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Circumstances similar for everyone, shouldn’t be an excuse for not getting medals: IOA President Narinder Batra

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The Covid-19 pandemic has been tough not only for athletes across the globe but for sports administrators as well. The postponed Olympics, cancelled tournaments, and restricted training and travel constraints made things difficult on multiple fronts. Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president
Narinder Batra, however, has high hopes of Indian athletes returning from Tokyo with medals in double digits (last time India managed just two and the best so far has been six in 2012). Speaking to ET Sport, Batra explains the reasons for his optimism and also talks about the kit sponsorship controversy. Excerpts:

The last one year has been quite difficult for everybody – the Olympics were delayed, several tournaments were cancelled. As the IOA president, how has the lockdown period been?

It’s been more than a year. Pandemic started in February 2020, so we are almost a year and a half into it. The tough period I would say was only April-May 2020 when we were trying to again put the structure of training and everything back into place. In that period I think the athletes might have missed some of their normal training.

And then I would say from June 2020, whichever way the athletes wanted it or the NSFs (national sports federations) wanted it, things have happened their way, whether they wanted to train in India or abroad. As far as training is concerned, I don’t think there’s been any problem since June last year. The only glitch period was April and May 2020. Rest of it has been perfect till now.

What were the challenges that you faced while trying to put things back together?

This pandemic was a new thing for all of us. So, we had to establish protocols and maintain them. NSFs prepared their own protocols, SAI (Sports Authority of India) also prepared theirs and then we merged all of them together. Then everyone followed the protocols, like you have to maintain social distancing. During practice initially, in contact sports mainly, you could not come into contact with each other I think till August or September. Water sports started sometime late August or early September.

That’s how things went, and we focused more on fitness at the individual level irrespective of whether it was an individual event or a team event. And those who were training outside India, they were following the local protocols. I think by and large, all the initial issues (that we faced), everything returned to normal. Whatever problems surfaced, we (managed) to sort them out. Now it’s part of the routine. No worries.

The Olympics got delayed by a year, several tournaments had to be postponed or were cancelled, training schedules had to be reworked. Has there been an assessment to understand what kind of impact these developments had on the athletes and their preparations for the Olympics?

See, these issues are not India-specific. I would say it has levelled the playing field for everyone across the world. At some places, the impact was more and at others it was less (than India). But if competitions were not happening, they were not happening for everyone.

Accordingly, everyone (NSFs and athletes) drew up their own plans to find ways to work around the problems and start training, arrange sparring partners, organise competitions with other teams. So, it was all lined up.

Somebody told me sometime ago that ‘you need some good quality match practice’ for a big event like the Olympics. But the circumstances were similar for everyone and should not be an excuse for our athletes not getting medals. I don’t want to put pressure on anyone but I think everybody has a level-playing field. Whichever country is going to the Olympics has been through a similar situation. I would say 95% have faced similar situations.

Recently, Li Ning was dropped as the Indian Olympic team’s kit sponsor. Why was it dropped so close to the Games? And if the Chinese connection is so worrisome, why was the kit unveiling ceremony allowed to happen?

Public sentiments have been against Chinese companies for quite some time now. It didn’t happen overnight. We were more focused on the issues that arose after the second wave of the pandemic, which came to India around February-March, like how to make sure that our athletes are safe and secured, especially those who were looking to go abroad for training.

We were more into those things. And a lot more responsibilities have also been added to the logistics arrangements, if you see the playbooks which have been released by Tokyo. So, we were more focused on those sides without realising that this issue (Chinese kit sponsor) was already on the back burner. The moment the kit was released, there was a huge public outcry. We believe that if a sport has to survive, it cannot go against public sentiments. The views of the fans and public are very important. Keeping that in mind, we decided to go without a name, that we won’t have any sponsor.

The kits were anyway being manufactured in India. We were not dealing with Li Ning directly but through an agency in Singapore. We have a sponsorship agency in India who got them to us. So, we spoke to them and mutually decided to drop Li Ning. Everything got settled amicably. We removed the name. The kit production is going on. (IOA now has a new kit sponsor, MPL sport).

Should public sentiments be allowed to dictate terms of kit sponsorship which was perfectly legal?

Absolutely! The feelings of our fellow Indians are very important to us. The Indian team is cheered and supported by the Indian fans and Indian public. If there are sentiments, they will be respected. There are two different things: performance and uniform. If a particular logo is there or not, it is not going to affect anybody’s performance. Public sentiments are very important for us. If they don’t cheer for the athletes, it could affect the morale of the entire team. You need public support behind you.

There are a lot of claims that India’s medal tally would hit double digits this time. What’s the reason for such optimism?

This is not just empty optimism. If you see, India ranked No. 1 in the world in shooting. We monitor the performances and rankings of our athletes.

Whether it’s wrestling or boxing or hockey or athletics or any other sport, we monitor everybody’s performances and then we compare the results with the athletes from other countries. That’s how we decide where we are placed. After calculating everything, we said this time we should be achieving medals in double figures in the Olympics. This is after proper analysis. This is not decided over a cup of tea!

We have been evaluating everyone’s performance for the last three years. Their consistency, the ups and downs in performances, the period in which an athlete peaks, goes down and come up again. After evaluating everything, we have come to the conclusion that for the first time India should achieve medals in double digits at the Olympics.

Isn’t there a possibility that publicly stating such goals may put pressure on the athletes?

We haven’t named any single player or team. So, it’s unlikely that it would put pressure on anyone. Secondly, athletes are mentally very strong. We shouldn’t underestimate those who have reached the Olympic level. It’s not the first time in their life that they would play at a big event. They come through a grinding process. They have played in many events and have seen a lot of ups and downs. So, the level of mental strength one requires to reach this stage, I think practically all of them have achieved those levels.

And everything has two sides. If we say nothing, people will think we don’t have confidence in our players. When we say we are confident that our athletes will achieve medals in double figures, people start talking about putting pressure on the athletes.

We have not named any athlete, who will win or who won’t. So, there shouldn’t be any pressure. But after observing their performance in the last three years, we are hopeful of achieving double digits. And I don’t see any reason why we should not.

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