On national sports day, focus on "national"

Are India's sports truly diverse and inclusive? The numbers suggest there is some way to go. Darren Staples/AFP via Getty Images

"My situation was like a dog lost at a temple grounds [on the day of a festival]. Because I didn't know the language, I had no friends, I was not getting food to my taste. All the coaches were speaking in Hindi... It was very difficult to adjust. Within hockey, goalkeeping is an individual game. I didn't have to adjust with or make an understanding with anyone else and that's the only reason I survived! Otherwise, I'd have long ago packed my bags and gone home!" - PR Sreejesh, Indian hockey team.

Sreejesh is one of only three people from the state of Kerala to be a part of the Indian hockey team at an Olympics, and the only one to appear at multiple Olympics. It showed when he struggled, hard, in his initial years at national camps, where both language (Hindi) and food were alien to him. He had no friends, no one spoke to him and he didn't understand what his coaches were telling him. He persevered, and because he is who he is, succeeded. He's now taken it upon himself to ensure his teammates don't have to face what he did.

Sreejesh's personal experience of alienation, though, raises an uncomfortable question for India's national sports day (August 29): From hockey to football, from wrestling to boxing, are India's sports, excluding the behemoth that is cricket, truly national? Do they tap into the talent base across the vast spread of this country? Almost every sporting federation in India is headquartered in Delhi, the far north for most of the nation; does that lead to skewed perspectives?

Are our sports truly diverse and inclusive? The numbers suggest there is some way to go.

Take wrestling, for instance. Of the 12 wrestlers at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, 10 were from Haryana, one from Delhi, and one from Uttar Pradesh. Of the seven that represented India at the Tokyo Olympics, all seven were from Haryana. Since the turn of the '90s, not one athlete from outside these states (and Punjab) have represented India in Olympic freestyle wrestling.

None of this to take away from the athletes, or their achievements, or to question the strength of the wrestling culture in these areas or indeed what the responsible federation has done for the sport in these regions - but imagine the areas where wrestling has not received that attention.

There's always an argument that certain regions should concentrate on sports they are historically or culturally bent towards, that they should be given priority - even if you take that as a given (it really shouldn't be), but how does that explain Maharashtra wrestling?

There is no real argument about genetic types fitting certain sports either. Like boxing and weightlifting have proven, sports with different weight categories accommodate athletes of all shapes and sizes.

Meanwhile, the badminton hubs of India are further south - in Hyderabad and Bengaluru, and spread across two institutes run by two former greats of the game in those cities, P Gopichand and Prakash Padukone. All of India's top players in the past decade - the likes of Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Srikanth Kidambi, and now Lakshya Sen - have come from one of these two centres. This is a sport that is played by everyone, everywhere in the country, even if just as an evening pastime. The potential to expand beyond these two centres, to expand beyond the metros is immense. Geographical representation at the highest levels is increasing, as shown by Kerala's Treesa Jolly and Chhattisgarh's Aakarshi Kashyap but the training is still very much centralised: Treesa trains at the Gopichand academy, Aakarshi at Padukone's.

Hockey's power centre moved from the North-West to the East and with it came an increased representation from the region it went to (Odisha), but the spread for India's most (historically) successful sport internationally should, logically, have been so much more than it is now. And it has shrunk in traditional power centres like Mumbai and Karnataka.

Even in sports where centralisation has more or less been removed, there are issues. Farcical ones at that. For instance, in football, Dadra and Nagar Haveli winning the junior women's national championship seemed to be a testament of the game's spread. Except, there was one small problem: the team consisted of players exclusively from Haryana and Delhi. There was no rule-breaking involved, but what's the point of the whole exercise?

In athletics, it's almost predictable where athletes for particular fields come from. Long jumpers? Think Kerala. Sprinters? Odisha. Throwers? Please, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh. There will be exceptions, and there are, but that's what they seem to remain - exceptions.

There are Sports Authority of India facilities located across the country, including 10 regional centres (one of those in South India), and two academies (Punjab and Kerala) and while most of India's best athletes pass through here (since they also hold national camps here), it's perhaps instructive how many of the very top level stars break through from these centres.

Neeraj Chopra started off at a local SAI centre but soon went to a Haryana government facility and for the most part was self-taught at the start of his career due to a dearth in specialist javelin coaches. Avinash Sable was introduced to the steeplechase by the Army. Bajrang Punia, Ravi Dahiya and every wrestler that makes it big, come from local akharas and then move on to bigger facilities like the Chhatrasal stadium in Delhi and the SAI centre in Sonepat, Haryana. Vinesh Phogat was trained, alongside her cousins, by her uncle. The badminton stars all come from the two private centres in Bengaluru and Hyderabad. Sreeshankar Murali has been trained by his father since day one. Jeremy Lalrinnunga started off at a local gym before moving onto the Army sports institute, as did his good friend Achinta Sheuli. Amit Panghal too moved to the ASI from a local boxing academy.

SAI and other government centres have a good geographical spread, and many do serve a purpose for athletes in whose states these facilities are located (Mirabai Chanu, Mary Kom, Nikhat Zareen are outstanding examples of their success); but for every Jeremy and Sreejesh that's found outside the traditional power centres; how many have been lost? Proximity is still key.

This centralisation of sports into one (or a few) power centre(s) is understandable at the start; and is arguably required to build a solid platform for the sport. But are we just at the start of the journey? Will we ever move beyond this if success has been found with this method already? Most sports in India are on an upward curve, but imagine how much more could be possible if all parts were tapped into.

Now, there's every chance that even if they were spread around, regional representation in the vast majority of national contingents would remain the same, at least for the near future. That should not, though, take away the need to give an equal platform for everyone to compete, and try.

Of course, in this endeavor, language barriers as Sreejesh faced will exist; India's greatest strength, though, is its diversity. Every challenge that arises from integrating that is incidental, something that must be overcome. And it usually is when effort is put into it. After all, don't athletes across the country train abroad? Aren't top foreign coaches engaged here? Why, then, should we allow language to be a barrier when Indians train Indians?

This is, of course, part of a larger battle that society must fight, but sport could well lead the way. Shah Rukh Khan's iconic Kabir Khan shouted on the big screen, "India! You all represent India!" ... Is it really too much (or too naive) to ask, in real life, that everyone in this country be given an equal chance to do just that, to represent India?