One of Indias most celebrated shotgun shooters, Mansher Singh, believes the governments Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) has given an altogether different spin to the countrys sport -- one where athletes need to just concentrate on the job of bringing glory without bothering about the logistics or sweating over the costs.
The two-time Commonwealth Games medal winner in trap shooting, including an individual gold at 1994 Victoria, Mansher adds that at one time, athletes had to wait for months to get clearance for international training and exposure trips under the National Sports Development Fund (NSDF), but it is a cakewalk at present, with TOPS ensuring every requirement of the athlete is taken care of.
Following are excerpts from an interview with the four-time Olympian and winner of four medals at the Asian Games, including three silver:
Q: How has TOPS changed the India sporting ecosystem?
A: When I was involved with the team, it was called NSDF (National Sports Development Fund) and they (sportspersons) had a cap on how much funding they could utilise in a year. I think TOPS now has upped that. It's gone to another dimension in the sense that there is no such limit. It now depends upon the athlete's requirement and his profile in terms of winnability at the Olympics, his past performance, etc.
Q: Is the government really committed to making India a sporting powerhouse through TOPS?
A: There are two things I am really positive about while speaking about TOPS. The first is the intention of the government. The government has become really proactive for sport, not just in the sense of training athletes but even rewarding them for their performances. That coupled with TOPS has made a huge impact.
Now, cash awards are given away as soon as you win in big competitions. In our times, it used to take 1-2 years before we could get our rewards. That bureaucracy, or what you call red tape, is gone. And it (the initiative) has come from the top ... from the Prime Minister holding direct felicitation ceremonies for every multi-discipline event. So, the impact has been solid and it has percolated down to the functionality of organisations such as the Sports Authority of India and sports ministry. They are very proactive now.
Q: You also spoke about the second aspect�
A: The second aspect is, when you look at the National Sports Development Fund (NSDF) during my era, sports federations used to nominate their athletes, and they (nominated athletes) would get funding in an ad hoc manner. Now, there is a proper data analysis done.
There is a team in TOPS which is always checking and vetting performances of athletes across all disciplines with priority to Commonwealth, Asian and Olympic Games.
Q: So, do you think there is a proper set-up in place for an aspiring athlete to chart his/her course to the top with TOPS?
A: With TOPS, I suppose, the whole system is now falling in place� scouting, development, training and getting into the national squad. In a way, if an athlete really wants to win the Olympic medal, they know their course is clear. They very well know that TOPS can open the window to continental and Olympic glory.
Q: I believe TOPS is not just for the elite sportspersons but also for developmental squads�
A: There are two rungs in TOPS. The development squad is one where they find potential for the future, while the other one is the elite athletes' category. Those who have the probability or the potential of reaching the Olympic final or winning a medal at the highest level and those who are knocking on the selection door are both included in TOPS.
Q: How does TOPS shortlist sportspersons for the scheme. Is it scientific?
A: It's a very professional process now. Projections are made, scores analysed and historical patterns observed to see how athletes are performing. Reputed analysts and professionals are constantly on the job of analysing athletes' parameters.
The good thing about it (the scheme) is that they do not function under anyone. They (TOPS analysts) are working out of the domain of anyone's influence. That is the greatest attribute of having an analysis team or a data-collection team or a team of specialists because they don't get influenced by anybody. They pick the best. They've done their research so they have the numbers.
Q: Is TOPS changing the sporting landscape in the country?
A. Yes. You are seeing more and more athletes who deserve and want to get into TOPS. It's now a prestige thing to get into TOPS because it's the ultimate thing for an athlete. For two-three years you get the best funding and best coaching.
There used to be huge limitations on the amount of money that you could spend during my competition days. I think a lot of red tape from the NSDF days has gone, and now it is primarily based upon what is required for that athlete to win.
Q: What do you think was the trigger for the government to launch TOPS in the first place?
A: I think it was to bring Indian athletes on par with the best in the world. The thinking was �our funding should not be any less than anybody else going to the Olympics. We don't want our athletes to be second rate to anyone'. And this directive has again come from the top (government) and there is no denying this fact.