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Khelo India offers a much-needed platform for young talent: Anju Bobby George

Anju Bobby George, the first Indian athlete to make a podium finish in World Championships in athletics when she won the bronze medal in the 2003 showpiece, is upbeat that the Khelo India Youth Games (KIYG) can eventually bridge the much-needed gap between grassroots program and serious competition in the sport.

The upcoming edition of the Khelo India Youth Games will be held in 27 disciplines across eight cities in Madhya Pradesh, with the opening ceremony scheduled on January 30.

The track & field events of KIYG 2022, a three-day affair, will be held at T.T. Nagar Stadium in Bhopal from February 3-5 and are expected to see some closely-contested events. The other cities which will play hosts in the central India state are Indore, Ujjain, Gwalior, Jabalpur, Mandla, Khargone (Maheshwar), and Balaghat.

Anju, a member of the Union government’s Mission Olympic cell responsible for selecting athletes for the TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme), feels that the Khelo India scheme forms the foundation of a pyramid structure in terms of grooming talent.

“It’s a unique project with the right intent from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Sports ministry, and it has already started producing the results. It’s however a continuous process and we have to build on it,” the 45-year-old long jump ace said in a media release.

“The Games are offering young children up to 18 years a kind of exposure in front of talent-hunters which previously did not exist. The athletes who make the cut are provided with government funding for training and also get an out-of-pocket allowance, which gives them a big sense of pride,” she added.

As per the organizers, each discipline in KIYG is monitored by a group of spotters, who are entrusted with the job of adopting promising participants as Khelo India athletes based on their performance in the KIYG, National Championships, and open selection trials.

The latest figures released by the Union Sports Ministry last December say that 2841 athletes have been selected from 21 sports disciplines so far.

“The promising athletes have a chance to make the next grade for National Centres of Excellence (NCOE) projects of Sports Authority of India and then be in line for the national camp and eventually the TOPS scheme if they show the potential to that level,” said Anju, who was honored with World Athletics ‘Woman of the Year Award’ in 2021 for her contribution in the sport.

In 2016, she opened a training academy for young girls in Bengaluru, which has already helped to produce a world U20 medallist in long jumper Shaili Singh in the 2021 edition.

Asked if her academy is entering any participants in the KIYG, Anju said, “Six of my academy girls have been registered in track & field events in the Games in Madhya Pradesh in the long jump, triple jump, and hurdles. They will get a chance to rub shoulders with some of the Indian athletes, and that’s a big plus by itself.”

The growth in the number of disciplines over the past five editions — from 18 in the first edition in New Delhi to 27 in Madhya Pradesh — shows that the stakeholders of KIYG are ready to expand their horizons.

Hima Das, the fastest woman in the country, had been a part of strong fields in track & field events in earlier editions and was the torchbearer of the Games when it took place in her home state Assam (2019) while Dutee Chand stood out with a 100m gold in the Khelo India University Games in Bengaluru in 2021.

Shooter Mehuli Ghosh and weightlifter Jeremy Lalrinnunga are among the major emerging Indian athletes who first broke through from this platform.

The upcoming edition in Madhya Pradesh will see water sports being included for the first time with canoe slalom, kayaking, canoeing, and rowing — which will be held at the MP Water Sports Academy on Upper Lake in Bhopal.

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