Gian Singh Cheema, a former Asiad bronze medallist in weightlifting at Delhi’s 1982 Games, wanted to do his bit for the present generation of Indian weightlifters. “For three weeks in Birmingham I was a driver to them, wherever they needed to go.
I couldn’t trust anyone else when it came to taking good care of my Indian lifters,” says the 57-year-old, who offered to host the training camp of the Indian weightlifting contingent at the gymnasium he owns in London, ahead of the Glasgow Games.
A UK resident since he was 11 — albeit one who still holds an Indian passport — Cheema was keen that Birmingham become the base camp for Indian lifters, so when they crossed north of the border, and went to the highlands from the midlands, Glasgow wouldn’t seem like too steep a peak to ascend.
“We got the entire Indian community of our neighbourhood to rally behind the Indians’ preparations. But I thought I should be doing the running around. What’s the point of hosting sports people if you can’t tend to their every need?” says the gracious host who has been watching the lifters collect a rich haul these last few days in Scotland.
An initial plan to train in Turkey was scrapped after coaches contacted Cheema, who sensing that the budgets were modest suggested they pitch their tents at his training centre which has four platforms.
“We got them to stay in three-star accommodation at Ramada, and ensured they got protein-rich food which was Indian or Asian, which they preferred. These things are important,” he says, adding that the Asian community chipped in wherever they could.
“On the final day, the whole community of 400 people gave them a send-off that no-one in India would’ve got before heading out to a Games,” he says, of the farewell-reception where each lifter was handed a ‘remembrance medal’. And made to feel like a million bucks, with Indians treating them like stars.
Their acclimatization complete, the Indian lifters were ready to take on the world — and have, till Sunday, won seven medals.Cheema recalls the struggle that went into his own medal — India’s first in weightlifting after nearly four decades. “I was still an Indian citizen, but England had allowed me to participate on their team at the 1978 CWG. Rules are stricter now,” he clarifies.
He would visit his village near Jalandhar every year, and recalls flying down to Ernakulam in 1976 for a national meet, before making the Indian team. “I wanted to represent India since then. But they wouldn’t reply to my letters. So I got the consulate in Birmingham to send them a pre-paid telegram which meant they had to respond. The trials happened in Delhi, and I made the 100kg class in the squad,” he says.
The medal won, India forgot about him. “I must be the only Asian Games medallist to never be considered for an Arjuna Award. And later when I pleaded my case, it was too late. That hurt a lot. “Par koi nai,” he says, adding he didn’t think twice before offering to put together this training camp in Birmingham, despite the earlier oversight by officials.
Cheema would go on to coach the English lifters at three successive CWGs – Kuala Lumpur (1998), Manchester (2002) and Melbourne (2006) besides being Team GB’s coach at Athens and now director of coaches in the UK. His son Gurvinder, a British citizen, too turned out for England.
“I understand lifting in detail. But I would only make small technical suggestions to the Glasgow-bound lifters, it was only advice, I didn’t want to impose on the Indian coaches,” he says.
One of the first to demand that foreign coaches be sought to train the Indians, Cheema is happy that the current lot is up-to-date with the scientific training.
He also got trainer Natt Cooper, an associate from his days as GB national coach, to work with the Indians. The Indian weightlifting contingent have curiously received an assortment of support from both the Asian community of Glasgow at the Scottish Exhibition Centre as well as a big white group of Cooper’s family and friends who have travelled to Glasgow.
“When the Indians pick gold and silver in 77 kg on Sunday, there will be as big a cheer going out in West Midlands’ Smethwick (Cooper’s hometown) as in Delhi,” Cooper declares.
Cheema says a Dronacharya Award might never happen, but he will always be at hand should a young Indian lifter need to be driven around. “I’m no good if I’m of no help when they are in the UK,” he says.