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Invest in sportspersons

The media in Assam has been highlighting the plight of former champion archer Buli Basumatari, making a living as a roadside fruit vendor in Chirang district. Back in 2003, she was spotted in school by talent scouts, trained by Sports Authority of India (SAI), and went on to win a clutch of gold medals in tiol archery from sub-junior to senior levels for six years. Things unraveled in 2010 after she returned home suddenly from SAI centre due to a health complaint, failed to recuperate, and was then married off. The mother of two was found by reporters beside tiol highway 31 selling oranges to make family ends meet, and the media soon took up cudgels on her behalf. Remarkably, her love for archery remains strong, evident from her dream to introduce both her daughters to the sport, as well as the training she gives to youngsters at a local school. All of 28, Buli has now reportedly been offered the job to coach the State women archery squad. If it materializes, her story may yet have a ‘feelgood’ ending. That would still put Buli in a minority, for ours is a country that is no place for sportspersons past their salad days. Once their all-too-brief tryst with sporting glory is over, many discover painfully how idequate their career earnings are to start a small business, that they lack altertive skills to seek gainful employment. Stories are legion of former sportspersons eking out a livelihood as laborers, petty shopkeepers and odd jobbers. For long years, defense and police services have offered some succor, but consider what happened to KD Jadhav who won India’s first individual medal, a bronze in freestyle wrestling, at the 1952 Helsinki Games. After retiring from Maharashtra police, he was even denied pension. Closer to home, Assam takes pride at Bhogeshwar Baruah’s exploits at the 1966 Bangkok Asiad where he clinched the 800m gold, but apart from celebrating his birthday as Abhiruchi Day, there was little State support for his dream to set up a sports academy In Demow.    

Government jobs for sportspersons have meanwhile been drying up; when according to Labour Ministry data around 10 lakh people are entering the workforce in India every month, there is not much governments can do on their own. Public sector enterprises too, forced to watch their margins in an open market — are cutting down on recruitment, sportspersons or otherwise. And when para-athletes are beginning to earn laurels for the country, questions may be asked why ‘regular’ athletes are being preferred. These are but some of the complications whenever we talk of rehabilitating sportspersons in their sunset years. Other than cricketers, any aspiring sportsperson can legitimately question (or at least his or her parents will) the prospects of devoting the best years of life pursuing excellence in the are, when prospects outside it are so forbiddingly bleak. For the sportsperson, it is a tale of betrayal at every turn — struggling alone with little support, facing politics during selection, condemned to retirement with little fincial security. The country has begun rewarding only a few intertiol medal winners, particularly Olympic medalists with generous cash rewards. Seeking to emulate IPL cricket, professiol leagues in football, badminton and wrestling are coming up — offering hope to players of earning some decent money. But overall, in a country still doing pitifully little to develop a grassroots sporting culture, investing in sportspersons remains a far cry. In such a milieu, there is hardly any talk of counseling players to maximize their earnings when the going is good, then save and invest properly for retirement. What hurts most is that the sports set-up — which has little inclition to support budding talents or involve retired players — remains hostage to politicians and administrators. These are the people who crave permanent tenures, perks and foreign junkets, and never-ending control over sports finces. Assam too has been afflicted with this malaise with dozens of politicians heading sports bodies for years on end. It is because of such ignorant and callous sports bosses that sportspersons still plough a lonely furrow to success, and are then left high and dry after their playing days are over. Any sports policy that the country forges in the coming days — can only be meaningful if it addresses such ultimately human issues.  

About the author

Ankur Kalita