Acknowledging the flipside of sport: Strengthening the S4D sector’s impact in India
In India, the growth of the sports industry has been slow and unstructured over the past decade, marred by issues of mismanagement and apathy of stakeholders. This has manifested in propagating deeply entrenched symptoms that negatively impact a range of stakeholders within sport in India, including the sport for development (S4D) sector. Though there are organisations, institutions and individuals across the country committed to using sport for social good, recognition of the negative symptoms of sport will strengthen the S4D sector's impact.
Focus on excellence and medals
Historically, sport in India has collectively been seen through a narrow lens as a means to achieving excellence: medals, endorsements and government jobs. This focus is led by the policies and practices of the central and state governments, and it has intensified in the past few years due to the rise in nationalist sentiments. Though there is no harm in sport acting as a conduit for achieving excellence and livelihoods, when it is seen as such in isolation without acknowledging other social benefits that it can have, then it becomes an issue.
This scenario in India has led to an extremely competitive sporting landscape, leading to issues of mental stress, doping as well as the bane of match-fixing. It is no surprise then that India was ranked 7th in the world in 2019 for committing doping violations. More shocking is the high prevalence of doping in regional, age-group sports competitions. Further, as recently as 2019, a match-fixing nexus was unearthed in the Karnataka Premier League (cricket), with those involved including players, coaches, governing body members and team owners.
This hyper-competitiveness in sport leads to another issue; that of securing the futures of those who do not make it big in sport. As widely accepted, only a handful of those who participate in sport go on to become professionals. The big question then is, what about the rest? In many cases, there are no alternatives for athletes to fall back on, as they are not able to complete even basic education in the search of sporting glory. This leads to stakeholders such as parents and teachers of young students questioning their participation in sport, and the potential negative impact this might have, specifically on their academics and generally on their futures. It is a vicious cycle in which sport comes away as the loser.
Poor governance in sport
Though there has been improvement in Indian sport in the past few decades, one thing that remains a constant is the poor governance of sport in the country, right from the grassroots all the way to the national level. Governance of sport in India is marred by corruption, lack of professionalism and interference of politics. Among all the negative impact that this leads to, athletes are the most severely affected by this.
There are countless examples of how the incompetence of sports governing bodies has negatively impacted Indian athletes. An alarming example is the number of sexual harassment and abuse cases that have come to light affecting women and minor athletes in India in the recent past, and the inability of institutions to safeguard them. Another consequence of poor governance is the nepotism prevalent in Indian sport, especially for contracting sports professionals and appointing board members, which fails to provide the requisite support required by athletes.
Unequal access to sport
The unstructured growth of sport in India has meant that access to sporting opportunities remains grossly unequal to marginalised groups, including girls and women, low-income families and communities as well as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. This reinforces the existing inequality and patriarchy which is deeply ingrained in Indian society. The issue of unequal access to sport is especially true for girls and women. Even though the past decade has seen a rise in Indian female athletes at the international level acting as role models for future generations, sport at the grassroots remains highly inaccessible to girls. This is due to a variety of reasons, including girls being prohibited from participating in sport due to existing rigid gender norms, as well as issues of safety and mobility, both in rural and urban India.
Gender inequity also manifests in elite sport, where the share of resources for women’s sport is highly disproportionate to that of their male counterparts. Cricket in India is the biggest commercial sport in the country, yet central contracts for the women’s game only came into place in 2015. Despite this positive step, inequality in remuneration in Indian cricket is rife – the 2020 contracted list of women Indian cricketers shows that the top paid Indian male cricketer earns more annually than all centrally contracted women players combined!
The way forward
The S4D sector is emerging as an important actor in combatting some of the issues and social disadvantages created by sport in India. However, the sector needs to be aware and recognise the prevalence of the negative symptoms created by sport on communities and individuals, especially young people. The sector needs to reflect on how their programming can address some of these factors, in order to avoid falling into the same pitfalls. Moreover, the sector needs to understand how sport can best be utilised as a tool for positive outcomes, as this will not necessarily happen automatically but needs careful planning and meticulous design.
Moving forward, the S4D sector in India needs to collectivise and work in cohesion to share best practices, tackle issues and ensure better flow of information. Currently, S4D actors in India, though undertaking impressive work, continue to work in silos. Further, the sector needs to better advocate the positive impact of sport, as well as inform stakeholders of the negative symptoms of sport. If this is done as a collective, it will amplify the voice of the sector, and potentially lead to future policy reform. Finally, the sector needs to focus on safeguarding and protection of young people, not just within S4D organisations and institutions but generally within the sports sector. This is something seriously lacking in Indian sport, and the S4D sector can play an important role in tackling it.
Suheil F. Tandon is the director-founder of Pro Sport Development, a social enterprise dedicated to using sport for the holistic development and empowerment of children and youth at the grassroots in India.