By Vishnu Makhijani
New Delhi, April 10 | Hero or hurdle? That’s the question one is left wondering after reading “The Gopichand Factor” (Westland) given author Abhijeet Kulkarni’s praising sky high only the second Indian to win the All-England badminton title but also grudgingly admitting how he has been an impediment to the game while being the Chief National Coach for the past 14 years while simultaneously running his private training academy — leading to repeated charges of a huge conflict of interest.
“Only time will tell whether India can become a world badminton superpower like China, Japan and Korea in the near future. But the first two decades of this century have definitely transformed the country’s most popular recreational sport into an aspirational career option.
“And the credit for that definitely goes to Gopichand and his band of racquet-wielding champions,” Kulkarni writes in the Introduction.
At the same time, “the mistrust between Gopichand and the BAI (Badminton Association of India) has currently reached a level where neither of them is willing to take a single step towards resolution, and that is threatening to derail the whole process. Things are unlikely to move in the right direction till one of the two budges,” Kulkarni writes in the concluding chapter titled “Challenges And The Way Forward” of the 206-page book.
It’s true that Gopichand has won a host of awards, including the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and the Padma Bhushan and that his academy has produced several badminton players including Saina Nehwal, P.V. Sindhu, Sai Praneeth, Parupalli Kashyap, Srikanth Kidambi, Arundhati Pantawane, Gurusai Datt and Arun Vishnu.
But it also true that with Rio Olympics silver medallist PV Sindhu deciding to opt out of Gopichand academy and train with Korean coach Park Tae Sang at the Gachibowli Indoor Stadium, the World Champion has followed in the footsteps of London Olympic bronze medallist Saina Nehwal, who too had walked out of the Gopichand academy a few years ago to train under U. Vimal Kumar in Bengaluru. Saina has since returned back to the city to train under Gopichand.
It has been on the cards that Sindhu would not train under Gopichand ever since she left for London to train there before returning in February. Although she has been saying all is well with Gopichand, there is no denying the fact there is not much of a good rapport between the coach and the player.
Then, as is asked of any sport, where’s the second line after the current crop of players are past their prime?
This has been beautifully catered for by the National Cricket Academy and the MRF Pace Foundation in the case of cricket because there is a clear separation between the trainers and the team selectors — but not in the case of badminton, where both roles are combined in Gopichand.
Where is the second line of players, IANS asked Kulkarni in an interview.
“This is a question that I have raised many times in the past in my writing as well as my conversations with the authorities. In the last two decades, even I could have named half a dozen players capable of making the second line if groomed properly. But that did not happen,” Kulkarni replied.
“We have had the likes of Siril Varma and Aditya Joshi becoming Junior World Number 1 but then they suffered injuries and are now struggling to find their footing again. While we understandably put in major amount of money and attention on our senior stars, there was a need to look after the juniors as well and that did not happen.
“For me, this is a typical flaw of our Indian system across sports. We are so happy that things are going smoothly in the present that we don’t really give a proper thought to the time when things won’t be going this good in the future. And it is difficult to pin the blame on either Gopichand or the BAI for this. I feel both could have worked together to create a better system to groom these juniors,” Kulkarni maintained.
Thus, the major obstacle seems to be the continuing tussle between Gopichand and the BAI.
“It’s quite a tricky question to answer. Things definitely began on a wrong note between the new BAI office bearers and Gopichand when they came up with the new constitutional amendment, which he felt was specifically targeted at him. Since then there have been attempts to sort out the differences on various occasions and some progress has been made.
“If you see the statements that Gopichand has given over the last one year, he is trying to make a case that as chief national coach he should have the freedom to implement a certain system regarding coaching and tournaments his way and then be held accountable for the Indian team’s performances.
“The BAI obviously wants to spread the net wide, provide a level playing field to all those participating across the country when it comes to selection of coaches, players and even scheduling domestic tournaments. I think both are right in their own ways. The real need of the hour is to find a middle path that will continue to help India produce many more champion players,” Kulkarni maintained.
But then, the lack of a proper coaching system and a vision for developing the next generation players is likely to haunt Indian badminton in the coming years. While senior camps are going on at the Gopichand academy, junior camps are now being held only before major tournaments and at separate venues. This means that the juniors rarely get to spar with their seniors unless they are part of the Gopichand academy or have access to quality training partners like at the PPBA (Prakash Padokone Badminton Academy) or some select centres in Bengaluru.
Kulkarni hedged on this, merely repeating that Gopichand had been demanding he be given the freedom to decide on coaching schedules and tournaments.
But then, this is an issue that cannot be easily wished away.
Even the Bombay High Court had taken note of the conflict of interest issue.
“It appears there is a possibility of conflict of interest in Respondent No 1 (Gopichand) running his own private academy and as head of the selection panel… Those who attend his private camp may be selected. He may be a good coach but it affects fairness of selection,” a Division Bench headed by Chief Justice Mohit Shah had said in December 2012 on a petition by Prajakta Sawant who contended she was not selected for the national coaching camp because she sought a change in the doubles and mixed doubles partners.
However, nothing further was heard on this matter.
Q: What then, is the way out? More so as you say, India has miles to go before catching up with badminton powerhouses like China, Japan and South Korea that have a select bunch of players participating at every level… with a dedicated support staff travelling with them.
“I think the only answer is that the overall system has to be bigger than any individual, be it a coach or a player. Everyone has to play their roles to the perfection.
“That is one thing most Asian countries have in place. Everyone has their own system of grooming and nurturing talent and I think it’s time BAI also puts together a pan-India system to support the elite national camps if we want to continue this progress on the world badminton stage,” Kulkarni replied.
In all fairness then, it would be left to the reader to make an informed judgement on the question that was initially asked: Hero or Hurdle?
(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at email@example.com)