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Paris Olympics 2024 | Inside the radical transformation in Indian sports and the making of a medal-winning champion

Vinesh Phogat is not one to dwell on self-pity. But in August last year, she came close to it. India’s most decorated female wrestler — she has medalled at world championships, Asian championships, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games — needed surgery to reconstruct a ligament in her knee.

It would mean a minimum of six months off from wrestling. The national championships were five months away. If she did not compete there, she would not get a chance to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics, the one medal that has eluded her. (At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Phogat, a medal favourite, ruptured the same ligament during a bout, leaving the competition sobbing and inconsolable.)

There were other things happening in her life around the same time. She was one of the leaders of the group of wrestlers who had taken to the streets in January 2023, protesting against the then Wrestling Federation of India president and Lok Sabha member Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who was accused of sexually abusing women wrestlers. She had spent night after night at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, sleeping on the pavement, wrestling forgotten, training and diet out of the window. She had been at the receiving end of severe online harassment, and police action that saw the protesters forcibly evicted and locked up.

Vinesh Phogat after winning gold in the women’s 53kg freestyle wrestling at Commonwealth Games 2022.
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Now, there was this. The thought of an impeding surgery naturally compounded her worries. “I had just one question for my surgeon, and for my trainers,” says Phogat. “Can I come back on the mat in five months? I was not going to let my Olympic dream slip away.”

The answer was: maybe; though there was only one other instance of an athlete getting back to the playing field after an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) procedure — South African rugby captain Siya Kolisi, who did it in under four months in 2023. “I told them, I believe in myself,” Phogat says. “I can do it, too.”

One of the four major ligaments in the knee joint, the ACL is a thick band that runs diagonally through the interior of the knee, joining the thigh bone to the shin bone. Its primary job is to stabilise the rotation of the knee, which is why an ACL tear is the most common major injury in sports such as football, American football, and wrestling. When the ACL is reconstructed using grafts in surgery, the time required for the ligament to regain its full function is between six and nine months.

But Phogat was on the mat in five months. She swept the national championship. Then she won a trial to determine which wrestlers would fight in the Olympic qualifiers. She won those too and is headed to Paris for one last shot at that most coveted of sporting medals.

Vinesh Phogat in action at the National Wrestling Championships 2024, where she won gold in the women’s 55kg freestyle category.

Vinesh Phogat in action at the National Wrestling Championships 2024, where she won gold in the women’s 55kg freestyle category.
| Photo Credit:
Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

How did she do it? The first step was to call in South African strength and conditioning specialist Wayne Lombard, who had helped her recover from a knee surgery in 2016.

Phogat and Lombard cloistered themselves at Lakshyan Academy of Sports in Bengaluru, a state-of-the-art multi-sport facility, to begin their gruelling journey back to optimal fitness. “The way the body gets stronger is by putting it under more and more stress — heavier loads, more repetitions of an exercise,” says Lombard. “The tricky problem in rehabilitation is, how do you get that strength adaptation without putting the injured ligament or joint under so much stress?” Lombard knew exactly how to get around that problem.

The big change

For athletes in India, long used to poor infrastructure, outdated training methods, and little to no input from sports science, a radical transformation has taken place. “During our time, we were lucky if we got a decent wrestling mat,” says Sakshi Malik, the only woman wrestler from India to win a medal at the Olympics — a bronze at Rio 2016. “We had bare minimum equipment, and no experts helping us.”

Slowly, over the last decade, driven by not-for-profit organisations such as Olympic Gold Quest (which sponsored Phogat’s surgery and subsequent rehabilitation work with Lombard), Go Sports Foundation, and JSW Sports, as well as private academies and training centres — Lakshyan Academy, the Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence, Inspire Institute of Sports, and the Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance Centres (ABTP) — that aid Olympic athletes, the sporting infrastructure in India is, for the first time, on a par with global standards. The Union sports ministry, on its part, has increased funding for top athletes, thus allowing them to determine their own training programmes with the help of these specialised agencies.

The change, says John Gloster, who heads sports science for IPL franchise Rajasthan Royals, as well as for Go Sports, “is enormous”. “For India’s elite athletes, the problem of infrastructure and expertise does not exist any more. Now it’s a question of spreading this more and more at all levels.”

To be sure, these facilities are far fewer than what’s needed for a country the size of India, and available only to top-tier athletes and the few promising youngsters who are on the rosters of the not-for-profit organisations. Most of the expertise is brought in from Europe, the U.S., Australia or South Africa.

“Sports science is very new for India, so most of the expertise has to be imported,” Gloster says. “The next step is to train and educate aspiring sports scientists in the country.” Go Sports Foundation, ABTP, and IIS all conduct courses in sports science for aspiring coaches. Science-based training protocols and the equipment needed to implement them, says Gloster, is “now a necessity in elite sports”. “Without this, it is very difficult — nearly impossible — to be competitive.”

For each athlete sponsored by Go Sports, 12 of whom are headed to the Paris Games, training is a personalised, finely calibrated, data-and-knowledge- driven operation. “What are the energy system demands for a particular athlete in a particular sport, what does it mean for nutrition, for recovery, how are they sleeping… everything is being continuously monitored through wearable devices,” adds Gloster.

Chameleons in training

American strength and conditioning expert Caleb Linn, who has charge of the badminton players under Go Sports, gives an insight into the training of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, the No.1 ranked men’s doubles pair in the world.

