The armed forces’ ‘sport for welfare’ rule has cost India. It’s time to bring back the “gladiator sportsmen”

Jhe Duke of Wellington, while watching a cricket match at Eton College 10 years after the Battle of Waterloo, said metaphorically: “The Battle of Waterloo was won here. Most sports and games require leadership skills and character qualities similar to those seen in military battles, and empirically too, they are an integral part of being a soldier. General Patton represented the United States in the modern pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics.

Most modern sports and games were brought to India by the British Indian Army and continue to remain a vital part of the culture and leadership development of the armed forces. As a result, the armed forces also dominated most competitive sports in the country until the 1970s, when their prowess began to steadily decline.

Unfortunately, as a nation too, our performance in international sporting arenas – one facet of national power – is well below average. At 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 didn’t win any medals, but that’s no consolation.

I plead for the armed forces to regain their lost glory and also to help India regain its place on the high table of sport.

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A glorious past

What began as part of military training to use sports/games to develop leadership and character qualities has gradually turned into fierce conflict between units, regiments and formations. Within each service, at successive levels, the training departments define the policy and coordinate 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 their leadership qualities, sportsmen performed exceptionally well in wars. For my renowned Sikh Unit 4 Saragarhi, athletic competitions were a matter of life and death. It performed exceptionally well in 1962, 1965 and 1971 (where I was an eyewitness) thanks to the junior leadership provided by its “gladiator sportsmen”. In each of these wars, we lost the crème de la crème of our sports teams to rebuild them from scratch.

Given the importance attached to these competitions, units began to maintain “gladiators” – men who were spared the rigors of military training to focus solely on sport. Due to immense resources, organization and an intense competitive spirit, standards rose and the 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, National Defense Academy Youth Cadet Football Team was runner-up to famous Mohun Bagan in the Durand Cup, which was also twice won by X1 Army, Madras Regimental Center and the Gorkha Brigade.

The military was always an attractive career, and the talent search attracted the best talent available as both officers and privates. It was the golden age of armed forces which produced world class sportsmen like Major Dhyan Chand, Colonel Haripal Kaushik, VrC, Colonel Balbir Singh, Hony Capt Shankar Lakahman, Brigadier HS Chimini, Nb Sub Milkha Singh, Hony Capt Sriram Singh and Pan Singh Tomar. The list is endless.

However, the world was taking a more scientific approach through the “catch them young” method and spending a lot of money to nurture talent. Corporate sponsorship and advertising have made the sport a career in itself. Within the armed forces, training and combat have become more complex. Soldiers joined only at the age of 17-21. The disproportionate amount of time, effort and resources spent on sports began to hurt efficiency. There has been an outcry for banning sports competitions and focusing solely on wellness-only sports. The armed forces failed to strike a balance and went to the opposite extreme, bringing a new policy in the late 1970s. Competitions were limited to unit level and thereafter only trials have been organised.

Soon a crisis ensued and standards plummeted. The nadir was reached in 2000 when the armed forces ceased to be a sporting power at the national level and, to preserve their reputation, stopped participating in national level games. Ironically, the gains in terms of training and efficiency have been marginal.

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Mission Olympics

To arrest the decline of sports in the military and also to contribute to India’s sporting prowess, a project, “Mission Olympics”, was started in 2001. Rs 60 crore was allocated from the defense budget to create world-class infrastructure. A scientific study was conducted to identify the sports disciplines most suited to the Indian physique. Eleven disciplines have been identified: archery, boxing (lightweight), wrestling (lightweight), weightlifting (lightweight), diving, athletics (long distance and throwing), fencing, sailing, rowing, shooting and equestrian sports. .

World-class infrastructure has been created at five nodes – shipping in Mumbai; rowing at the College of Military Engineering, Pune; equestrian at Remount Veterinary Corps, Meerut; shooting at the Army Gunnery Unit (AMU), School of Infantry, Mhow; and Army Sports Institute (ASI) in Pune, which covers seven disciplines. The AMU and ASI nodes have boys’ sports societies that identify young talent between the ages of 8 and 15 and provide both education and training, and prepare them to join the military. Leadership was provided by sports officers and the best coaches came from the military and the Sports Authority of India. A scientific dietary program has also been incorporated.

26 Boys Sports Companies to identify young talent in various regimental centres, a program in operation since 1991, were reformed and state-of-the-art facilities were created and coaches provided. At some military stations, an infrastructure has been created for some of the disciplines to nurture talent within the military. Talented sportsmen were directly recruited as junior officers and non-commissioned officers and were also encouraged to apply for commission as officers.

A policy of out-of-round promotions for outstanding performance at various levels has been introduced. Army sports policy is reviewed after 25 years and inter-unit competitions resume below division. A policy has been established to allow sportsmen in the military to benefit from corporate sponsorships and advertisements.

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Good, but not good enough

Mission Olympics had set progressive goals starting with the 2004 Olympics. The goal for the 2020 Olympics was 15-20 medals. The actual results of the Mission Olympics program have been rather poor. Colonel Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won India’s first individual silver medal in shooting at the 2004 Olympics. Army sportsmen did well in the Asian and Commonwealth Games but the performance in the Olympics was below normal. Subedar Vijay Kumar won a silver medal in shooting at the 2012 Olympics and Subedar Neeraj Chopra won a gold medal in javelin throwing in 2021. The first two are products of AMU and the second was directly recruited in 2016 as JCO.

As Director General of Military Training in 2003-2004, I had the privilege of being responsible for the Olympic mission and sports policy of the army. I have no hesitation in saying that you can’t have a better program, better funding and better infrastructure to resuscitate the sporting prowess of the armed forces and help improve national sporting prowess. Yet, two decades later, we have still not regained our position of national prominence and our international achievements have been insignificant. Our performance, even at the World Military Games, is also below average.

The military needs to provide better leadership to coordinate its sports programs. If necessary, create arrangements to induct civilian talents to head certain nodes. It is necessary to use more foreign coaches. The search for talent requires a more concerted effort and a broader reach. Introduce special monetary allowances for athletes. To keep pace with state governments, introduce a special sports commission to upgrade outstanding performers to officer rank and also to induct new talent. There is a need to induct talented girls and sportswomen.

As in combat sports, it takes an action that is a factor of will. The armed forces are known to accomplish their mission at all costs. Mission Olympics deserves the same commitment.

Lt Gen HS Panag PVSM, AVSM(R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. After his retirement, he served as a member of the Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)