Row, row, row your boat ..
Gently down the lake,
Don’t stand up and rock the boat ..
That’s a big mistake
Much to her chagrin, trading track pants for similarly full-length denims had first gotten people talking. Anju Bobby George will never forget the furious gossiping whispers that would start when she stepped out of the Bangalore SAI campus wearing a pair of jeans. “Like any young girl, I used to love wearing jeans when going out. Back then it was considered a big thing, a girl wearing jeans. People used to say a lot of things. Nothing too serious and I’d be shielded by my seniors, who I hung out with. But yes, I was always conscious of what everyone thought of me,” she recalls of her early years when she left Kerala to travel to southern India’s best coaching centre.
It was just a stone-washed high-waist outfit, and not that camp-mates at the sports hostel where she was training to be a long jumper hadn’t seen her compete in running vests and tights. But the jeans always triggered a ruckus. What’s de rigueur in any urban girl’s wardrobe could cause a mini-scandal when sighted at the training centre. Bangalore might’ve been a perfectly cosmopolitan city at the turn of the century, but India’s top track-and-field talent tended to be drawn from sleepy hamlets of Kerala. The state’s finest were blessed with fast twitch fibres, but acutely aware of the derogatory connotation of “fast girls” that got tied in with blue denims and always raised brows, bringing out the worst of those judgmental jeers.
Olympian archer Dola Banerjee was petrified of the stares and snide comments that she earned when she stepped out in jeans, and would stick to salwar-kameez when leaving the hostel. “Maybe in a group I’d try. But if I was alone, there was never a time when I didn’t have to hear stuff,” she remembers. Archers from the north east, she recalls, wore skirts and jeans with elan and made it easier for the Kolkata girls to stop worrying about what everyone was saying.
“These days that problem is not there, everyone’s free, but life could still turn to hell for young athletes as taunts could chip at their confidence,” Dola adds.
“It’s this fear of being judged that always plays on your mind,” says champion hurdler Ashwini Akkunji, who has been to several camps across the country and lived in various sports hostels. “You wear jeans, people will pass comments, you talk to a guy and they’ll start teasing. It gets suffocating after a point. You talk to a guy for 10 minutes and all kinds of stories will float around. So you need to be careful about how you conduct yourself,” the Asiad medallist says.
Anju talks of the unofficial rule: Don’t be caught talking to a boy for more than five minutes. Or else, the teasing would begin. “They would come up with stories about you and the boy. You were always judged on how long you spent talking to them,” she recalls.
When the teasing turned to taunts and when the taunts morphed into bullying was a matter of semantics, but both athletes admit the seemingly harmless ragging could play havoc with young girls’ minds in that claustrophobic cauldron of training for high-performance sport.
When four 16-year-old rowers and kayakers took the extreme step of reaching out for a poisonous fruit at Alappuzha’s Sports Authority of India water-sports training centre after alleged “ragging”, the incident brought the focus on just how vulnerable India’s teenaged trainees are in hostels. Expected to be mentally sturdier than your average teenager — because sport demands that fortitude — four girls were tipped off the edge by the brutality of the scrutiny set against Kerala’s beautiful backwaters. It was a young sportswoman’s darkest nightmare when Aparna Ramabhadran succumbed to the poison. Three others — Treesa Jacob, Sabitha Santosh and Shilpa KR — were recovering after the incident that was triggered after seniors allegedly picked on them for “drinking beer”.
“When you’re young, you want to experiment with new things. Doesn’t mean you are hooked on to them. While I feel it’s good that the parents are kept informed about whatever happens here, things like having a beer should not get reported back to them. Having one beer is not some massive crime. They cannot be treated like school children,” Anju says.
Row, row, row your boat ..
Watch the water flow,
Rowing’s fun but rowing’s hard ..
That is what I know
ANJU remembers how her father paid her surprise visits twice-thrice a month. “Girls from Kerala are very conservative. They’re also very scared of their parents, fathers especially. So we have to remain very conscious at all times. Of what people will say and the effect it will have on your family if you do something which is wrong.”
A bulk of India’s top sporting talent comes from the southern state, and though the women have brought India several laurels and it boasts of a matriarchal society, the ground reality of campers from Kerala is a tad different.
“Brilliant talent but at the same time, Kerala is culturally very different compared to other states,” Ashwini, who visited the Alappuzha centre three months back, explains. “Even if the issues are small they get blown out of proportion there. In sport, you cannot be conservative. You have to face competition and you have to shape up your own career yourself,” she adds.
Sports training centres in India — around 250 under SAI — aren’t exactly the picture of perfection and pleasantness. Two beds per tiny dingy room, paint steadily peeling off the wall, makeshift clotheslines, unaligned doors that need force to close — that’s what an average room at SAI’s Mumbai centre at Kandivali looks like.
If the grim surroundings are uninspiring, other triggers like loneliness, being away from family can eat you up. Then, there’s the pressure of competing against the same set of rivals that you are holed up with. Seniors and fear of bullying, coaches and fear of preying can all gnaw at youngsters’ well-being. “In the hostel, your guardian is your coach, especially when you are 16, 17. And if the coach doesn’t or can’t help you out, then you go to your parents. But we’ve seen so many cases of coaches doing things you never expected them to. So maybe it’s become difficult to trust your coaches,” Dola says.
