The Mittal Champions Trust, which is preparing athletes for the 2012 London Olympics, foresees a bright future for India. By Kamesh Srinivasan.
Indian sport is taking the small steps towards breaking the big barriers. The Mittal Champions Trust (MCT), launched three years ago with a modest investment of $10 million by steel baron Lakshmi Niwas Mittal, had played a significant role in helping Abhinav Bindra nail the elusive individual Olympic gold at the Beijing Games.
With the Indian government being a major player in the promotion of sports in the country, what Abhinav needed was the freedom to tune himself physically, mentally and technically with the help of experts in order to have a reasonable chance of excelling on the world stage. With mind trainer Timothy Harkness of South Africa literally helping Abhinav read his brain and showing him how it responds to situations during competition and training, and physical trainer Heath Mathews focussing on getting his body in peak shape, in tune with the demands of the sport, India’s ace shooter was fully geared up to meet the challenge at the Olympics. He, of course, had a world class coach in Gaby Buhlmann, who had trained him to be a super performer over the years.
The MCT did not have to spend the entire money that was agreed upon, on Abhinav, but did everything, from helping him regain his strength after the back problem in 2006 — which saw the shooter skip the Asian Games in Doha — to placing total faith on his sincere approach and extending him the freedom to experiment.
In fact, it was Gagan Narang who had convinced Manisha Malhotra, the administrator of the MCT, to support shooting — a sport that was getting the best results in international competitions for India. However, the rifle shooter himself missed out on the support, as he did not sign the contract owing to a clause that required sportspersons to give back 10 per cent of the endorsement money, if any, to the Trust. He moved on to Olympic Gold Quest successfully to gain the necessary support.
While many athletes turned the clause to their advantage before signing the contract, Abhinav had no hesitation in giving his share to the Trust when he endorsed Samsung. According to Manisha, Abhinav is the only one to give money back to the Trust.
In a way, this proved that it was not for want of money that India was languishing in sports. Rather it was the lack of know-how and the willingness to be flexible in clearly identifying the path of success and pursuing it with intensity.
When Amit Bhatia, son-in-law of Lakshmi Mittal and the man behind the Mittal sports campaign, presented a cheque of Rs. 1.5 crore to Abhinav, it showed how well he had weighed the shooter’s Olympic achievement. It was an unprecedented reward for an unprecedented achievement in Indian sport.
“We are committed to the Trust’s ethos to groom India’s most talented athletes for London (Olympics), and Abhinav’s accomplishment has encouraged us in our mission,” said Amit Bhatia from his London office.
If anything, Manisha, a champion tennis player along with Nirupama Sanjeev (nee Vaidyanathan) some years ago, has gathered enormous knowledge of Indian sports thanks to her association with various disciplines over the last three years as part of the MCT drive.
Having started off by supporting squash player Joshna Chinappa, Manisha quickly moved on to archery, shooting, badminton, boxing, wrestling, and athletics.
Quite understandably, with the cloud of doping hanging over it, athletics presents the biggest challenge to the MCT. However, Manisha has chalked out a complete programme for eight athletes to train in South Africa on a permanent basis under the seasoned coach, Marc Labuschagne, till the London Games. Heath Mathews, who has been associated with the Indian boxers, apart from training Saina Nehwal regularly, will also take care of the athletes.
“The coach is pretty confident that the Indian athletes could be trained to attain world class performances. If the Indian athletes can make the final of the Olympics, that will be a great achievement. The coach is particularly impressed with the 400m runner M. Poovamma. I am really excited about my athletics programme. Food, supplements, training, medical, fitness etc. will all be under one roof in Durban. They will be there for four months to start with,” said Manisha.
The MCT administrator, who is constantly monitoring her athletes personally around the world, feels that it is easy to put a system in place with the resources at her command, but it is for the athletes to respond and make the maximum use of the available opportunities.
“Indian athletes don’t have the willingness to experiment. They need the vision, to forego results on a short-term basis, for long-term improvements. That is the only reason why we don’t succeed. They have been assessed as if they are 19, even if they say 16. They are still ahead of the curve in terms of potential. If the athletes respond well to the comprehensive training, Indian athletics can reach a different level,” said Manisha.
Archery was another discipline in which a world class coach, Lee Wang Woo of Korea, had been hired last year. In fact, he had assisted the Indian team at the Beijing Games.
“In archery we have been under-performing. We have a coach who has helped the Koreans win a series of gold medals in three successive Olympics. So, if you are bringing someone like that you want people to gain maximum benefit,” said Manisha while explaining why the MCT has about 12 junior archers of whom most may not figure in the London Olympics.
The Indian archers, according to Manisha, have been touching world standards regularly, but need to strike the bull’s eye in the Olympics. “Our archers need to be competing a lot more. The World Cups are not enough. We are planning to send archers to Korea for four months, at least four or five of them, and have competition every weekend,” she said.
Manisha is happy with the boxers, Akhil Kumar and company, and wants to pay more attention to their recovery period and help them in healing their injuries.
As for the wrestlers, Manisha says they are a committed lot. “If we put some scientific methods in their approach — after winning their trust in the first place — we may have more wrestlers emulating Sushil Kumar (Beijing Games bronze medal winner).”
Working with the MCT has been educative for Manisha, who had known only Indian tennis in her sporting career. She says she was proved wrong by the dynamic Saina Nehwal, who has shot up in the world rankings to be in the top-10.
“Saina is very tough today. She is obsessed with training as she is eager to stay in the top-10. The only worry is to make sure that she does not over-train. That is why we assigned Heath to take care of her. He could take care of the recovery part,” said Manisha.
Double trap shooter Ronjan Sodhi, who was unlucky to miss the Beijing Olympics despite shooting two world records prior to the Games, Heena Sidhu, who won a pistol silver at the Beijing World Cup recently, and Lajja Gauswami, who made the rifle 3-position final at the Munich World Cup, are also part of the MCT’s beneficiaries list.