash Padukone won the All England tournament by defeating reigning champion Liem Swie King and topped the world ranking. That was a feat no Indian player could have dared to dream at the time.
India's indifferent performance at the Rio Olympics hasn't dampened his spirit. At 61, Padukone continues to work towards achieving excellence in Indian sport through his badminton academy and Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), a non-profit sports promotion foundation.
Reuters met Padukone at his academy in Bengaluru where he shared his insights on how India should prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and beyond.
Q: In the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the UK finished 36th with just one gold medal. Soon after, they overhauled their structure and in the Rio Olympics they finished second, ahead of China. Does India need something on similar lines?
A: There’s a major difference between any other country and India. What India lacks is professionalism of sports federations. Unless you professionalize the federations and the Indian Olympic Association, and unless they start becoming more accountable, responsible and transparent, and appoint the right people, no amount of funding, no amount of effort, no committee will yield results. In the UK, the moment you give funds then everything else is in place. Everybody is accountable, everybody is responsible and if you don’t meet the target, you are out. Here, that’s not the case.
Q: So you are saying first we need the right people to run the federation?
A: Yes, the right people will have the resources and the bandwidth. For everything, you need permission here. Even if a private enterprise, let’s say Reliance or some other company, wants to put in 1,000 crore rupees ($150 million) and take over all sports. You still cannot run the sport the way you want unless you have the cooperation of the federation. In everything, the federation intervenes.
If you want to reach 50 medals in eight years, unless you revamp this system, it’s not going to happen … Everything is manipulated here. When you go, your nephew or niece comes, takes your place and you still control the federation … It’s a deep-rooted malaise, which I hope we change at the earliest but it’s definitely going to take time.
Q: What kind of people should be involved in sports administration? Athletes?
A: The right people need not know anything about sports, but should be willing to learn. The Indian Institute of Management guys who know finance, marketing, etc. are the right people.
In fact, federations should be run like a corporate house. In England, badminton associations have a CEO and then they have different departments like marketing, development, sponsorship, coaching, youth development, etc. Each department is headed by somebody and each year they have a target to meet.
Here, even if you give them money, it'll still produce the same result it had been delivering earlier. Here, they don't have plans, they will blow up the money. The Rio Games was a classic example. There was no shortage of money. There was no proper planning and suddenly when the money came, they didn't know what to do. I don't think any federation has any plan.
Q: After putting the right people in the sports federation, what’s the next step?
A: Then things will automatically happen. I don’t need to tell them, those people will know what to do. We just need to take the right decisions and the implementation will happen automatically.
Q: You’ve been a part of the OGQ and sports administration in general for quite some time. How do you think India should prepare for the Tokyo Olympics and when?
A: The preparation for Tokyo Games should start from yesterday. I think we should be very realistic and aim for 10 medals, nothing more than that.
Q: You think we should identify a small number of areas where we should devote our resources in Tokyo?
A: There are only five or six sports where we can get a medal at the moment. Even the government has identified the sports in terms of priority sports and non-priority sports. We have chances in archery, boxing, badminton, wrestling, shooting and in team sport - hockey.
Q: Do you think India needs to invest in coaches and training of coaches in a big way?
A: Every sport needs to have a short-term and long-term plan. They need to have proper targets, and more than anything else, it's the monitoring that is important. In those sports, where we don't have the expertise, we should hire top coaches in the world. One of the major flaws which we need to address is to coach our coaches. For the long term, maybe for the 2028 Olympics, we need to hire best coaches in the world and pay them whatever they want. These coaches should train our coaches.
Our coaches have the talent, they are willing to learn, but they don't have the latest training methods. They are not sent abroad, no world-class coaches are brought here to train them. How do you expect them to deliver? If you want to prioritise, first get the best coaches. In one year, these foreign coaches can train 100 coaches. We need to create a separate institute for coaches where they are provided every possible facility in terms of theoretical knowledge, practical training and scientific support. These 100 coaches can then produce so many good players.
Q: And what about support teams?
A: If I have to prioritise, I'll put that in number two. In this area, we lack knowledge. Slowly we are catching up, but we are still 20 years behind the U.S. or Europe. Things like peaking, periodisation and how to do it, all should be laid out on paper, so that athletes peak at the right time. During the week when you are at the Olympics you deliver your best performance. And support team will only help when the athletes are already there. It cannot be substitute for talent and effort.
Q: You think another option could be to encourage athletes for sports scholarships in U.S. universities, such as Oregon for athletics, California for swimming, the UCLA for gymnastics, etc.?
A: It depends on the sport and the athletes. It's definitely an option, provided the athlete has the hunger.
Q: In the U.S., UK and even Kenya, they have a school-college/university-club model to produce elite athletes. Do you think India should follow this model as a long-term plan?
A: Yes, we should have that model. But then we can talk about it and we can write anything about it, but it’s not going to happen soon.
Q: The U.S. has a multi-discipline, high-altitude Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, where over 500 elite athletes can train at the same time. Do you think India should also build such facilities?
A: Of course, it will help a great deal. But it depends on the faculty, what kind of freedom they are allowed. The moment it's in the Sports Authority of India’s hands, it'll have restrictions.
Q: In India, sports federations depend a lot on government funding. Shouldn't they market their sport the way Indian cricket board has?
A: I have always said that federations, instead of blaming Indian cricket, should learn from it. Federations should learn how to market their sport and generate money through corporate sponsorship. But again, that's not going to happen anytime soon. I may sound pessimistic, but I'm being realistic.
Q: Indian badminton has produced results. You think other federations should follow this model?
A: Basically, you need some good private academies. If you don’t get right opportunity at the right time, the talent fades away.
Q: How do you see India’s performance in badminton at the Tokyo Games?
A: I think we have a good team until the 2024 Olympic games. In terms of medals, I can’t promise. Overall, for the next eight years we don’t have to worry, especially in men’s singles. We have good depth. Players are doing well at various levels, starting from age group of 13 to 23 years. With the right kind of support from government and private sports foundations and more media coverage, it will only get better. Probably the base will widen and more players will come up.
If you see the entries in the junior tournaments, it’s mind-boggling. And the way the sport is spreading, every second or third day we get enquiries about building courts, stadiums and academies from all over the country. It’s definitely on the right track. I wish the federation is little more proactive and gets right people involved. A lot more can be achieved because there’s plenty of talent.
Q: Do we need more specialized doubles coaches in badminton?
A: Doubles is much more physical, played at much more fast pace… Internally, we don’t have the expertise in doubles coaching. If we want to excel in doubles, then we need to hire foreign coaches because the technique used in doubles is so different. I think there is no coach in India, including Gopi (Pullela Gopichand) or me who can produce top-level doubles players.
Q: You think it’s possible to win multiple medals in badminton at Tokyo Games?
A: It is difficult to predict medals, but it’s definitely possible. It’s extremely difficult, but it’s possible to get medals in men’s singles and ladies singles or maybe two in men’s singles or two in ladies singles. But we have to work extremely hard for it. It’s not a strong possibility, but definitely there’s a possibility. There’s more possibility in men’s singles than in ladies singles.
In ladies’ singles, there’s a gap after Saina (Nehwal) and (P.V.) Sindhu. I have not heard or seen anyone who is of that standard. In men’s singles, we have six or eight players among the top 10 to 40 (world ranking), such as K. Srikanth and P. Kashyap though they have not done as well as Saina or Sindhu. There are more players in men’s singles and I feel there are greater chances of success, but again I’m not taking anything away from women’s players.
(Editing by Robert MacMillan)