By Viren Rasquinha
I write this letter to you in the last week of what was a year meant for Olympic preparation. In just a few months from now, an Indian contingent will be sent down to Rio de Janeiro with the intent of competing against and beating the best. I feel a great deal of pride and joy in each achievement our athletes accomplish.
Yet I cannot help but notice the fact that there is a visible gap in the number of athletes competing from Maharashtra.
Before I go onto the entire state, I’ll focus on Mumbai.
Yes, cricket is the most popular sport. But even in cricket, most grounds in the city are in terrible shape. They’re uneven and the players are often at risk of twisting ankles while running. However, that’s only the problem with the grounds that do exist.
There are virtually no playing fields for other sports like football and hockey. Whatever few spaces are there, nonetheless, require and are entitled to preservation and protection, especially since they are property of the state government. For that, a separate fund urgently needs sanctioning in order to look after the maintenance of the playgrounds.
Simultaneously, the sanctity of such venues must be kept in place given that most of the prized open spaces are let out for weddings or other such occasions.
In turn, there needs to be an increase in the degree of encouragement extended to all types of sport. I remember a time in my youth when Mumbai hockey rivalled the city’s cricket production line. There were as many as four or five players from Mumbai playing in the national team. Today, there is only Devinder Walmiki.
For the last few decades, hockey hasn’t been encouraged well enough, to the point that there are only about 10 schools that participate in the annual inter-school tournament.
Indoor sports like badminton, table tennis, squash etc face another set of hurdles. The games are restricted to elite clubs, which demand an entry fee too astronomical for the general masses. Needless to say, there are no such public playing courts available for sports like these.
At the same time, I feel that there is a need to instill a culture of supporting sport within parents and school teachers. The latest gadgets available in the market has filled in the void left by the lack of outdoor playing areas. Nonetheless, a change in the attitude of adults, where parents and teachers promote and recommend sporting involvement, will further increase the talent pool.
Recently, I heard about a proposal by the state government to promote ‘musical chairs’ as an official sport. While I sincerely commend the inclusion of new activities under the umbrella of sport, it is upsetting that existing Olympic disciplines — whose athletes are currently scrambling to increase their abilities with the limited resources they get — are not benefiting from any dedicated and focused support.
Maharashtra is the third largest state in the country. Consequently, there is great expectation from the state to produce world-class athletes. And it’s not that there is a shortage of talent in the state. In fact, there are pockets within Maharashtra that boast of a strong culture in a particular sport. Nashik’s tribal belt dominates the production of long-distance runners, Pune thrives in its tennis culture, the Siddis from the Konkan region have a strong base in athletics and hockey is steadily developing in Nanded. Even your own hometown Nagpur has an enviable basketball atmosphere.
But the common feature among all these areas is that their star athletes need help. And by help, I mean support that involves more than just providing financial security.
Virdhawal Khade was once a promising Olympic swimmer. Yet today he serves no more than an example of how Maharashtra wasted a true talent. A genuinely world-class athlete who deserved and needed all the backing of the state after he won an Asian Games bronze medal in 2010. But the state shirked its responsibility to assist its athlete with greater facilities and simply gave him a job while his ambition needed to be refuelled. Providing an occupational spot in a government office does ensure financial security, but for an Olympic medal hopeful, help in finding a job is the bare minimum.
In the coming years, perhaps the biggest athlete coming from Maharashtra is Narsingh Yadav. He has already made a promising stamp in world wrestling when he won a bronze at the World Championship to earn an Olympic quota in the 74kg category. Do we even know that we have a top potential in our midst — right in the middle of Jogeshwari’s milkmen community?
Nagpada, not 15 minutes away from Mantralay, was a nursery for some of the greatest basketball talent produced in India and known for its skilled and prodigiously talented hoopsters who represented India proudly. Sadly, it’s a legacy that the state couldn’t nurture.
Meanwhile, despite some of the best tennis academies in Pune, that too with a series of dedicated coaches in attendance, nobody has stepped up to world-class levels. The rich crop of badminton players in Maharashtra too has fallen behind Bangalore and Hyderabad as the premier centres for the sport in the country.
But coming back to Mumbai, the financial capital of the country and one of the key global metropolitan cities, there is no international-standard athletics track. Yes, the recently renovated Mumbai University Pavilion track is a commendable effort. But until there is a facility that can host the likes of an Usain Bolt or a Dafne Schippers, it will never do justice to a great state capital like Mumbai.
Mahesh Bhupathi too recently bemoaned the lack of decent tennis courts in Mumbai that could have hosted the much anticipated Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal match in the International Premier Tennis League. At the same time, for a world-class city like Mumbai to not have a single football stadium — which includes a mandatory practice pitch of the same quality nearby — capable of hosting an international tournament has cost the city the chance to host any matches from the upcoming Under-17 Football World Cup in 2017.
The list of state shortcomings goes on, just like the list of talented athletes lost without care. There are but a few months for the Olympics, which may or may not be enough. The least, however, that can be done is to make a start.