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Aspiring Olympians in India Get Grassroots Help

  • Aru Pande

Despite having one of the world’s largest economies, India spends less than one percent of its budget on sports. Indians who aspire to compete on a global level often say they do not have the support they need to do so. One grassroot foundation is trying to make a difference, one athlete at a time.

The love of sports

Every day, before and after school, Julie Yadav can be found on a field in the northern city of Lucknow, training for her next race. “There isn’t a proper track or enough space. Despite that, my coach helps me practice as much as I can," she said. "Allowing me to compete at the state level.”

The 15-year-old competed and won a silver medal in the 400-meter race in Uttar Pradesh - India’s impoverished and most populous state with more than 200 million people.

She credits the Sparsh Sports Development Foundation with giving her the financial support and training needed to take her love for running to the next level.

Ajeet Verma, a World Cup cross country silver medalist, started the Lucknow-based foundation in 2010. He uses part of his income as a railway worker to foster youngsters who show potential in everything from track and field to volleyball.

“The only sport that is being promoted in India is cricket. There is no marketing or management for athletes taking part in other sports," Verma stated. "This is necessary. Without this type of support, athletes have to worry about getting a job to support themselves.”

This lack of support is reflected in the fact that India has only won a total of 26 medals in all Olympic Games. Compare that to neighboring China, with over 500 medals - 88 in last year’s London Olympics alone. Analysts say unlike other countries, India lacks the financial and institutional support, infrastructure and a culture that fosters athletic talent at a young age.

Coach Manjeet Singh said the lack of funding for sports at the grassroots level can be seen in the absence of athletic facilities and even basic equipment like mats, hurdles and medicine balls.

Preparing for greatness

Singh, who coaches at a local school, spends his free time volunteering with the foundation to give youngsters the opportunity he said he never had as a track and field athlete. “When I was at my peak, athletically, there was no coach to help me. I used to do all the repetitions myself, there was no one to guide me,” he recalled.

He now spends his afternoons guiding athletes like Yadav, who has big dreams for her future. “I want to compete in the Olympics, that is my one hope and for that I need support,” she explained.

For now, Sparsh, which means "touch" in Hindi, tries to fill in the gap, hoping that the government and Indian society as a whole will recognize the importance of the country’s excellence in a sport other than cricket.

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