By Sabi Hussain
Star athletes pulling out, states not sending teams, sports federations busy holding private franchise-based leagues, players switching loyalties, boycott and withdrawals at the last moment, and allegations of misappropriation of funds defined the oddity of the fortnight-long National Games in Kerala that concluded yesterday.
Very few tuned in to catch some of India’s best emerging sporting talent in action at venues spread across eight cities in Kerala. Actually, not many in the country were even aware of such a multi-sport event taking place. The list of where the blame lies is long, but starts with the government and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) for not doing enough to generate interest for the Games among the masses and even sportspersons.
The sheer number and variety of disciplines in the National Games itself makes it an interesting event to follow, but with no cricket on the menu, the interest naturally wanes. But, by the same argument, even the Commonwealth Games, leave aside the Olympics and Asiad, should also not generate sporting hysteria. So, the fault lies squarely with the country’s sports administrators.
In the late 1990s and early 2000, the National Games were seen as the most important event in India’s sporting calendar, with athletes taking great pride in representing their states and winning medals. Now, the Games have been reduced to just another formality, with its grand opening and closing ceremonies.
The Indian chapter of the Olympic movement was born in Lahore in 1924. The same year, the country’s first Olympic games, later christened as National Games, were organised in Lahore, the then capital of undivided Punjab.
Lucknow hosted the first National Games in its post-Independence avatar. The modern National Games on the lines of the Olympics were held in 1985 in New Delhi and thereafter, Kerala (1987), Pune (1994), Bangalore (1997), Manipur (1999), Hyderabad (2002), Ludhiana (2005) and Guwahati (2007) hosted the Games.
No time schedule
Though the National Games are supposed to be held once in two years, these have been faltering on this schedule since the turn of the millennium. It took Guwahati five years to conduct the Games after Andhra Pradesh did so in 2002. The 34th National Games in Ranchi were postponed six times before finally getting to see the light of day on February 12, 2011.
Similarly, the just-concluded Kerala Games were delayed four times before the state government managed to avoid the ignominy of yet another postponement. So, when the Centre and the country’s Olympic association are not interested in holding the Games on time, why would star athletes take the event seriously?
No surprise then that a host of top athletes such as shuttle queens Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu, star wrestlers Yogeshwar Dutt and Sushil Kumar, top boxers Vijender Singh and MC Mary Kom, and tennis players Sania Mirza and Somdev Devvarman among other ‘A’ listers decided to skip the Games for varied reasons.
Among the small bunch of international medallists who chose to participate despite the event falling in the off-season were athlete Arpinder Singh, gymnast Dipa Karmakar, shooter Jitu Rai, swimmer Sandeep Sejwal and tennis player Saketh Myneni.
“This is a big issue and the IOA is most likely to summon the state Olympic associations to find out from the federations why these athletes did not turn up for the Games. The National Games are the pride of the country and the star athletes should give their first priority to them. What’s the point of holding the Games when the crowd pullers are missing?” questions Tarlochan Singh, senior vice-president of the IOA.
In defence of no-show
The athletes have their own arguments to defend their no-show at the Games. A top boxer says there is no point participating when it will neither act as a qualifier for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in 2016, nor the federation will necessarily consider the athletes’ performance for selection at the national camp.
“The only reason for participation would either be job security or cash awards offered by state governments. I already have a job and earn much more than the prize money on offer. Why would I disturb my training schedule when there’s no importance attached to the Games? Moreover, the Games are never held on time and we already have international events lined up after the Games,” he says.
Indian hockey captain Sardar Singh, who represents Delhi Waveriders in the Hockey India League (HIL), admitted that he wanted to represent Haryana at the Games, but the HIL schedule forced him to change his decision.
If such was the strong desire to play for his state in the Games, Sardar could have taken permission from Hockey India (HI) to excuse him from HIL. But, he could not have done that because the man running the show in HI, Narinder Batra, would have never allowed star players to give preference to the Games over the HIL.
So, is it justifiable to hold the HIL at the time of the Games? “I know it’s important to represent your state in the Games. If we people participate in the Games, people would definitely come to watch us in huge numbers. I also wanted to be part of the state hockey team at the Games, but the schedule of the HIL clashed with its timing. It would have been better to organise the Games after the HIL,” Sardar had said during one of his HIL press conferences.
