Chance in Sport
How India Discovers its Sporting Talents

Annu Rani: discovered by chance during cricket. Ranked 8th at the 2018 World Championships in javelin throw. © DD News

In some sports, the system of promoting fresh talent is not yet optimal. Chance often plays a role in identifying talent. But not always.

Natalie Mayroth

Fifteen-year-old Jyoti Kumari cycled for seven days until she reached her home town in the North Indian state of Bihar. During the coronavirus-induced lockdown in India, she covered almost 1,200 kilometers with her father on the rear luggage carrier. Her father was injured, all public transport had come to a halt. They were stuck close to the capital, New Delhi.  Jyoti persuaded her father to spend the last of his money on a bicycle. The start of a new sports career?

Jyoti’s trip did not go unnoticed. Reporters discovered the girl with the red dupatta on a cycle and showered her with promises: if she were to pass the trials of the Cycling Federation of India, she could gain admission to the Federation’s National Cycling Academy.

Career with the Army: Old Sports Icons and Coincidence

That India’s big sports stars were discovered by chance was more common in the past. Paan Singh Tomar is perhaps one of the best known. Not just because he was a graceful runner. The Hindi film of the same name with Irrfan Khan in the lead role greatly boosted Tomar’s fame.

As a young man, Tomar joined the army. Legend has it that an argument with his instructor resulted in Tomar having to run several extra laps of the parade ground. While running, he apparently caught the eye of the officers. Tomar was so good that he represented India at the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was seven-time national steeplechase champion.

Tomar’s national record in the 3000 meter steeplechase remained unbroken for a decade.

Barefoot on Hot Sand

Another virtually forgotten sports icon who was also discovered by chance is the “Flying Sikh,” alias Milkha Singh. His story has also been made into a film. As a child, Singh is supposed to have covered the long stretches to school running barefoot and on hot sand, which helped him build up his excellent stamina. Singh had 15 siblings, eight of whom lost their lives shortly before independence in the unrest that accompanied the Partition of British India in 1947. His parents did not survive the bloody clashes either. Just before he was murdered by a wild mob, Singh’s father told his son to run to safety.

Like Paan Singh Tomar, the orphan Milkha Singh signed up with the Indian army where he started his training as an athlete. Before joining the army he knew nothing about running or the Olympics. Singh was selected for a special track and field training program that helped him become a runner, and later a legend. Until 2010, Singh had been the only Indian sportsperson to have won an individual athletics gold medal at the Commonwealth Games.  At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he just missed out on winning gold in the 400 meter final.

Footballers and Track and Field Athletes are Easier to Discover

Even after several decades, Indian sportspersons were still finding their way to fame, to honor, and to the top purely by chance. They included Avinash Sable, the steeplechase runner. He joined an Indian army regiment and took part in an army cross-country event in 2015. The overweight Sable lost 20 kilograms in a matter of three months, trained hard, set a national record, and qualified for the World Athletics Championships 2019.

Or the footballer Ngangom Bala Devi – before starting her career as a professional footballer, Devi was already an active sportswoman, but not full-time. She joined the Manipur police where she played in the women’s league. In January 2020, she was unexpectedly given an 18-month contract with the Scottish club Rangers FC and her passion became her profession. The 30-year-old forward is one of the few Indian women to be a professional footballer.

Discovered Early and Supported

“Bala Devi started football early,” says the sports journalist Amit Kamath. To be successful today, professional athletes need to start young. He believes that the era of great chance discoveries is as good as over. “The sport support system is not the best in the world, but chance discoveries no longer happen in India.” The current generation of athletes, be they shooters, weightlifters, boxers, or cricket players starts young. Many of them were discovered just at the right age, after which they received support.

The sprinter Hima Das belongs to the younger generation. The daughter of a paddy farmer from Northeast India, she was discovered while playing football barefoot. Hima was always playing with her brothers and friends. That this was frowned upon did not bother her. She continued to play with them. Because there was neither a sports lesson nor a sports teacher at school. A familiar scene in many government schools. Hima’s school football team took part in one of the sporadically held tournaments. A trainer noticed that Hima was always ahead, faster than all the others. 

The family did not have the money to pay for a sports academy, there was not even enough money to buy running shoes. But the trainers supported her – with money and training. And Hima became a track and field athlete. Only after she had won her first medal did she receive support from the state. The breakthrough came in 2017: she became the 200 meter national champion. In 2018, Hima Das set the Indian record for 400 meters (50.79 seconds). Today, the 20-year-old primarily trains abroad.

Talent is Often Discovered Purely by Chance

That India has yet to bring home an Olympic track and field medal does not surprise Novy Kapadia, a sports commentator. The discovery of sporting talent depends on chance and luck, he says. As was the case with India’s three-time javelin champion, Annu Rani. The 28-year-old athlete is the first Indian woman to have crossed the 60 meter mark in the javelin throw. She was initially trained by her brother who noticed her strong throw when playing cricket. Despite her father’s reservations, her brother encouraged her. Annu Rani did not have a javelin to start with, she practiced with a bamboo stick. And she managed to make her way right to the top.

The daughter of a farmer from the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, she was India’s first female javelin thrower to qualify for the final at the 2017 World Athletics Championships. In October 2019, she reached the javelin final at the IAAF World Championships. To be successful at the Tokyo Olympics is her next goal.

How to Spot Talent in Expensive Sports

In contrast to track and field where no expensive equipment is required for a start, chance discoveries are far more difficult in other sports. This is confirmed by Namita Bal from Pune who coaches India’s Junior Federation Cup tennis team: “We need a far better scouting system.” According to her, a sport like tennis is expensive, which means that very few have access. When you start, you don’t just need the financial support required, but also good physiotherapists, fitness, and endurance trainers, and you need to have the stamina to keep it up. The 27-year-old was herself an active player before switching sides.

“State-sponsored programs in schools could help in spotting talent. And this is not just with reference to tennis,” says Bal. If you are 14 by the time you decide that you want to devote yourself to tennis, you won’t have it easy. Particularly in a country like India, there will already be hundreds who are ahead. She goes on to recommend starting at “eight or nine, and this in combination with two or three different sports per week.”

Good Prospects for a Late Career

Whether Jyoti Kumari, who at 15 would still be young enough for a career in sports, will try to take the test for admission to the Cycling Academy? The invitation did indeed arrive, but has currently been put on hold. Jyoti would initially like to focus on school. However, financial aid has already started flowing in: the local authorities have built a toilet for her family. There are also rumors that her story will be made into a film. Chance could have contributed to creating a legend – in Jyoti’s case too.

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