Sport, interrupted: Hockey academy counts cost of opportunities missed

Former India junior coach Jude Felix (right) in a file picture, seen passing on instructions to Shilanand Lakra during an India-Ireland match in Antwerp, Belgium in 2018. Hockey India

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the sporting economy to a shuddering halt. In India, the lockdown and its longer-term implications threaten the future of clubs, academies, leagues, support staff, all the people who help move the wheels of sport. In this series, ESPN looks across the country's sporting ecosystem, from the big clubs to the neighbourhood academies, to see how they've been affected.

April and May are normally the busiest months for the Jude Felix Hockey Academy (JFHA), located at St. Mary's Orphanage in Bengaluru. That's when it hosts its summer camps for about 100 children -- boys and girls across ages -- who, for a token fee as donation, play and train for four weeks.

The JFHA -- run by a charitable trust under former India captain and two-time Olympian Felix -- has been holding this camp every year since its inception in 2009. However, the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing lockdown saw all hockey activities suspended from March 23 onwards.

The academy caters to hockey aspirants who come from families with meagre resources -- besides children of the orphanage, there are 35 others who train round the year -- and depends almost entirely on donations from friends, families and well-wishers. The loss of even this token donation income is another blow for the JFHA; the funds are drying up fast, say Felix and his former India teammate Shanmugham Pandurangan.

Summer, but no camps

"We were supposed to have three separate summer camps. Everything is dead at the moment with the academy closed," says Felix, adding that the majority of the regular trainees won't suffer yet because they would have been preparing only for local tournaments.

The academy has three full-time staff -- two coaches and an office assistant. Shanmugham -- who jokingly calls himself "a volunteer, trustee, secretary, treasurer, all-in-one" -- says the salaries of the three combined don't amount to much, but the yearly expense for the academy works out to about INR 10 lakh (approx. $13,000) on average. "We spend on training equipment, after-training nutrition, and we also take care of educational expenses of the children," he says. "We don't pay in cash, but we might buy their books, help with their school fees or take care of their bus pass. Some of them are from such poor backgrounds that we might buy provisions for them and their families. Being a trust, we can't organise commercial activities but we hold fundraisers, and that involves meeting people and approaching them. Right now, everybody is running for their lives."

To raise funds, Shanmugham wanted to participate in the Charity Run during the TCS 10K in Bengaluru, scheduled for May 17 but postponed now to November 22. The academy -- which owns a bus, donated by the State Bank of India -- had plans of acquiring a small van to take the children to local tournaments, for which Shanmugham's family had come forward to help. "My brother-in-law was going to buy the vehicle. Knowing the current situation, I advised him against doing that," he says.

Felix says the salaries have been given for April, but with the funds low and little coming in, clearing dues might soon become a problem. "We have managed to pay them this month, but I am not sure how we will be able to manage the next few. We just have to wait and see," he says.

Opportunity cost

The bigger price to pay may be slightly different -- literally, opportunity cost. For example, the delay has put in doubt the career plans of one of the brightest trainees, Deepandhar Deval. Son of a security guard, Deval came to the academy through a trustee near whose house he lived, and would play by the road. The midfielder played a key role in helping JFHA win the Dhyan Chand six-a-side invitational tournament in Mussoorie last year. Just ahead of the lockdown, he had attended a trial for the Sports Authority of India's (SAI) Centre of Excellence (CoE) project, a scheme where the best players across 17 disciplines, between the ages of 14 and 25, get advanced scientific training at SAI's regional centres of excellence for 330 days in a year.

"He has had that first selection, among the top 20 in the country in U-18 category, and there was supposed to be another round of trials. He doesn't know where he stands now, since everything is in limbo," says Felix.

Or take the case of Rajendra, JFHA's most celebrated graduate yet. He has played for Karnataka at both junior and senior levels, played in the French league last year, and has had a call-up for the junior national camp in the past. Financial constraints within the family forced Rajendra to leave the CoE this January and start working at a fitness centre. Two months ago he joined the JFHA as a junior coach, one of their three full-time staff, to increase his income.

Shanmugham had planned to set aside a significant part of his earnings from the 10K run to support Rajendra's family. Instead, he might soon need to give him a call and let him know that his job at the academy is over.