Viren Rasquinha is a well known name in India's sporting circles, as one of the most gifted midfielders of Indian hockey.
The former India captain, who started his international career in 2002, went on to play 180 matches for India and was a part of the team that won gold in 2003 Asia Cup and Afro-Asian Games, silver in 2002 Asian games.
However, amidst all the onfield heroics, the Olympian and Arjuna Award winner's biggest contribution to Indian sport has probably come off the turf.
After an early retirement from hockey in 2008, Rasquinha completed his MBA and joined Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) in a bid to support Indian athletes' Olympic ambitions.
OGQ, a non-profit organisation, was founded in 2001 by sporting greats Geet Sethi and Prakash Padukone, helps give Indian athletes the best possible expertise on par with international standards.
Rasquinha, the CEO, has been with the organisation for the last seven years and has been involved in brand-building and fund-raising to help athletes gain timely support. His off field energy has matched his onfield levels and the results are there for all to see – during the 2012 London Games, four out of the six Indian medal winners were OGQ-supported athletes. The drive to enhance this number at the upcoming 2016 Olympics has only increased.
With the countdown for the Road to Rio ticking to less than 50 days, Firstpost spoke to Rasquinha about all things Olympics – from India’s contingent to the dark horses to watch out for, the need for transparency in Indian sport, Sushil Kumar's demand for a trail, MC Mary Kom's qualification and much more.
Excerpts from the interview:
FP: This is India's largest contingent to the Olympics yet. How do you assess our chances?
Rasquinha: The size of the contingent has nothing to do with the eventual medals tally and it is very hard to predict, I try to be conservative and not say much. But it is undoubtedly a very good contingent; this is by far the strongest shooting contingent that we have had and we must hope for the best and keep on preparing. Olympics medals will be won and lost by very fine margins so we have to go with the best possible preparation to convert potential into medals.
FP: Not a prediction, but who would you pick as some of the dark horses to watch out for from India?
Rasquinha: It's very hard for me to say, but maybe the women's archery team, Apurvi (Chandela) and Ayonika (Paul) in shooting, Dipa Karmakar in gymnastics. The men's hockey team could be a dark horse with the new format - take it with a pinch of salt, but it's about dark horses and not firm favourites. If you look at the overall performances in the ongoing Champions Trophy, India has been pretty consistent. There are still errors that are creeping in, we lost the lead against Germany and almost squandered it against Britain, these are problems that need to be solved.
FP: What's your take on the Olympics issues that have been fought outside the field, such as the debate over who should represent India in wrestling and tennis?
Rasquinha: We should find the best possible system to ensure that sporting merit is the only criteria to select the team to represent India at the Olympics. It should not be politics, and it should definitely not be in the courts. Every individual sport has to evolve that system - there is no fixed system, there is nothing that works best across every sport. It's up to every sporting federation to develop that system which will ensure that the best athlete represent the country, so the debate shouldn't be - should India send Sushil (Kumar) or Narsingh (Yadav), it should be that India should send our best wrestler in that weight category. But for that, there has to be a very transparent running of the federation and the administrator should be efficient. The IOC (International Olympic Committee) norms state that the federations have to be autonomous, the government can give funding but they or anyone else cannot interfere in selections. Every federation needs to have very strong, efficient, transparent administration and procedures like trials etc, so that it shouldn't come to this situation where we are debating and things are going to court. It should be clear and fair. This time, the AITA (All India Tennis Association) did a much better job than the previous Olympics - it's not perfect but they handled the situation better than last time
FP: Speaking of the federations, how would you describe the infrastructure available to the athletes preparing for the Olympics?
Rasquinha: The government is doing a very good job for the athletes, they are investing a lot of money and it is showing results. The Indian women’s hockey team has qualified for the Olympic Games after 36 years and it's credit to the federation who has invested in them for the last five to six years. OGQ plays a complimentary role to the government, the sports ministry and SAI (Sports Authority of India), as we cannot do it all by ourselves. We work closely with the government and generally use existing facilities. But OGQ is a Not for Profit organisation, and all our funding comes from the private sector from corporate, from HNLs, from the 'aam aadmi'. You can donate even 100 Rs to OGQ which goes towards the training of athletes.
FP: What is OGQ's role in the larger scheme of things?
Rasquinha: OGQ doesn't invest in infrastructure at all, it's about investing in people – the coaches, the training facilities, the equipment or the best doctors, physios, nutritionists, mental trainers – everything in the back end to help these athletes. We have to ensure that the athletes have the best possible expertise that helps them win. We support individual sports, but there is actually an army of people working behind the scenes.
FP: How does OGQ fit in along with the government and the sports federations?
Rasquinha: OGQ comes in on the speed of actions. For example, if a Saina Nehwal twists her ankle, you need to show her to the best specialist in the first 24 hours no matter which part of the world she is in, there is no point in taking her to a specialist after one week. Just like there is no point in giving Gagan Narang the best rifle one month before the Olympics. Because OGQ is a much smaller organisation, we have more nimbleness in the way we operate and decisions can be taken far quicker. The people who have started OGQ, like Geeth Sethi, Prakash Padukone, Leander Paes, Vishwanathan Anand, myself, we are all sportspersons ourselves and have played at the highest level. So we understand the psyche of athletes, the requirements of athletes at the highest level and the little things that will make the difference. The one percent things are also very important and we have to do our role to the best of our ability.
FP: Do you think the Olympic sports and athletes get enough backing financially?
Rasquinha: It's a drop in the ocean and you need far, far more to support the athletes at the highest level. There is not enough investment in the sports, we need to far more.
FP: What is the one area that Indian sports needs more investment in?
Rasquinha: Coaches - this is one area we need much more investment. India are far behind the rest of the world in coaching and we need to ensure that in every sport at least 20 coaches are brought up to world standards. Right now, we are almost dependent on foreign coaches but we can't keep this trend going; foreign coaches need to groom the top 20 Indian coaches in that particular sport so that five years down the line we have good quality Indian coaches who can then teach our 14-15-year-olds the right thing. It wont happen overnight though, to groom our coaches to that level will take five to six years .
FP: Mary Kom, last Olympic's medal winner, hasn't qualified this year, and there have been talks of procuring a wildcard entry for her. How would you rate the chances of her getting one?
Rasquinha: I hope and pray that Mary gets a wild card, she has been handled by OGQ for the last seven years and it has been a huge disappointment for us that she's not there. I will be really happy if she does get a wildcard, but I am going to be conservative and won't get my hopes too high. However, I am not too optimistic as we are not even sure if they will grant one; the AIBA haven't decided yet whether the women's 51 kg will have wildcard.
FP: In 2008, India got the first gold, in 2012, India got its highest medal tally yet, what your thoughts on India's improving Olympics results?
Rasquinha: There is no doubt that India is on the right track, the athletes are doing well and the number qualified for the Olympics showcase the fact that we are improving. Still, a lot more needs to be done so that we get better performances finally and the medals increase. You have to work hard and very efficiently toward that goal and everyone needs to get much more professional and put in that level of work to get there.