Can the COVID-19 pandemic transform the sporting landscape in India?
Following the global trend, India’s sporting landscape has charted a top-down approach in delivery, consumption, financial support and investment (government and private), as well as governance. The focus on elite sport and winning medals in India, encouraged by the increasing nationalistic sentiment towards sport, has ensured an apathy towards recreational and grassroots sport and physical activity. The growing “sports league culture” in India, which has attracted big money in the hope of making quick profits, without requisite investment at the grassroots, has only exacerbated this trend. Looking even at the consumption of sport, it is very much lopsided towards big, international sporting events – a weekend football league or even a domestic professional cricket match would be lucky to have an audience of 100 spectators!
This top-heavy approach to sport has kept the bottom of the pyramid – grassroots and recreational sport – under-developed for too long. The sport for development (S4D) sector, which propagates the use of sport for creating social change, seems to be almost non-existent in the sporting discourse in the country. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and its future impact might leave sport in general, and the sports industry in particular, vulnerable, as it will be not be seen as a necessity in the larger scheme of things. This will force stakeholders to think about sport very differently moving forward, and it might lead to a much required change in the sporting landscape.
Reimagining Sport post-COVID-19
As and when the global community starts emerging from the COVID-19 crisis, our world as it is today would have changed. This change will also impact sport and the S4D sector. How can we ensure that sport remains relevant in India in a post-COVID-19 world?
In the post-pandemic world, the Indian government, along with key stakeholders of sport in India, must look at serving the bottom of the sporting pyramid, focusing on grassroot and recreational sport and physical activity. This will be crucial to ensure the physical and mental health and well-being of the population, and a meaningful medium for young people to be engaged in. However, in order to do this, the larger Indian population, especially marginalised children and youth, must realise their fundamental right to access sport and physical activity at different stages of life. Moreover, ease of access to sport must be ensured even in the remotest parts of the country – this means more sporting infrastructure at the grassroots, along with a greater number of instructors and the addition of other ancillary services. This massive undertaking would require a large investment, which is possible with a minor re-allocation of public and private funds from elite sport towards grassroot sports and physical activity.
Moreover, if there is one thing that we are learning during the ongoing pandemic, it is how to leverage technology for sport, and this is something that can be adapted to grassroots and recreational sport post the pandemic, in order to reach out to a larger populace in India. Note of caution: taking this route in India would still leave out a large chunk of the population due to the large digital divide that currently exists. Making this a successful undertaking would also require large investments in digital infrastructure as well as upskilling of digital literacy tools and methods.
Another crucial aspect in the post-COVID-19 world would be to integrate S4D in all aspects of grassroot and youth sports in India. Further, it would be crucial for stakeholders to discuss the merger of the sport development and sport for development sectors, in order to ensure that both become stronger by providing wider and more sustainable benefits for its participants. It is critical that future generations in India are equipped with crucial life skills to be able to navigate an uncertain post-pandemic world. Sport is a great medium to imbibe these skills, and stakeholders must take full advantage of this. Moreover, linking S4D and life skills within educational curricula would be most beneficial to have a greater impact.
I can’t help but wonder if we have done the children and youth of India a disservice by not intentionally integrating life skills within their education processes much earlier, which would have enabled them to be more resilient, manage conflict better, and adhere to rules during the ongoing crisis? But, it also makes me feel proud that Pro Sport Development (PSD) has been playing a role in positively impacting the lives of many children through sport and imbibing in them crucial values and life skills required to tackle a volatile world. There are a few other organisations across India working towards similar goals, but this needs to be taken up at a much larger scale.
This reimagination of sport in India in the post-COVID-19 world, especially at the grassroots and with children and youth, will take a large push from various stakeholders in India who value the importance of sport and would like to see it flourish in the future. However, these stakeholders will need to come together to advocate the crucial role that sport can play in improving the physical and mental health of the population as well as equipping young people with life skills to tackle future challenges. Policy makers will need to look at long-term solutions to keep sport relevant, and the reimagined scope of sport in India offers a sustainable option, especially at the grassroots.
Finally, the solidarity shown by individuals and institutions during the pandemic must continue well beyond, as for any transformation to happen in sport in India, stakeholders must collaborate and work together towards this change.
Suheil F. Tandon is the Director-Founder of Pro Sport Development, an award-winning social enterprise dedicated to using sport for the holistic development of children and youth. Suheil is a firm believer in the power of sport in catalysing social change, and has experience of working with diverse groups of young people using sport as a tool for development.