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Posted at: Dec 7, 2018, 12:15 AM; last updated: Dec 7, 2018, 1:29 AM (IST)

The Army’s engagement with sports

Rohit Mahajan

Rohit Mahajan
In 2000, armyman Gurcharan Singh came close to becoming the first Indian boxer to win an Olympic medal. The leaders of sport in the Army decided that it was time to do something — Mission Olympics was launched in 2001. Three years later, Major Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore climbed the podium at Athens, having won a silver in shooting.
The Army’s engagement with sports
Army’s sports stars: Neeraj Chopra, Jinson Johnson and Amit Panghal.

Rohit Mahajan
Sports editor

A little woman, who usually does her best work in a shiny leotard, her face dazzling with bright makeup, has become an inspiration to several personnel of the Indian Army. 

The little woman is Dipa Karmakar, who missed an Olympics medal in gymnastics by a hair's breadth, and the men she's inspiring are gymnasts on the rolls of the Indian Army. Two weeks ago, at the Inter-Services Gymnastic Championship, a senior officer said: “Dipa’s excellent performance at the Olympics has given a great confidence to budding players, which is a very positive thing for us.”

The soldier-sportsmen

From a professional point of view, the interest of the Indian Army has been most significant and natural in sports such as shooting, mountaineering and sailing, and the reasons are obvious. The Army operates its Marksmanship Unit in Mhow and High Altitude Warfare School, Gulmarg. Famous alumni from these institutions are Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Vijay Kumar and Jitu Rai, and Narendra ‘Bull’ Kumar, who is credited with securing Siachen for India. The first Indians to climb Mount Everest were all armymen, and the first among them was Avtar Singh Cheema. As for sailing, the sport has been primarily propped up by the Indian Army, with sailors getting training at the Army Rowing Node in the College of Military Engineering, Pune.

The Army’s engagement with sport, however, goes much beyond warfare-oriented sports. From Dhyan Chand to Milkha Singh to Jinson Johnson and Neeraj Chopra, tens of sportspersons have a very strong bond that's impossible to break — the one created by the Army. At this year's Asian Games, 11 out of the 69 medals were won by men affiliated with the Indian Army, including gold by athlete Neeraj Chopra and boxer Amit Panghal.

Modern sports were introduced to India by the British, and the Indian Army in British India played a leading role in sport — the Army Sports Control Board (ASCB) was set up in March 1919, on the lines of the British body with the same name. 

In 1945, the ASCB was merged with all sports organisations of the three Services, and the Services Sports Control Board (SSCB) came into being. The SSCB focuses on 18 sports in inter-services events, which have contributed international medallists such as shooter Vijay Kumar, boxers Suranjoy Singh, Dingko Singh and Kaur Singh, race-walker Chand Ram, and hockey stars such as Manohar Topno, Ignace Tirkey and Sylvanus Dung Dung, among others.

The Pune-based Army Sports Institute trains national and international level archers, athletes, boxers, divers, fencers, weightlifters and wrestlers. Nine sportspersons who train there had qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, including three marathoners.

Also in Pune, several sportspersons train at the Army Institute of Physical Training (AIPT), which initially focussed only on athletics and boxing but now also includes sports such as basketball, volleyball and karate. A gymnastics node was established in 2004 there, and in recent times, as this sport became more popular in India (courtesy Dipa Karmakar), armymen in greater numbers are taking to gymnastics. The AIPT's focus is also on training instructors who can then go on to impart training and coaching at various units of the Army.

Mission Olympics

Starting in 1984, India had come back empty-handed from three consecutive Olympic Games. At the next two Olympics, India won a bronze medal —Leander Paes in 1996, Karnam Malleswari in 2000. In 2000, an Army boxer, Gurcharan Singh, came close to becoming the first Indian boxer to win an Olympic medal — some say he had won his quarterfinal bout, some said he lost in the final seconds of the fight.

The leaders of sport at the Indian Army decided that it was time to do something — programme Mission Olympics was launched in 2001, the idea, obviously, being to win medals at the Olympic Games. Three years later, an armyman, Major Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, climbed the podium at Athens, having won a silver medal in shooting. Eight years later, in London, Havildar Vijay Kumar emulated him, winning a silver in shooting.

The Indian Army's athletes could not get a medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, but it has long-term plans and hopes.

Felicitating the Army athletes who won medals at this year's Asian Games, Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, said: “The Asian Games was just a trailer and you will get to watch the full movie during the Olympics. That’s our endeavour for Mission Olympics.”

That might seem very optimistic, but the Army is serious about nurturing and producing international medallists — it provides equipment, support staff, coaching, accommodation and proper diet to its athletes. In other words, everything is taken care of, and then there's job security as well. Another factor, which the Army's athletes swear by, is discipline.

Subedar Rajiv Arokia won two silver medals at the Asian Games. Coming from a modest background, he says he could not have imagined being able to afford each aspect of his life and training, if he were not in the Army. “If I was a civilian, I would have to worry for everything: food, water, stay. But not in the Army. For any problem, the army is there to solve it,” Rajiv Arokia said after his return from the Bangkok-Palembang Asian Games.

India's brightest prospect for an Olympics medal in athletics, Neeraj Chopra, got a sense of self-reliance after joining the Army. “My father is a farmer, mother a housewife and I live in a joint family… For me, it is a sort of a relief because now I am able to help my family financially, besides continuing with my training,” Chopra said after joining the Army as a JCO last year.

Since then, he's won two gold in multi-sport events this year, the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games. Chopra is likely to win unprecedented success for India in international sport, and even the Olympic Games — with a bit of help from Indian Army.

rohitmahajan@tribunemail.com

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