Though a number of Olympic sports are pursued in India, why do their practitioners rarely make it to the limelight?
If we look beyond the glamour of cricket, tennis and badminton, we find that in the dark alleys of India’s sporting culture exist sports like rowing, gymnastics, fencing and cycling, which are indigenous to the region and also Olympic events. However, their popularity is at low ebb. Here we try to understand why and what can be done to rectify the situation.
The Rowing Federation of India Secretary General M.V. Sriram elucidates various factors that have restricted rowing from gaining popularity in the country. He believes the proximity of the waterways plays an important role. “I started rowing because the boat club was close to my house. There is a need to bring in more boat clubs in every state and locality. Bhopal and Chandigarh have good waterways. The Hussain Sagar lake in Hyderabad is a good water body as well. But if someone from Chennai wants to row, he has to travel all the way to Hyderabad. Here the problem of proximity comes in.”
Rowing is an expensive sport and difficult to manage solely on government support, with both blades and boats requiring to be imported. Inadequacy of sponsorship has also curtailed its spread. The corporate sector seems unenthusiastic to invest money in the sport and the absence of modern technology for coverage restrains the advertising aspect. Countries like China have implied motion cameras, follow cameras and magic eye technology. This has assisted them in bringing the sport to every drawing room.
Sriram explains, “We do not have sufficient funds to pay a coach Rs.40,000. As of now, the government is paying him, but we have to renew the contract after the Olympics. It is a slow process but the game will grow with time.”
Cycling may have long been the vehicle of convenience for millions of ordinary Indians, but as a sport it has hardly gained notice. With the Cycling Federation of India plagued with factionalism and litigation, it was only on April 30 that the current board of the CFI got recognition from the government. The CFI Secretary General Onkar Singh believes this recognition would help in bringing the sport to the mainstream. “Even without government support, we have held about 14 cyclothons in Bangalore, Kolkata, Delhi and Chennai. The aim was to popularise the sport in the metropolitan cities.”
As for the velodromes, he says, “At present there are two tracks (at Guwahati and Ranchi) which lie unused. Forty-seven cycles were imported during the Commonwealth Games, but we were not allowed to train on them. We participated in the National Championship with the limited equipment we had. In the World Championship one of the cyclists, Amarjeet Singh, 19, rode for the first time on the wooden track. Problems like these have always been a matter of concern for the sport in India.”
Fencing is another sport struggling to find a place in India. With the closure of the Special Area Games (SAG) Scheme by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in 1996, the game became dormant. Under this scheme, fencers from Kerala, Karnataka and Manipur were selected for professional training under international coaches at the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex. None of SAI’s regional centres have the necessary equipment and the Association has to borrow from State units. Fencers find it difficult to buy their personal equipment due to high costs. There is no coach of international repute and competence available in India. Sanjay Pradhan, Treasurer, Fencing Association of India and the first national champion of the sport in 1981, says, “The major problem is that all the equipment is imported and expensive. The government spends around 50-60 lakh on the team and it becomes important that we come up with some good results.”
B.S. Nandi, a noted coach believes, “There is a need to work on the way gymnastics is presented at the grassroot level. The media should focus on highlighting the sport at district and state level competitions so that people develop a liking for gymnastics. Otherwise, the sport has improved over the years."