In the absence of top hockey players, most of the states were forced to field second-string teams at the Games, much to the disappointment of the local crowd.
The dates of the national camp announced by the Badminton Association of India (BAI) clashed with the timing of the National Games, thus shifting the loyalties of the players to the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad.
Many star shuttlers stayed away from the Games and, in their absence, Chetan Anand, HS Prannoy, Prajakta Sawant and Sayali Gokhale tried to keep the spectators engaged. It is learnt that the IOA has taken strong exception to the BAI’s move to hold the national camp between the Games and has even summoned BAI president Akhilesh Das Gupta in this regard.
The Games were also hit hard by the worrying trend of athletes shifting loyalties and deserting their states in search of better job opportunities and handsome prize money. This resulted in a twin loss for some states — they not only lost out on medals, but also their star athletes.
Ace swimmer Sandeep Sejwal, national record holder swimmer Richa Mishra, javelin thrower Vipin Kasana, gymnast Pranti Nayak and athletes Ankit Sharma and Umesh Kumar Yadav were some of the names who switched their loyalties to different states in search of greener pastures.
“Every player should represent his or her own state and the IOA should look at this trend very seriously. I will, in fact, raise this issue in our next Executive Council Meeting to discourage the state Olympic associations and federations from allowing players to change the states before the National Games. There should be some restriction on players and it shouldn’t be that easy for them,” says Tarlochan Singh.
But, with most state governments offering zero cash awards and no job opportunity to the medal winners, the players, especially from Punjab, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, would be forced to participate from other states. “I had an offer from MP before the Games, but I chose to represent Punjab. I have offers from two-three states to join their team for future championships. The Punjab government has no clear sports policy for its athletes and I would be bound to represent some other state next time,” said shooter Amanpreet Singh, who won four medals at the Games.
Similar sentiments were echoed by the gold medal-winning team of Punjab cyclists comprising Amrit Singh, Amarjit Singh and Gurbaj Singh, who have decided to represent Haryana in the next edition of the Games at Goa.
The National Games were also witness to withdrawals, like by the Uttarakhand volleyball team over differences with the federation, while the boxing teams from Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Assam, Chandigarh and Sikkim decided to boycott the Games en masse by not sending teams.
And then there were Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Sikkim, which decided to stay away from the Games by not sending a single entry in any of the disciplines.
“You need to make the Games more relevant to the athletes. You can’t blame them because these Games have been reduced to a mere side show. Athletes would only participate if the Games act as a qualifier for the Asian Games and are held a year prior to the Asiad. I had made this suggestion to the IOA Executive Council, but nothing came of it. Also, you need to conduct the Games every four years, not like after every one or two years as we can see in the case of Goa, which is scheduled to host the next edition in another 15 months,” said a senior IOA functionary who did not wish to be named.
“Also, the Games should be allotted to the host state six years in advance so they can build the infrastructure on time. The IOA should be very strict with this policy. If the infrastructure has not been put in place, then hold the Games in some other city. This way, you would avoid delaying the Games for the benefit of the athletes. What most states are doing is creating temporary infrastructure for the Games and then auctioning it off later. How would you produce the next generation of athletes if the sporting infrastructure is removed?” he asked.
Kerala Sports Minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan has already stated that the government would auction the material purchased for the Games and this amount would be added to the National Games Secretariat account. So much for the country’s premier and biggest sporting event.
- Kerala has announced Rs 5 lakh each for gold medal winners.
- Haryana will be handing out cash awards of Rs 3 lakh, Rs 2 lakh and Rs 1 lakh for gold, silver and bronze medal winners.
- Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand don’t have a fixed policy on cash awards. They are yet to make any formal announcement for medal winners at the Games.
- Medallists from Punjab at Hyderabad (2002), Guwahati (2007) and Ranchi (2011) Games are still waiting for awards.
Money key factor
Among the small bunch of international medallists who chose to participate in the National Games despite the event falling in off-season was Asian Games bronze medallist swimmer Sandeep Sejwal. Only the third Indian in the last 28 years to win a medal at the Asiad, he said the biggest motivation was the prize money on offer. The 26-year-old from Delhi represented Madhya Pradesh. “Money aside, it is always good to stay in touch with the pool even in off-season,” said the national record holder in 50m, 100m and 200m breaststroke.
