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Armed forces’ ‘sports for wellness’ rule cost India. Time to bring back ‘gladiator sportsmen’

Until 1970s, Indian armed forces allowed units to spare military training for some men to help them focus only on sports. Then came the outcry to ban sports competitions.

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The Duke of Wellington, while watching a cricket match at Eton College 10 years after the Battle of Waterloo, metaphorically said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won here.” Most sports and games require similar leadership skills and character qualities that are seen in military battles, and empirically too, they have been an intrinsic part of soldiering. General Patton represented the US in the Modern Pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics.

Most modern sports and games were introduced in India by the British Indian Army and continue to remain an essential part of the armed force’s culture and leadership development. As a result, the armed forces also dominated most competitive sports in the country until the 1970s, when their prowess started seeing a steady decline.

Sadly, as a nation too, our performance in the international sports arenas – one of the facets of national power – is well below par. In the 2021 Olympics, China won 38 Gold, 32 Silver and 18 Bronze medals compared to our 1 Gold, 2 Silver and 4 Bronze medals. Pakistan won no medal, but that is no solace.

I make a case for the armed forces to regain their lost glory and also to assist India find its place on the sports high table.

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A glorious past 

What began as part of military training to use sports/games to develop leadership and character qualities gradually evolved into a fiercely competitive conflict between units, regiments and formations. Within each service at successive levels, the training branches laid down the policy and coordinated the effort. At the highest level, the Services Sports Control Board coordinated inter-service competitions and participation at the national level.

Warfare was relatively simple and due to leadership qualities the sportsmen performed exceptionally well in wars. For my unit 4 Sikh of Saragarhi fame, sports competitions were a matter of life and death. It performed exceptionally well in 1962, 1965 and 1971 (where I was an eyewitness) riding on the junior leadership provided by its “gladiator sportsmen.” In each of these wars, we lost the crème de la crème of our sports teams only to re-raise them from scratch.

Given the importance attached to these competitions, units started maintaining ‘gladiators’ – men who were spared the rigours of military training to focus only on sports. Due to immense resources, organisation and intense competitive spirit standards went up and armed forces collectively dominated almost all national sports.

The three Services and many regiments/corps also maintained hockey, football, basketball and volleyball teams that swept most private tournaments. In 1953, the football team of young cadets of the National Defence Academy was runner-up to the famed Mohun Bagan in the Durand Cup, which was also won twice by the Army X1, Madras Regimental Centre and the Gorkha Brigade.

Military was still an attractive career and talent scouting brought in the best available talent both as officers and soldiers. This was the golden era of the armed forces that produced world-class sportsmen like Major Dhyan Chand, Colonel Haripal Kaushik, VrC, Colonel Balbir Singh, Hony Capt Shankar Lakahman, Brigadier H.S. Chimini, Nb Sub Milkha Singh, Hony Capt Sriram Singh and Pan Singh Tomar. The list is endless.

However, the world was adopting a more scientific approach through the “catch them young” method and spending a lot of money to nurture the talent. Corporate sponsorship and advertisement made sports a career in itself. Within the armed forces training and combat became more complex. Soldiers joined only at the age of 17-21 years. The disproportionate time, effort and resources spent on sports began to impinge upon efficiency. There was an outcry to ban sports competitions and focus only on sports for wellness only. The armed forces failed to strike a balance and went to the opposite extreme, bringing a new policy in the late 1970s. Competitions were restricted to the unit level and thereafter only trials were conducted.

Soon a slump followed and standards dropped. The nadir was reached by 2000 when the armed forces ceased to be a sporting power at the national level and to safeguard their reputation stopped participating in national level games. Ironically, the gains towards training and efficiency were marginal.

Also read: Govt and military owe India an authentic history of the 1971 Bangladesh War. Rest is mythology

Mission Olympics

To arrest the decline of sports in the Army and also to contribute towards India’s sporting prowess, a project, “Mission Olympics”, was started in 2001. Rs 60 crore was allocated out of the defence budget to create world-class infrastructure. A scientific study was carried out to identify the sports disciplines most suited for the Indian physique. Eleven disciplines were identified – archery, boxing (lightweights), wrestling (lightweights), weight-lifting (lightweights), diving, athletics (long distance and throwing), fencing, sailing, rowing, shooting, and equestrian.

World-class infrastructure was created at five nodes – sailing at Mumbai; rowing at College of Military Engineering, Pune; equestrian at Remount Veterinary Corps, Meerut; shooting at Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU), Infantry School, Mhow; and Army Sports Institute (ASI) at Pune, which caters for seven disciplines. AMU and ASI nodes have Boys Sports Companies that identify young talents aged 8-15 years and provide both education and coaching, and prepare them to join the Army. Leadership was provided by officer sportsmen and best coaches were provided from within the army and through Sports Authority of India. A scientific dietary programme was also incorporated.

26 Boys Sports Companies to identify young talent at various regimental centres, an ongoing programme since 1991, were reformed  and state-of-the-art facilities were created and coaches provided. At selected military stations, infrastructure was created for some of the disciplines to nurture talent from within the Army. Talented sportsmen were directly recruited as Junior Commissioned Officers and Non Commissioned Officers and also encouraged to apply for commission as officers.

A policy for out-of-turn promotions for outstanding performance at various levels was introduced. The sports policy of the Army was reviewed after 25 years and inter-unit competitions were recommenced below division. A policy was laid down to allow Army sportspersons to benefit from corporate sponsorship and advertisements.

Also read: Army echoing Modi’s ‘all is well’ line in Kashmir risks losing initiative to Pakistan

Good but not good enough

Mission Olympics had laid down progressive objectives beginning with the 2004 Olympics. The goal for the 2020 Olympics was 15-20 medals. The actual results of the Mission Olympics Programme have been rather poor. Colonel Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won India’s first individual silver medal in shooting at the 2004 Olympics. Army sportspersons have done well in Asian and Commonwealth Games but the performance in Olympics has been below par. Subedar Vijay Kumar won a silver medal in shooting in the 2012 Olympics and Subedar Neeraj Chopra won a gold medal in javelin throw in 2021. The former two are products of the AMU and the latter was directly recruited in 2016 as JCO.

As the Director General of Military Training in 2003-2004, I was privileged to be responsible for Mission Olympics and Army Sports Policy. I have no hesitation in saying that one cannot have a better programme, funding and infrastructure to resurrect the sporting prowess of the armed forces and make a contribution to enhance national sporting prowess. Yet, two decades on we have still not regained our position of preeminence in the national arena and our international achievements have been insignificant. Our performance even at the World Military Games is also below par.

The armed forces need to provide better leadership to coordinate its sports programmes. If need be, create provision for inducting civilian talent to head select nodes. There is a need to utilise more foreign coaches. Talent scouting needs a more concerted effort and wider reach. Introduce special monetary allowances for sports persons. To keep pace with state governments introduce a Special Sports Commision for upgrading outstanding performers to officer rank as also to induct new talent. There is a need to induct talented girls and women sportspersons.

Like in battle sports require action which is factor of will. The armed forces are known to accomplish their mission at all cost. Mission Olympics deserves the same commitment.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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