State recognition for arm-wrestling will help players make it to international arena without the baggage of debt

Arm-wrestling seems to come very organically to the youngsters of the State.

There is no other reason why so many of them come in to this sport, as yet unrecognised, without any formal training or support from the government and emerge champions at the State, national, and even at the world level.

Kerala has been overall champions at the national championship for 19 consecutive years, a run broken last year when Assam edged past it by a whisker. “Kerala has won the overall title more than 90 per cent of the time in the championship’s 37-year-long history,” said Jojy Eloor, State general secretary of Kerala Arm-Wrestling Association.

The State has also produced at least three world champions in individual categories – Joby Mathew from Pala both in the general and the disabled categories and Sebastian Mathew from Kottayam and Anil Bhaskar from Muvattupuzha.

Unlike other sports, arm-wrestling does not need any equipment and can be practiced with just a desk or a table, said Joby Mathew, the reigning world champion in the 52kg-class.

“More importantly, it’s a power game and hence a natural draw for youngsters. I don’t think there will be any youngster who will not relish the respect and popularity of being an arm-wrestling champion. There’s a certain kind of prestige associated with the game. A reason why a challenge for a round of arm-wrestling is one of the most popular ways to assert themselves among youngsters in the State,” he said.

Jaimon A.J., manager of the Kerala team at the national championship under way in Kolencherry, said the culture of arm-wrestling was deep-rooted in the State. “Students holding bouts of arm-wrestling for fun and even to settle arguments are common sights in our schools and colleges,” he said. Jomon George, the reigning national champion in 55kg-class from the State, is a product of such “unofficial” grooming sessions in classrooms.

Mr. George also hailed the role of gyms in many parts of the State in popularising the game. In fact, such gyms were the only training facilities for arm-wrestlers, he said.

Mr. Mathew said he would start an academy for arm-wrestlers in Aluva by next year to impart world-class training.

Despite having a glorious legacy in the sport in the State, there is no dearth of heart-wrenching tales of neglect and missed opportunities.

Shaji Rappai, who qualified for the world event after winning the nationals in the 55kg-class back in 1992, could not board the flight to Johannesburg as he failed to manage Rs. 55,000 needed for the journey then.

“I could have raised the fund by pledging what little I possessed. But there was no meaning in doing so for a sport that was neglected by the government. Even if I had won the world title it would have hardly changed my life for the better,” he said. Shaji was in tears on sharing the experience of his friend Anil Bhaskar who returned to a life of hard labour straight after winning a world title.

Latha Unnikrishnan, a national champion and a veteran of 25 years in the sport, also had to give the world competition a miss owing to lack of funds. “Look at our counterparts from the NorthEast, where the sport is recognised and can therefore look at the prospect of earning a job by pursuing it,” she said in a voice choked with emotion.

Raphel M.D, one of the most experienced international referees from India, said efforts were on to get the sport recognised in the Olympics. Mr. Jojy said the application for approval was with the Indian Olympic Association. “The Kerala Sports Council has promised to recognise the sport subject to the approval of IOA,” he said.

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