"The event has transformed into a carnival in which artistes benefit more than sportspersons. Though the Games has helped improve the infrastructure at the grassroot level, it would not be of much help to athletes preparing for international events, including the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016."
PT Usha, sprint queen
"You need to make the Games more relevant to the athletes. You can't blame them because these Games have been reduced to a mere side show. Athletes would only participate if the Games act as a qualifier for the Asian Games and are held a year prior to the Asiad."
Senior IOA functionary
"What's the point of holding the National Games when the crowd pullers are missing?"
Tarlochan Singh, senior vice-president, IOA
"The only reason for participation would be job security or cash awards offered by states. I already have a job and earn much more than the prize money on offer. Why would I disturb my training schedule? Moreover, the National Games are never held on time."
"It's important to represent your state in the National Games. I also wanted to be part of the Haryana hockey team, but the schedule of Hockey India League clashed with its timing. It would have been better to organise the Games after the HIL"
Sardar Singh, Indian Hockey captain
7,744 athletes, 1,369 medals on offer, 36 participating teams
Despite all the hiccups and delays in the conduct of the National Games in Kerala, a record number of 11,641 participants — including 7,744 athletes from 36 units and the newly-carved-out state of Telangana — fought for supremacy in 31 disciplines across 29 venues in eight cities.
A total of 1,369 medals (414 gold, 414 silver and 541 bronze) were awarded to the athletes.
Just like the previous edition in Jharkhand, Services emerged the overall winners with a tally of 91 gold, 33 silver and 35 bronze to total a whopping 159 medals. Hosts Kerala came second with a total of 162 medals (54 gold, 48 silver and 60 bronze), followed by Haryana and Maharashtra with 107 (40 gold, 40 silver and 27 bronze) and 123 medals (30 gold, 43 silver and 50 bronze), respectively.
Punjab finished fifth with 93 medals (27 gold, 34 silver and 32 bronze), while Jammu and Kashmir (15 medals), Uttarakhand (24 medals), Chandigarh (16 medals) and Himachal Pradesh (3 medals) finished 23rd, 24th, 26th and 29th, respectively.
STARS WHO SHONE IN KERALA
Kerala’s Sajan Prakash dominated the aquatics events by winning a record haul of six gold, while Tripura’s Commonwealth Games bronze medallist gymnast Dipa returned home with five gold.
Glasgow CWG and Incheon Asiad gold medallist Jitu Rai shot his way to a golden double in the 10m pistol team and individual event, while his teammate Vijay Kumar, the London Games silver medallist, also pocketed two gold in the 25m Rapid Pistol individual and team event. Both represented the Services.
Punjab’s Heena Sidhu left a disappointing last year behind her to shoot two gold in the individual 10m pistol and team event, while veteran shooter from the state, Manvjit Singh Sandhu, claimed gold in the Trap event. Smit Singh bagged a golden double in men’s Skeet to help Punjab edge out Maharashtra and finish second in the shooting medals tally.
World University Games silver medallist Inderjeet of Haryana bettered the previous Games record to clinch the shot put gold with a giant toss of 20.14m.
In the hockey event, Punjab eves annihilated the challenge of their rivals Haryana 3-1 in the summit clash to clinch the gold medal.
Baljinder Singh of Punjab clinched gold in the men’s 20km walk with a timing of 1:26:24.20, while Haryana’s Dharmbir claimed gold in the men’s 100m, clocking 10.46 seconds.
J&K gymnast Palak Kour did the region proud by bagging gold in the individual apparatus event. Punjab’s Amrit Singh, Amarjit Singh and Gurbaj Singh swept medals in the 1km time trail cycling event with only a second separating the top three.
Haryana’s rising star Rajender Singh Dalvir hurled the javelin to a distance of 82.23m to not only clinch the gold, but also qualify for the World Championships.
In judo, Avtar Singh from Punjab won gold in the men’s 90 kg category, while his state-mate Ranjeeta clinched the gold in the women’s 70 kg category.
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