For most athletes coming from remote interiors, the training melting pots can get intimidating. For last year’s Asian Games silver medalist in hammer throw, Manju Bala, a native of Chandgothi village, Rajasthan, joined NIS, Patiala, in 2008 and initially would travel to her home 300 km away after long gaps. The long travel, though, was just one of her concerns. “The senior boys would tell me to talk with them only and not to talk with someone from other caste or other centre. Once, during the nationals in Bengaluru in 2006, they threatened me and used abusive language. For 2-3 days, I could not sleep. I thought of leaving the sport. Later I told my family and we complained to association secretary and also the NIS director,” says Bala.
As a youngster growing up in Chabewal village near India-Pakistan border, Indian relay team member Mandeep Kaur too would dream about getting an entry into the schemes either run by SAI or state. “Seeing a girl in shorts and t shirts was not common in Punjab at that time and when we would travel in train, people would comment or even touch but we couldn’t tell anyone. One day, a senior player slapped those guys and our approach changed. We realized that we are here for sports and that’s our strength,” shares Kaur.
Row, row, row your boat …
Gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily ..
Life is but a dream
AMIT Bhattacharjee, Abhinav Bindra’s mental trainer, believes that psychological conditioning is crucial. “We have to understand that these players take high-end pressure at an early stage in their life. They devote more than 10 hours to training and that’s what they do every day. Winning is important for all of them and sometimes, it can be depressing. Mental conditioning is important,” Bhattacharjee says.
Adolescence years are difficult for any person but they can be particularly hard for an athlete. The mental makeup of an athlete is often completely opposite from the one a regular person experiences. For regular people, the skills we learnt at school would be the ones we used to find solutions. For athletes, the skills they learnt on the playground is the ones they turn to.
Ashwini says national camps and sports hostels are ‘like a bubble, where the athletes are completely cut off from the outside world.’ “I have spent half of my life at sports hostels and camps where you hardly see the outside world. During my suspension period, I had some spare time to explore life outside the sporting world. But, at the same time, socializing was a very difficult thing to do as I had been all by myself for major part of my life. I was not habituated to it and struggled. It affects your confidence,” she says.
Also, peer groups in different sports behave differently. In sports with a very individual focus — such as running — seniors can appear closed off. It’s different for a person in a combat sport because the interaction is physically against an opponent. The group is very pack like. This means that while there is a clear hierarchy, the unit is very closely bonded. Seniors will look out for juniors.
But for those who struggle to go up to a coach or a senior, a counselor could chip in at every sports centre. Dola recalls the time she lost a friend, who committed suicide a couple of years ago over an alleged love affair gone wrong. “We don’t know much about why she did it. She was a very good friend. She never discussed her problem with anybody,” she says. “That fateful day, she ran with us in the morning. After 8.30 we have a practice session, she said, ‘I am not feeling very well. So I won’t come.’ We said, ‘OK take rest in your room.’ When we returned to hostel about 12.30. She didn’t open the door. Then we broke the lock, and then we found her hanging. We didn’t even get a hint of her thinking about suicide.”
Those in the know say that one of the key issues is the fact that there aren’t enough psychologists for our athletes. There is also a lack of enforcement of anti-harassment guidelines. However the lack of psychologists is only part of the problem. Young athletes who achieve a measure of success are also less likely to come forward seeking help from a psychologist. At an age where there performance hasn’t yet hit a plateau, most are confident that they can use your physicality to solve any issues. So at the time when they might need it most, they often won’t get help.
Unlike college bullying, sport and the inherent strength that athletes are meant to possess, sadly comes in the way of seeking help. Boats sink as the oars stop paddling, and a dream goes sour.
Athletes speak up:
Anju Bobby George:
Girls from Kerala are very conservative. They are also very scared of their parents, especially of their fathers. So we have to remain very conscious at all times. Of what people will say and the effect it will have on your family if you do something which is wrong.Till I was in college, my father would come for all my competitions. It’s not because he didn’t trust me. It’s just because I was a young girl away from her home in an alien setting with hundreds of others my own age.
I was 12 when I joined the senior camp. All the boys were 10 years older than me. So I was always scared to talk to them. They were friendly, though. I would go for practice but hardly interacted with anyone. Even at my room, I used to study silently. I used to go to them (seniors) only when I had some problem. In today’s world, there’s too much professionalism. They don’t support each other. The present generation is too selfish. If the juniors do wrong, the seniors don’t even try to correct them or bother about helping them out till the time they’re safe.
We are all the same age, trying to achieve the same thing. There’s immense competition, which also breeds jealousy. And in middle of all this, you have to deal with the emotional stuff yourself. It’s very rare that you get proper guidance or support of someone who will at least listen to you. You are also away from home and there are several restrictions. It can get depressing at times. But it’s up to an individual to ensure it doesn’t affect you. I had left everything and joined a sports hostel. If I did not succeed here, I had nothing else to fall back on. So success was the only antidote for all these things.
It’s not enough to just pick up a kid who’s 15 or 16 solely based on athletic abilities, throw them into a hostel, give them the best coaches and expect things to fall into place. You need to find out whether they have the mental capacity to deal with the pressure of being there. It’s not easy. You’re there day in day out with the same people you’re competing with. You are taking a lot of decisions on your own.
Jonathan Selvaraj (New Delhi) and Nitin Sharma (Chandigarh) contributed to this report.