For once, Divyansh Panwar isn’t fretting over targets and decimals. Instead, the 20-year-old world cup medallist who practices a sport that demands absolute stillness of mind and body – shooting – wants to let himself loose and shake a leg. “I’m in Ahmedabad during Navratri, so I got to try garba one of the nights,” the Tokyo Olympian says.
Not very far from the Ahmedabad Rifle Club in the old city area, at the Sabarmati Riverfront, a rower can’t stop talking about Navratri as well. Not in terms of a garba night out, however. Turns out, most hotels at the six host cities of the National Games, including Ahmedabad, Gandhinagar and Bhavnagar, have refused to serve non-vegetarian meals because of the festival.
“So, we have arranged all meals for them at the venues because, for them, protein is an important part of the diet,” an organiser says.
At Sanskardham, the RSS-backed school that’s one of the Games venues, a giant hoarding bearing the images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel is being lofted.
These are plastered all over the city and state – at important junctions, along the Sabarmati, on buses, at railway stations and airports — a not-so-subtle reminder of the other big ‘festival’ that’s around the corner – the Gujarat assembly elections.
In this backdrop – splashed in the colours of Navratri and in midst of the election fervour – the National Games, biggest-ever in size and scale, get underway in Ahmedabad on Thursday.
The Games unofficially opened last week in Surat after the table tennis tournament was held earlier than others since the paddlers have to be in China for their World Championship. Prime Minister Modi, though, will officially declare it open. State officials say it will be a grand opening ceremony at the stadium that’s named after him.
The National Games, neglected and forgotten for years, were originally supposed to take place in Goa back in 2015. Due to a combination of factors, from terribly long delays, resulting escalating costs, lack of funds and the pandemic, Goa was unable to pull off the project.
Then, three months ago, Gujarat sports minister Harsh Sanghavi said, the state wrote to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and offered to host the event. Within days, agreements were signed and wheels were set in motion.
And so, a state with little sporting history outside cricket will host roughly 15,000 athletes and officials from 36 states and union territories in 35 sports over the next fortnight. Except a few, like Neeraj Chopra and PV Sindhu who have cited injuries as a reason for not participating, almost all top athletes have descended upon the city after the IOA, earlier this month, made it mandatory for them to take part in the event. Around the same time as the IOA diktat, union Home Minister Amit Shah said the budget for these Games was increased to Rs 2,000 crore.
“A major part of the budget,” a Sports Authority of Gujarat official says, “has been used to upgrade the facilities and book hotel rooms.” Around 1,500 rooms in three, four and five-star hotels have been booked in Gandhinagar, close to 2,000 in Ahmedabad, around 400 in Bhavnagar and a little less in Rajkot, Baroda and Surat to accommodate athletes and officials.
Hundreds of cars and buses have been deployed on the streets of these cities but it was the upgradation of venues in just two months that proved to be the biggest hurdle.
Triathlon had to be moved to Gandhinagar after the quality of water at Sabarmati in Ahmedabad was not found hygienic enough for swimming. The rest – from polishing the basketball court floor and installing big, bright lights in Bhavnagar to setting up a pier along the riverfront by fetching equipment from Pune and Bhopal, along with a new skating rink where the quality of floor has been questioned – the organisers claim, has been completed on a ‘war-footing’.
“For last 15 days, I have been here 24 hours to get things done,” India’s rowing coach Ismail Baig says. In Bhavnagar, officials say they have been reaching the venue at 6 every morning and left at 2 am everyday for last two weeks.
Bid for the Olympics
All this, is to showcase Gujarat’s potential as the next big destination for sport and further push its bid to host the Olympic Games in 2036, given that host nations till 2032 are already decided. The state’s advocate general has submitted in the Gujarat High Court during a hearing earlier this year that they are already in talks with the International Olympic Committee and they are likely to visit in 2025.
“Hosting the National Games will make us capable of hosting even bigger events in the future,” Sanghavi says. “We have been able to deliver National Games in 90 days, we have that experience now and are capable enough.”
A lot of these claims about the state’s preparedness will be tested over the next two weeks. The athletes, for whom the event holds no overall significance in terms of ranking points or selection, are easing into the rhythm. Like Panwar, garba is on agenda of many, including Chopra and Sindhu who will be in Baroda on Thursday morning. Some others were seen relishing a full-blown Gujarati thali on the eve of their competition. Minus the meat, of course.