“For badminton players, one of the things that happens with playing the game is that one side of the body becomes much stronger than the other,” Linn says. “But that also brings with it injury risks. So, when we are in the early training phase and building strength, mobility and agility, a lot of my work is to get more symmetry from side to side.”

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy (left) and Chirag Shetty at the Thomas & Uber Cup Finals 2024 in Chengdu, China.

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy (left) and Chirag Shetty at the Thomas & Uber Cup Finals 2024 in Chengdu, China.
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images

One of the ways Linn tests for strength asymmetry is with the help of an isokinetic machine, an exercise device costing around ₹5 lakh, meant for isolated movements using only one arm or one leg. “Every training session is also an assessment session,” says Linn. “I am always making observations and managing the loads. For instance, Chirag is naturally lean and responds well to heavy strength training, while Satwik is naturally muscular and needs moderate strength training and more cardiovascular focus.”

American strength and conditioning expert Caleb Linn (left) with shuttler Satwiksairaj Rankireddy. 

American strength and conditioning expert Caleb Linn (left) with shuttler Satwiksairaj Rankireddy. 
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Special Arrangement

At the elite level, all physical sports have one thing in common: the athlete is pushing her or his body to its limits. Whether that’s by biomechanical (the way joints, tendons, ligaments and muscle groups work together to create movement patterns), neuromuscular (the ability to generate force through muscular contraction), aerobic (the ability to use oxygen as fuel), or anaerobic means (using the body’s stored source of fuel, glycogen). In other words, an athlete is training not for one thing, but for all things — speed, power, strength, stamina, agility, and mobility.

“Before he is a great javelin thrower, he is a great athlete,” says Klaus Bartonietz, biomechanical expert from Germany, about his star trainee — Olympics gold medal winner Neeraj Chopra. “Neeraj could have been a great decathlete [a decathlon is made of a 100m sprint, a long jump, a shot-put throw, a pole vault, a 1,500m run, and a javelin throw].”

Chopra’s training, Bartonietz says, is obsessively planned and monitored, and involves a vast library of exercises. And like most elite athletes, Chopra is a chameleon in training — in the weight room, he squats twice his body weight and does Olympic lifts like the snatch with 100 kg on the bar. In the gymnastics area, he turns into a gymnast. On the track, he is a sprinter. “That awareness and creativity involved in gymnastics training is what we call ‘movement intelligence’,” Bartonietz says, “and Neeraj is very good at that. It’s what makes him a great thrower.”

Neeraj Chopra’s training involves a vast library of exercises.

Neeraj Chopra’s training involves a vast library of exercises.
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Courtesy JSW Sports Media

Earthquake bars and water tubes

This holistic approach to training applies just as well to Tokyo Games silver medallist Mirabai Chanu, even if her sport, weightlifting, gives the impression of being simply about muscular power.

“To be able to lift more than twice her bodyweight in an Olympic lift is an incredibly hard thing to do,” says Chandani Parsania, head physiotherapist at Inspire Institute of Sport in Bellary, Karnataka. “If you have any weak links — a small stabiliser muscle that’s not firing properly, or a slight lack of mobility in one shoulder — it will immediately prevent you from lifting as heavy as you can.”

Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu in training at Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports in Patiala, Punjab.

Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu in training at Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports in Patiala, Punjab.
| Photo Credit:
Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

One of the many innovative ways in which Chanu trains to ensure that the small muscles that stabilise or help joints move are in prime condition is by using “earthquake bars”. These are made of flexible wood and resin, so, while they can safely hold a huge amount of weight, are not rigid by themselves. Chanu hangs weights using rubber resistance bands on both ends of this bendy bar and performs slow lifts. The hanging weights, the movement of the bands, and the wavering bar make the whole set-up extremely unstable, requiring all of Chanu’s strength, especially from the core, to keep things even.

Phogat also does a version of this, using a large tube half-filled with water as a weight. As she lifts it above her head and does various exercises, the water sloshes from side to side, forcing her to use her core and other stabilising muscles to keep the weight level.

Leveraging technology

In team sports like hockey, while the strength and conditioning of individual players follows the same science-based protocols, technology offers critical insights into the game itself. When the Indian hockey team is in training, each player’s individual moves are captured on camera and by wearable GPS devices (which also measure heart rate, acceleration, deceleration, speed and so on).

“We are looking at how they function as a group, as well as individually,” says the team’s Belgian analyst Artur Lucas. “We record all training drills and games. Then we cut the game into tactical situations and study them.” The video analysis software has layers upon layers — breaking the play into its constituent elements, revealing the relationships between player movement and action and outcomes.

Hockey India, the game’s governing body, is the only sports federation in the country that is sponsored by a State government — Odisha. This has helped the federation offer world-class facilities to its players, the only team sport, barring cricket, to do so. Odisha is also one of the only examples of a State government managing to significantly improve their sporting infrastructure. The refurbished Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar is now a gold standard multi-sport facility, with academies and facilities run in public-private partnerships with JSW, Reliance Foundation, ABTP, and others.

Ready for Paris 2024

The patient, meticulous and single-minded work that’s needed to build world-class athletes, keep them healthy and injury-free, and steer them towards their peak abilities will be put to an all-too-tangible test soon — can they win a medal at the Paris Olympics?

“Obviously, you cannot predict what will happen at the tournament,” says Lombard. “But is Vinesh ready for it? Yes. She is.”

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi and the author of ‘Enter The Dangal: Travels through India’s Wrestling Landscape’.

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