Yes, you read that right.

Parks are the reason the United States is a churning machine for Olympic champions.

As a former member of the Indian badminton team and someone currently living in the US, I constantly try to understand the framework in which this country operates on the sports front. Over the past six months, I have interviewed athletes, professors, and local city government officers to get some high-quality grassroots information. The more I ask, the better I understand American sports and the framework surrounding it.

First of all, it is interesting that in spite of being a world leader in the Olympics, the US does not have a Ministry of Sports. There is absolutely no such department at the federal level. The responsibility of producing Olympians is not given to the national government. What does exist, though, are multiple non-profit organisations that work in association with the government. It is bodies like USA Swimming and US Sailing that help to organise and train athletes outside schools.

Collegiate sports

In addition to programme fees and revenues, these organisations rely on donations from foundations, individuals, and corporations – all subsidised by the federal government by up to 40 or so cents on the dollar, thanks to their charitable tax deduction. But the question, then, is: if the federal government is not really involved, how does the US throw up such great athletes consistently?

The answer is surprising but true. Schools and universities play a significant part in the making of these athletes. The National Collegiate Athletic Association website boasted that 417 of the 555 members of the United States team at the Rio Olympics were NCAA athletes. The NCAA is a national college athletic association which finds potential athletes from colleges and trains them to become stars in their respective fields.

As an athlete, I can vouch for the fact that most successful athletes in the world start very young. In America, university sports actually starts from the high school level. So who is responsible for ensuring that all these champions are taken care of at an early stage?

My research leads me to believe that the answer is the parks department in every city.

New York's famous Central Park. Image credit: Aditi Mutatkar
New York's famous Central Park. Image credit: Aditi Mutatkar

Creating opportunities at the grassroots

Let me explain. My quest for finding answers has taken me to some great places and given me multiple opportunities to talk to people instrumental in this very activity. A month ago, I got a chance to interview Ted Benavides, a former city manager who also happens to be my professor. I asked him a specific question:

“If there is no Department of Sports, which entity at the federal government level is responsible for athletics?”

Benavides replied, “Well, apart from the universities, it has to be the Parks and Recreation Department.”

“How is that?” I responded with surprise.

“The Parks and Recreation department is in charge of providing the city with athletic fields, including every sport that the public demand, providing gyms and organising tournaments and leagues where the public can compete,” informed the former city manager. “The tournaments are provided for every age group, including the disabled population. They really do a great job. The Parks and Recreation Department plays an important role at the grassroot level.”

“What kind of fees do they charge?” I queried.

It was his turn to be surprised. “What fees?” he asked. “It is free of charge.”

I was intrigued. The logical realisation of this pursuit led me to James Smith, a Parks and Recreation manager who gave me an appointment and interview after two months of trying.

The government’s responsibility to provide recreation

My question to Smith was simple: What does the Parks and Recreation Department really do?

Smith was informative. He told me, “We have 55 parks spread over 2000 acres of land. Fifty-five athletic fields are part of the parks. We have eight recreation centres which have gyms and other interesting classes like cooking, drawing and piano.”

He added, “There are 14 athletic leagues for different games that conduct tournaments. The total participation for these leagues is between 600 and 800 children. It keeps on growing. Leagues are pretty popular here. The government gives us somewhere around a quarter of a million dollars [approximately Rs 1.5 crore] to maintain these services."

"The rest comes from non-profits," he continued. "We take sports very seriously in America. Our leisure time is dedicated to it. Our cities are planned according to the people’s needs. We don’t take decisions about what their needs are for them. Parks are really important to people here. So it is the government’s responsibility to provide for it. It is their money after all.”

Take a closer look at the number of parks mentioned. This city is just one example. Most cities in the United States have a Parks and Recreation Department which is in charge of providing for athletics in the city. There is a lot of fascinating data available for every city in the country on their local government websites

This research posed some interesting questions. Does planning a city contribute to raising champions? Does giving more importance to open spaces and parks help the cause of sports in India? Does it make better sense to not have a sports department at the national level and channel all those resources to cities instead? Will that make execution of policies more efficient and accountable?

In a recent interview, Milind Dhaimade, the director of the football-themed film Tu Hi Mera Sunday – which used the shrinking spaces in Mumbai for a game of football as one of its themes – lamented: “The loss of personal space is the measure of prosperity for this city.”

Is that not the case with all our cities? Development cannot just mean buildings, metros and flyovers. If great open spaces are not a part of our development, we are going to build successful cities which may not be sustainable. Where then does playing a sport stand a chance?

Aditi Mutatkar is the winner of five national badminton championships – under-13, under-16, under-19 and senior nationals – and has represented the Indian badminton team in international tournaments.

Children play cricket on Mumbai's Juhu Beach. Image credit: Vivek Prakash / Reuters
Children play cricket on Mumbai's Juhu Beach. Image credit: Vivek Prakash / Reuters