Stan Rayan

KOCHI: As the little children get ready to take their shaky first steps in badminton, there is an old man to guide them along. Despite being over 75, Balagopalan Thampi is light on his feet as he teaches them the basic moves of the sport at the Regional Sports Centre here.

He has been coaching for more than fifty years and has spotted and groomed some of India’s best players, including Vimal Kumar and George Thomas.

“The crowd is getting bigger and bigger each year,” said Thampi, one of Kerala’s first champions, at the Regional Sports Centre here on Wednesday evening. “That makes it tougher to concentrate, to give individual attention.”

Huge response

The Regional Sports Centre’s multi-event summer camp, the biggest in Kerala, began at Kadavanthra on Wednesday with nearly 2,000 children getting their first taste of serious sport.

As he watches parents bringing in their anxious children, many of them in flashy gear and some even in hard-heeled shoes, the old man is quick to spot the changing trends in sport.

“Those days, the children were very eager to join sport but now it’s the parents who are more eager, they want to push their children into sport. That reminds me, when we played the National Championship more than fifty years ago, the women used to play wearing sarees.”

Hard taskmaster

Thampi, who began his coaching career in 1957 in Thiruvananthapuram, was a tough taskmaster a few decades ago. “He was very strict those days,” said former international and national coach Vimal Kumar a few years ago

“I had a problem with my serves; I used to lift one foot often while serving. But whenever I did that, Thampi sir would hit me on the leg. After some time, I got the technique right.”

Vimal was reminded of Thampi’s training when he saw the Chinese train their young players. “I saw nearly 100 children train on ten courts with four coaches watching sharply. Whenever somebody committed a mistake, he would get a hard tap on the leg, No wonder they produce so many world champions,” said Vimal.

The road to badminton glory may appear bumpy for the tiny tots but listening to the old man and obeying his ‘commands’ have fetched rich rewards for many in Kerala.

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