She Speaks with Deepthi Bopaiah

Eight years ago, Deepthi Bopaiah, working at a bank, was sitting with her bank colleagues and watching the 2012 London Olympics on a TV screen in a pub in Bengaluru, India. Lamenting about the lack of success at the Olympic level for India was a regular pastime for many in the country, but Deepthi felt that something could be done about this situation.

Fast forward to 2020 and Deepthi is the Executive Director of GoSports Foundation (GSF), a leading non-governmental organisation based out of Bengaluru that helps to support and facilitate the journeys of junior, emerging and elite athletes at the Olympic and Paralympic levels. From representing leading athletes in their sport to being awarded the ‘Rashtriya Khel Protsahan Award – National Sports Encouragement Award’ by the President of India, Deepthi and GSF have come a long way, supporting over 120 athletes at the Olympic and Paralympic level.

We sat down with her (virtually) to discuss the journey she’s been on over the last eight years, the lessons gained from her athlete career and corporate life, and her advice for those looking to seriously have a career in sport.

What is the aim of GoSports Foundation in Indian sport?

While we’re thinking of getting athletes to achieve their potential (winning at the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, World Championships and ultimately, at the Olympics), I think it’s also a lot beyond that. It’s about creating role models for Indians. So, if you have to be a role model, your sport will take you to one level where people will be inspired, and they’ll congratulate you [for your successes]. But if you have to have a legacy of your own, you have to stand for something and you should be something much more than your sport and beyond your sport as well. You have to really cherish excellence, and you have to be excited about that journey of excellence. That’s what GSF is about – we’re using sports as a vehicle for excellence. For us, [winning medals] is a great outcome we work towards but that’s not the only thing. Because at the end of the day, you don’t want to have a gold medallist who cannot survive in the real world.

“Because at the end of the day, you don’t want to have a gold medallist who cannot survive in the real world.”

You have represented your state, Karnataka, in both tennis and basketball. How would you say being an athlete has helped in transforming the journeys of these athletes under GSF and understanding what needs to be done for success?

A large part of who I am, all the learnings [and] life lessons that I’ve had is only because of sport. I think my life would have been very different if I did not play sport at whatever level that I played. I think even when I joined GoSports, the whole mission and vision was very exciting that we want to just create Olympians. Can we be part of Olympic athlete journeys and Olympic Paralympic athlete journeys? Just the idea of finding raw talent and being able to create a support system around them so that if they’re talented, they should get a helping hand to move to the next level. Just the power of sport and what it does for countries and nations and just having an Indian flag, flying high is [exciting]. It’s very easy to keep saying the same thing about [how] I love the national flag flying high. But when you see the kind of effort that is required – I think sport is one thing [where] there are no excuses, there are no shortcuts. You have to go through the grind, and you have to do certain things a certain way and be disciplined to see results.

“The power of sport and what it does for countries and nations and just having an Indian flag, flying high is [exciting].”

What is one memory that sticks out over the last eight years? Something that made you realise that this was going to be a successful endeavour…

It’s been quite a journey in terms of where we were when I joined [in 2012]. We were like three people and15 athletes. And today we’re 21 people in the team with 120 athletes.

But I think the first memory was actually this event we did with Rahul Dravid (former Indian cricketer) when he was just retiring from international cricket. We were having these conversations with him about how he can be involved in GoSports. And I still remember that conversation very clearly when he was saying: Yeah, we can do something but what exactly do we do? Because [he] was in the cricket world and what can [he] do, when we actually coined this whole mentor role actually for Rahul, we actually coined that collectively as a team and started the Rahul Dravid Athlete Mentorship Programme. And then when we found a donor – Aditya Birla Group – as well to fund a project, so it all came together at the right time with the right set of athletes. I think that was one of my earliest memories because you obviously grown up seeing Rahul and reading about all these people and then you’re sitting with them and actually having a conversation and charting out something so unique. I think that was very special.

Although India is definitely rising in terms of its sporting potential, what were some of the hurdles you’ve faced, as the head of a nascent organisation and as a woman in a male-dominated industry?

Yeah, I think sports administration in India is completely run and managed by men. I was [in] one of those meetings in the government offices and there was like 15-20 people and I was the only woman there. Age also doesn’t help you sometimes. I think what helped is the minute we started putting out our proposals, when we started showing the quality of work, they knew you meant business. I think it’s very important to just say that, to be given a voice, and to just be able to share what you have on your mind. And growing up, I’ve never had these issues where it’s a boy, it’s a girl, because we’ve played sport. It’s very different I feel, but coming into this world of administration, it was slightly challenging, I would say in the start, but I think the minute you showed what you could deliver and what you bring to the table, I think all changed.

I think what I was [also] able to bring is the whole empathy side of it, and I think women naturally bring that. If you use it to your strength, you can just really catapult it and move forward because the minute you build a relationship, and you’re able to connect to that person, I just feel that you’re able to get a lot of work [done]. For most women, we actually shy away when very different types of responsibility comes in, because we’ve never done it in the past. In some sense, I just jumped right in. Initially [I knew you won’t] get the recognition or there were things that we’ve done and they will not acknowledge what you’ve done. Those are things which should not stop you, but you just constantly push yourself to try and keep reinventing that you get so good and so big that you cannot be ignored.

“Athletes want to know you care and athletes want to know they can reach out to you.”

What should be remembered about working in sport administration?

I think the first thing they want to see is do you care? And do you really care about their [athletes’] journey? A lot of the people around want medals but are not keen on creating an ecosystem for the athlete to develop and thrive.

But in a job like ours, we may not succeed, we will never be out there saying it’s all us. I think if you’re okay with that to be in the background, and make sure that someone else shines and you still know it’s your work in some way, shape or form. I think that was very exciting to all of us as an organisation, because we have been quite conservative in putting ourselves out there for many years.

Athletes want to know you care and athletes want to know they can reach out to you and athletes. I’ve had athletes call me at three in the morning [when] unfortunately one of our athletes’ dad passed away and the first person she called was me. And I was touched at that point of time. Obviously, if you were a typical administrator, I don’t know if that would have happened if you’ve had not built a relationship and just given money. I think that is a very valuable asset for people to bring into sports administration, because for many years, athletes have been right at the end and below that have been coaches.

Our GSF team is more [like] the entourage. You need to manage the athlete to take them forward. I was there at the Rio Olympics and Paralympics and just seeing what support and care and attention can do and how you win medals, the proof is there. 

Do you consider yourself a role model for those looking to enter this particular field?

I definitely consider myself as somebody who’s been through a difficult path and made a niche for myself, in some sense. If it inspires more people to come in… I have had a lot of young guys and girls write to me saying how they want to follow this trajectory.

On being a woman in this field

It’s situational. I would say I think it depends on who you’re meeting and how you’re meeting. But at the end of the day, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, if your work doesn’t speak, you’ll only be getting an entry because you’re a woman which [is what] people think. But if you have to last and if you have to consistently be there, then you have to be able to deliver on ground, you have to be result and outcome oriented. That’s something which I’ve learned over a period of time and again because at the end of the day, there is a result and whatever effort you put in will bear fruit at some point or the other. You may like the fruit or not like the fruit, but there will be results that are created, so it’s up to you.

More from Deepthi

Check out Deepthi discussing this and more on the ‘active CEO’, a podcast series that seeks to bring together the world’s most creative and innovative high-performance leaders, to inspire positive change here.

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