Serve to protect: Top Indian athletes team up to raise money for grassroots warriors

"When we started, I thought we would need a couple of big corporate donors to hit our target. But the vast majority of our funds came from small donors,' says Sharath Kamal. Getty Images Sport

It's been about four months since Achanta Sharath Kamal last played a table tennis tournament, but he felt a familiar competitive buzz over the past week. It wasn't through playing the sport in which he is a three-time Olympian and a two-time Asian Games medallist. Instead, the 37-year-old was working the phone lines, reaching out to potential donors, to raise money for grassroots sports.

The job has been hectic. "Last Saturday, I made my first call at 6:30 in the morning and my last one at 10:30 pm. I was right back in tournament mode. You are constantly pushing yourself to get that donation," he says.

It wasn't just Sharath. He, alongside world number 32 G Sathiyan and former Olympian Neha Aggarwal, collectively raised over Rs. 17 lakh (approx US$ 22,800) as part of the initiative named "Our chance to serve". The money will be handed over as a one-time benefit for over a hundred players, coaches, referees and umpires who work at the grassroots of the sport for those who have been badly affected by restrictions put into place by the Indian government to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Sharath knows this from personal experience. His father and brother are both coaches who have been unable to work since the lockdown. "Ever since the lockdown, they have been unable to conduct any training classes. I also know that a lot of coaches, whose livelihoods depend entirely on conducting summer classes, have had no work since March," says Sharath. It's been difficult for players, umpires too. "There's a physio with the Indian team who isn't on a contract. For the last two-three months, he isn't doing anything. We have to help these guys out," says Sharath.

Sharath, Aggarwal and Sathiyan aren't the only sportspersons raising money. Over the past month, former Indian hockey captain Viren Rasquinha has raised over Rs 20 lakh (approx US$ 26,000) for hockey players, coaches and groundsmen working at the grassroots level. National coach Pullela Gopichand, former national champion Aparna Popat and former national coach Vimal Kumar are now attempting to raise Rs. 5 lakh (approx US$ 6000) for those affected by the pandemic at the grassroots of the badminton ecosystem.

This sort of fundraising is unprecedented in Indian sport. But, as Rasquinha says, these are unprecedented times. He first thought of raising funds a few weeks ago when a coach at the Bombay Republicans Club, where Rasquinha had started his career, told him how some of the youngsters were in dire financial straits.

Around the same time, Rasquinha, who is also the CEO of the Olympic Gold Quest, a non-profit that funds India's elite athletes, was speaking to Nandan Kamath, the founder of Go Sports, another non-profit that does the same. Go Sports had already started #PlayForIndia, the Indian chapter of the #PlayForLives initiative - that seeks to provide a platform in order to support sports causes. "That's when we decided to work together," says Rasquinha.

Go Sports trustee Nandan Kamath, says the Play For India initiative was started "to address both supply and demand side needs" within Indian sport. It built "a simple mechanism for those within sport, particularly athletes and former athletes, to participate in the act of giving, by reducing friction, giving a nudge and providing the professional support." Many in India's sporting pyramid, Kamath says, remain "vulnerable to risks at the best time." During Covid-19, "they are facing existential challenges and we saw a need to support their livelihoods and safety. We hope to continue to build a culture of volunteerism through making it easy, enjoyable and meaningful to give back to sport."

Although OGQ and Go Sports are ostensibly rival organisations, Rasquinha emphasises how the latter's role was critically important. "It's one thing to be able to raise money. But you also need a bank account and a payment gateway. You also need to be able to issue tax certificates and also disbursement of funds. Go Sports did all that," he says.

While Rasquinha set off with lofty ambitions, he and Kamath also wondered if they had bitten off more than they could chew. "We wanted to raise Rs. 20 lakh (approx US$ 26,000) over a month but there was a part of us that also thought that perhaps that might not be enough time," he says.

Rasquinha was apprehensive because the crowdfunding model (the playfor.in site allows donations in the range of Rs. 1.000 to 10,000) for sports had never really worked in India. "My experience in retail funding has not been good. What we noticed at OGQ was that it's a lot easier to convince a thousand people to donate 10,000 rupees than have a million people donate a hundred rupees each," says Rasquinha.

Those fears never came to pass. "Let's stick together" exceeded its target within six days. Table tennis' "Our Chance to Serve", which also expected to take a month to raise Rs. 10 lakh, picked up nearly Rs. 14 lakh in just a week and a half.

"When we started, I thought we would need a couple of big corporate donors to hit our target. But the vast majority of our funds came from small donors. We got contributions from current India team members, coaches and parents. They called their friends and got them to donate as well. I called people who played with me at one time who have now moved on to jobs in the corporate sector. There were people who donated from the USA and Dubai," says Sharath.

"It's been a ripple effect," says Aggarwal. "One old player from the '80s who I hadn't even thought of asking, called up, made a donation and then made another one. It's absolutely heartwarming how much people wanted to help," says Aggarwal.

Rasquinha says the fundraising success might be partly due to the fact that they weren't pitching the drive solely as a sporting one. "The beneficiaries are those who are an integral part of the sport but this wasn't about buying hockey equipment for them or to raise money to go to a tournament. This was a way to overcome an immediate crisis. If I try to raise funds for paying an international athlete's coach's salary, I won't get anywhere. If I try to raise money three months down the line, I might not be successful. Right now, the mood in the country is to help people," he says.

Kamath says the project "wishes to promote the principles of equity, dignity and community within Indian sport. We are happy to see how people and organisations have responded and we are well on our way to supporting 500 families across various projects."

Help poured in even though they seemed to break a cardinal rule of crowd funding - never naming the beneficiaries of the donations. "I know it's easier when you are raising money for people, to talk about their struggle but at some point it could become like poverty porn. We made a conscious choice not to put a single name or photo out. It was very important to maintain the dignity of these beneficiaries. These are very proud people," says Rasquinha.

With no desire to play the sympathy card, the fundraisers would have to put their name on the line. "We couldn't tell people who we were raising money for. But we needed them to trust us. In this situation, only the credibility of the cause and of the people asking for funds matters," says Sharath.

But it was more than just putting their name out there. "You have to give it everything you have. For me and Sharath, it was almost like we were playing the team event of the Commonwealth or Asian Games once again. Everything you do is like you are trying to make the team win, " says Aggarwal. "I'm usually quite a shy person. But this time, I was calling up friends and former colleagues across the world. Normally I'm the one who gets calls from journalists. This time I was the one calling them to spread the word," says Sharath.

While Sharath and the others have pulled out all the stops, Rasquinha knows how much it's meant to the beneficiaries. "I've got so many calls from them. They are in tears. They can't believe the generosity in the country. Some of them can pay their school and college fees, or for groceries. We gave them ten thousand rupees each and it feels like a drop in the ocean. Two kids sent me pictures of their bank account details and one of them had 10,109 rupees and the other had 10,307 rupees. That's how much they needed this support," says Rasquinha.

But it's not just the beneficiaries who are grateful. With the lockdown intensifying in Chennai, Sharath's training too has ground to a halt. He's been cooped up even as he sees others restart their sporting lives. "It gets to your head when you see your competitors in Germany and Asia already training because the pandemic has been controlled in their countries. That adds some pressure, but at the same time there is nothing much we can do," he says. In such a situation, the fundraising has been a lifesaver. "It's allowed me to keep my mind off my training and the frustration. It feels good that I can contribute in some way," he says.