Indian swimming needs sharper thinking, professionalism, more tournaments to rise to global levels or risk oblivion

 Indian swimming needs sharper thinking, professionalism, more tournaments to rise to global levels or risk oblivion

The two national records that teenaged backstroke swimmer Srihari Nataraj rewrote in the FINA World Championships in Gwangju, Korea, are an indication that he is consistently improving and that he produces his best more often than not on the big stage. However, he will have to go faster to realise his dreams of making it to the Olympic Games.

For, he was eight-hundredths of a second slower in the 100m Backstroke and a good 1.05 second off the mark in the 200m Backstroke event. He is confident, though, that he will not only achieve the Olympic Selection Time (OST), FINA’s 'B' Qualifying Standards (55.47 and 2:01.03 respectively) but also get the Olympic Qualifying Time (OQT), FINA’s 'A' Qualifying Time (53.85 and 1:57.50) soon.

Sajan Prakash (200m Butterfly) secured the OST at the World Championships but is quite some distance from getting the OQT. Advait Page who had attained the OST in 800m Freestyle earlier this year, could not crack the OQT in Gwangju. Unless they get the OQT, the Indians would have to wait for an invitation till 29 June, 2020.

Kushagra Rawat, another who attained the 'B' standard in 800m Freestyle earlier in the year, competed in the 400m in the Korean city. The quartet of swimmers will have to work really hard in their pursuit of the FINA 'A' standards to secure confirmed berths in the Olympic Games. The question is: Are they training right? And, do they have the right persons making plans for them?

Except for a handful who train at the Padukone-Dravid Centre for Excellence in Bengaluru, the country’s best swimmers do not seem to have the best high performance support in planning to be at their optimal best at the World Championships. It is also possible that most had not adequately recovered from the international competitions in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Viewed from a broader perspective, the sport’s champions have been flying under the radar of popularity. Yet, they will be the first to admit that they need to raise the bar, not satisfying themselves by making it to the global meets with performances in the qualifying events but by looking to register their best in either the World Championships or the Olympics.

At a time when Indian track and field sport is looking to build on the success of junior world champions, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, 400m sprinter Hima Das and World University Games champion Dutee Chand, swimming, considered another mother sport, offers a stark contrast with precious little to show, except from the South Asian Games and Asian Age-Group Championships.

At a time when young shooters like Saurabh Chaudhary and Manu Bhaker, Mehuli Ghosh and Elavenil Valarivan are setting the world stage alight, swimmers have had to scrap hard to make their presence felt. Virdhawal Khade’s return from Government duties, backstroke specialist Srihari Nataraj’s rise and Sajan Prakash’s battling spirit are too little for the sport to crow about.

There is so much that can be done but the Swimming Federation of India is stuck in a time warp and has done precious little to either unearth new talent or to support the ones that breakthrough. It seems to have settled down to counting the gains from competitions like the Asian Age-Group Championships and the South Asian Games.

For years, the SFI annual calendar has not moved beyond the National Championships and the National Junior Championships. There has been no attempt to add more events and make it aspirational and attractive for the swimmers. Of course, the School Games Federation of India and the Inter-University Championships have been around, too.

And over the last two years, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports added the flagship Khelo India Games so that young swimmers had additional meets of quality and vie for a share of the visibility pie. Yet, even that has not persuaded the mandarins of Swimming Federation to activate themselves with a clear vision.

 - July 25, 2019. Srihari Nataraj of India competes. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth - HP1EF7P066DX6

Srihari Nataraj during the FINA World Championships 2019 in Gwangju, South Korea. Reuters

Admittedly, swimming is a sport in which the young dominate – though we have seen the older swimmers hold their own recently – but that does not mean the Federation should not plan to have more than one national level event for the senior swimmers. With no scope for improvement in competitive scenarios, they have been forced to look outside India for exposure and performance.

The Federation has held few National camps, letting swimmers train under coaches who run their own programmes. A visit to the archives of the Sports Authority of India’s website suggests that the last National Camp was held for two swimmers – Sajan Prakash and Shivani Kataria – ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

One good thing that it can claim credit for is its partnership with Glenmark Aquatic Foundation, a CSR initiative by a pharmaceutical company. It has ensured that a crop of youngsters are provided training and education at the same time. Besides, it has taken care of the expenses for the National Championships and the National Junior Championships.

With such a low-profile presence, it has been hard for swimmers to even attempt to grab the attention of sponsors and agents or even the sports NGOs. That there are only six swimmers on the TOP Scheme list, with seven on the Mission Olympic Cell’s watchlist, is a telling comment in itself. To be sure, SFI finds itself in muddied waters, unable to shake off its inertia.

Incredibly, SFI has not even filed its Annual Calendar for Training and Competition with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and its field arm, the Sports Authority of India. It has not taken a leaf out of the books of the National Sports Federations of Athletics, Boxing Weightlifting, Wrestling, Badminton and Shooting which have engaged athletes in long national camps.

The latest annual report of the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs indicates that the Swimming Federation of India was extended support to the tune of Rs 3.78 crore from April 2014 to December 2017.

The sooner the Swimming Federation of India understands that it needs to approach the task of administering in a professional manner, the better it will be for the sport. Or else, swimming would get left further behind in the race for popularity and support by sport like badminton, shooting, boxing and wrestling, not to speak of cricket.

Until then, the onus would be on Sajan Prakash and Srihari Nataraj (and perhaps a bit less on Virdhawal Khade) to carry the burden of Indian swimming on their backs and keep the sport in the collective consciousness of the people. It is a tall order in what is among the most competitive of sports at the global level, but these swimmers will have to believe that they can do it.

Updated Date: Jul 30, 2019 10:22:38 IST