Asian Athletics Championships And Indian Sports Culture


India often boasts of great scholars and visionaries who have been credited with inventions, discoveries and social change. Emphasis on academic pursuits has long been considered essential for holistic development of the ‘brahmacharya’ stage of existence in Hindu philosophy, especially with respect to the gurukul system of schooling and ancient universities like Nalanda and Takshila being centres of international research and study. However, one aspect of life often neglected by certain traditions of education, be it due to the classification of different activities according to caste (martial arts and statecraft for Kshatriyas, scholarship and religious rituals for Brahmins, trade for Vaishyas, and service of other castes for Shudras) or due to economic or political reasons, is that of sports. It is unfair to discount traditional martial sports like Kalaripayattu, and games like Shatranj (the modern chess) and ludo apart from other region-specific sporting activities that India is credited with inventing, but a full-fledged culture of periodic competitive sports in various disciplines like athletics, group-based games and so on, eludes our history. Hence, our past continues to be marked by occasional splashes of sports interest determined by socio-economic factors. It is highly probable that our recounting of epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana (which contain mention of multiple sports like wrestling, archery, swimming, chariot-racing, hunting etc.) is selectively promoted to claim moral lessons out of them instead of lifestyles. Hence, our history of sport is relegated to the vast recesses of time, covered with a dusty film of forgetfulness. Ironically, the Arjuna awards and Dronacharya awards given to talented sportspersons by the government help us recall these legends, while ignoring the importance of sports in everyday life that they promoted. If we do not attach significance to sports in contemporary educational curricula, and prevent this field from being a viable profession with the opportunity of advancement and consistent economic success, who is to blame for our dismal performance in international championships?

The on-going Asian Athletics Championships (6 to 9 July, 2017) being hosted by Odisha at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneshwar, draws our attention to the speedy improvement of this site by adding world-class equipment and facilities to the field in merely 90 days after Jharkhand was unable to organise the event. Irrespective of the reasons that motivated this efficient response, our athletes’ performance at the Championships, in which winning in their respective categories guarantees direct entry into the World Championship to be held in London in August, has been remarkable. Despite insistent exhausting humidity which has tested a lot of athletes’ endurance (with a javelin thrower claiming that her hand continued to slip resulting in an underwhelming performance), Indian competitors have already won 15 medals (6 Gold, 3 Silver, 6 Bronze) to stay at the top of the medals tally with China following close behind at second position. For a country obsessed with cricket and even content with blessing the Indian Cricket Team’s lousy performances with mass hysteria and crores of revenue and advertisement contracts, the success of little-known sportspersons who face problems in securing funds for training and get hopelessly entangled in red-tapeism and lack of opportunity, is heartening.

Will greater coverage of other sports slowly shift our focus to areas like athletics and gymnastics for example, or will it simply result in switching channels and watching cricket matches even when India is not playing?

An interesting mechanism of combining sports promotion with handicrafts and traditional cottage industry is evident in the Odisha government’s action plan. The opening ceremony witnessed Odia handloom saris like Pasapalli, Bichitrapuri, Bomkai, Ikat, Bandha etc. gracing the occasion while gift packets for guests will constitute artefacts and cultural symbols like the “filigree work of Cuttack, palm leaf boxes and shawl” as “tokens of love”. Sports Minister Chandra Sarathi Behera clarifies how this goes beyond making Odisha a sports centre into a global tourist and foreign investment location, a fact that former Indian Hockey Captain and current MP Dilip Tirkey corroborates.

“As a player, when I travelled to various countries I noticed they used sports as a medium to promote their cities. Sydney, for example, changed its image by hosting international events. So the idea is to do something similar. We hosted [hockey’s] Champions Trophy in 2014. This year, we have the Asian Athletics Championship, and in 2018, we are hosting the hockey World Cup. Sports is the best way to promote tourism and we are trying to do that.”

One can only hope that other states of the country get the message, and don’t hesitate in emulating it.

-Contributed by Tript

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