The 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been India’s most successful Olympic games in history- having won seven medals. Indians entered uncharted territories with excellent performances in events like javelin, fencing, swimming, golf, etc. The national sport of our country, hockey, saw a resurgence as both men’s and women’s teams performed incredibly. With Neeraj Chopra winning gold in the men’s javelin throw, the country found a new poster boy, who could inspire a new generation to pick the sport and go for glory.
But have we ever thought about what happens to the athletes after a monumental event like the Olympics? What changes occur in their lives? How are these athletes supported after their retirement?
The Bridge Chronicle spoke with Olympian and Arjuna Awardee Rehan Poncha and got insights about what goes on in the lives of athletes after the Olympics, how they are supported and how their lives change after a monumental event like the Olympics.
Rehan represented India in the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the 200 metres Butterfly event and is a six-time national champion. Now, he is playing golf and wants to represent India in the Olympics as a golfer.
After a monumental event like the Olympics, athletes experience sudden stardom, which could be very exciting initially but can have adverse effects on their lives.
“There is media attention, more attention socially than you have ever gotten. More people take notice of your effort and sporting career. Once the Olympics are over, pretty much every athlete, in my opinion, will feel a certain kind of low, and ideally, a short break from the sport is needed,” Rehan said.
After a successful performance in Tokyo, the future looks bright for Indian sports. But this sapling of excellence must be nurtured to the fullest with care and patience. One way this is being done is by providing monetary rewards to athletes by the authorities. The government of India, state governments and sporting authorities have announced many rewards for our returning Olympians. Several organisations like the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Edtech startup BYJU'S have also announced monetary rewards.
Rehan talked about how he was awarded scholarships to train and become a better athlete. He said, “I was given scholarships to train abroad twice in my career for six months each, which came in from the sports authority of India. This is the support that I received to prepare to be a better athlete.”
Historically, the government has also supported its athletes by providing them jobs in centralised agencies like the police, railways, Services, etc. The scheme allows athletes to practice and work hard and become better at their craft. The government also rewards these athletes when they are successful in their sport by giving them promotions.
Rehan recalled one of his friends who is an athlete and works for the police. He said, “You are given the post, and you are given the salary every month equivalent to that post, but you are not expected to report for duty. Once you retire from the sport, then you go to do the training for the BSF or the CRPF or the police.”
Fans play a crucial role in the life of any athlete. When athletes are cheered by millions, they are motivated to perform even better. Fans can also help the development of a sport in a country like cricket in India. After the 1983 World Cup, fans got behind the Indian cricket team, which pushed the authorities to support the sport in the country.
With OTT platforms and social media channels, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were accessible to millions of Indians. People who never watched athletes like Neeraj Chopra and Aditi Ashok could witness their brilliance at the Olympics. Fans could also show their support towards athletes through social media, motivating them to work even hard and win medals for the country.
Rehan talked about how fans played a significant role in his life. He said, “I think as athletes today, we live a very lonely life when we are in preparation and training. We sacrifice a lot to do what we do for ourselves, and of course, also for our nation. But when a fan appreciates what we do, speaking from personal experience, it inspires us so much. To have a fan, a little kid come up and say they want to be like us or they want to win like us, or have parents of children come up and take advice and say a good thing or two, it inspires us, more than you can imagine.”
He also talked about how fans could be allowed to watch athletes while they are practising. Sports authorities in the USA often invite fans to watch the practice sessions of premier athletes. He said, “I think fans watching the practice sessions will inspire the athlete to work even harder in practice. It distracts them from exhaustion. It distracts them from the pain. So when Sunil Chettri says come and cheer for us at a tournament, I bet you he will love it if 1000 people were watching the football team practice.”
The positive results in Tokyo have certainly encouraged people to watch and support non-mainstream sports. It was amazing to see people in India waking up at 4:00 am to watch Aditi Ashok in the last round of her event. People regularly watched early morning games and supported Indian athletes.
Rehan said, “In terms of golf, what Aditi Ashok has done is that she has made people wake up at 4 am to watch a sport that a good majority considers slow and boring. Till I picked up a golf club, I never watched golf. But now that I am playing competitively, I can sit glued to a TV screen for 5 hours. So, the greatest gift Aditi has given, more than bringing home a medal, is that she inspires young children to understand and enjoy the sport of golf.”
Rehan believes that supporting the growth of sports where Indians have performed incredibly well is important. He feels we now need to build on this golden opportunity to successfully compete in upcoming events like the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, and the Olympics.
He said, “This is what I feel is a challenge for us as a sporting nation. We get very inspired and excited to support sports like this around the time of the Olympics. But to sustain that support is a challenge. I feel we need to invest a little more time, effort, energy and money into sports that you mentioned (swimming and golf) for example, which are not (mainstream).”
“Even in athletics, we have picked up gold. But in reality, how many sports have we watched? Honestly, with swimming also, we are inspired by our swimmers but how are we going to take it to the next level? But what is going to happen to take it to the next level?” he said.
For many athletes, this can be their last Olympics. It is often difficult for athletes to imagine a life after sports, as they have dedicated most of their life to it. Rehan was caught in this dilemma after he stopped swimming in 2012.
He opened up about that time. “When I stopped swimming and took an extended break, I felt there was a big void that was created as I took an extended break. But you are still waking up at 5:30 in the morning, only to realise you don’t have to kill yourself by jogging 16 km or by going to the gym.”
Life after sport is a very crucial part of an athlete’s life. There have been many cases where athletes went broke after retirement. Rehan spoke on this aspect of his life and threw light on how many athletes, after retirement, try to carve out a career around their sport.
He said, “I think it all comes down to soul searching, searching within you for what you love. It can be related to sport or something outside sport.”
He also believes athletes today can venture outside sport and look for opportunities in domains of their choice. Rehan gave his example as he found opportunities in motivational speaking, travel and blogging.