India's Sandeep Sejwal swims his way to gold in the 100-meter men's breaststroke at the 2006 South Asian Games in Sri Lanka. Sejwal, who competed in the Beijing Olympics two years later, has a government job with India's railway that accommodates his heavy training schedule.
India's Sandeep Sejwal swims his way to gold in the 100-meter men's breaststroke at the 2006 South Asian Games in Sri Lanka. Sejwal, who competed in the Beijing Olympics two years later, has a government job with India's railway that accommodates his heavy training schedule. AP
For athletes anywhere, just qualifying for the Olympics can be a full-time job. But in India, training full-time is a luxury few can afford. That means many athletes work part-time government jobs. And for some, it can result in a job for life.
In return for putting in an appearance at the office, athletes like shooter Suma Shirur get a monthly salary and time to train.
"As soon as I got the offer of joining the railways, I just kind of grabbed it," Shirur says, "and slowly kind of of made me a little more financially stable, and I could pursue the sport the way I wanted."
India's Suma Shirur won bronze in women's 10m air rifle pairs at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. She says her part-time government job gave her the time and financial stability to train for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
India's Suma Shirur won bronze in women's 10m air rifle pairs at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. She says her part-time government job gave her the time and financial stability to train for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. AP
Despite her degree in chemistry, Shirur does basic data entry. "Every day I would go to office and I would think, 'Oh, my God, what am I doing here?' I would always talk to myself. I would say to myself that this is not my goal. My goal is to go to the Olympics, and I'm here only for my salary. I'm here only for my paycheck," she says.
Shirur used her job at the railway to make it to the 2004 Athens Olympics, where she finished eighth.
India's government-run railway, police and army are the biggest employers of athletes. In general, the jobs are for life and athletes get promotions based on how well they do at competitions.
The Indian government has upped its spending on its Olympic program recently. But that doesn't always trickle down past the country's top performers.
Vikas Krishan is one of the country's top boxers and will be competing in the London Olympics, which start later this month. He says he gets plenty of support now, including a job as a police officer, but it came after he was successful on his own.
"I did not get any support at my younger age," Krishan says. "The support will not come to the ground level."
Private organizations also have stepped in to help support high-achieving young athletes.
The Mittal Champions Trust was created in 2005 to provide the funds needed by top-flight competitors for their training, coaches and equipment.
Manisha Malhotra, who runs the trust, says even though she has invested in her athletes' success, many of them are still attracted to the support provided by government agencies because they provide something she can't.
"You can never be fired," Malhotra says. "You have all the benefits of medical, pension, so it's a big deal. A lot of times I struggle, because a lot of my athletes are aspiring just to get that government job versus actually going out there and win a medal."
But winning medals does have its advantages. Winners often return home and tour the country, picking up checks from local governments and different branches of the bureaucracy as a reward for their performance.
Winning also helps with career advancement.
Sandeep Sejwal competed in the breast stroke at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Along with training seven hours each day, he also works for the railway. He has never actually been to the office because of his schedule. But that hasn't stopped his career prospects there.
"Promotion in the railways is very easy," Sejwal says. "If you swim continuously and win a medal at the nationals, or just represent the Indian railways at the national level, you just get promoted. So I'm going to file for a promotion. Hopefully I get it, and then I'll be the boss."