“My situation was like a lost dog in a temple [on the day of a festival]. Because I didn’t know the language, I didn’t have friends, I didn’t get food I liked. All the coaches spoke in Hindi… It was very difficult to adapt. In hockey, goalie is an individual game. I didn’t have to adapt or get along with anyone else and that’s the only reason I survived! Otherwise, I would have packed my bags a long time ago and gone home!” – PR Sreejesh, Indian hockey team.
Sreejesh is one of only three people from the state of Kerala to be part of India’s hockey team at the Olympics, and the only one to have competed in multiple Olympics. It showed when he struggled, hard, in his early years in national camps, where the language (Hindi) and the food were foreign to him. He had no friends, no one spoke to him and he didn’t understand what his coaches were telling him. He persevered, and because he is who he is, he succeeded. He’s now taken it upon himself to make sure his teammates don’t have to deal with what he did.
Sreejesh’s personal experience of alienation, however, raises an uncomfortable question for India’s National Sports Day (August 29): from hockey to football, from wrestling to boxing, Indian sports except monster cricket, are they really national? Are they tapping into the talent base across the vast expanse of this country? Almost all sports federations in India have their headquarters in Delhi, the far north of most of the country; does this lead to distorted perspectives?
Are our sports truly diverse and inclusive? The numbers suggest there is a long way to go.
Take wrestling, for example. Of the 12 wrestlers at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, 10 were from Haryana, one from Delhi and one from Uttar Pradesh. Of the seven who represented India at the Tokyo Olympics, all seven were from Haryana. Since the turn of the 90s, not a single athlete outside of these states (and Punjab) has represented India in Olympic freestyle wrestling.
None of this to take away from the athletes or their accomplishments, or to question the strength of the wrestling culture in these regions or even what the responsible federation has done for the sport in these regions – but imagine the areas where wrestling did not receive this attention.
There’s always an argument that certain regions should focus on the sports they’re historically or culturally inclined towards, that they should take priority – even if you take that as a given (it really shouldn’t be ), but how does this explain the struggle in Maharashtra?
There is also no real argument about which genetic types are suitable for certain sports. As boxing and weightlifting have proven, sports with different weight classes are suitable for athletes of all shapes and sizes.
Meanwhile, India’s badminton centers are further south – in Hyderabad and Bengaluru, and spread across two institutes headed by two former greats of the game in those cities, P Gopichand and Prakash Padukone. All of India’s top players of the last decade – like Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Srikanth Kidambi and now Lakshya Sen – came from one of these two centres. It is a sport practiced by everyone, everywhere in the country, if only as an evening pastime. The potential for expansion beyond these two centers, for expansion beyond the metros is immense. Geographical representation at the highest level is increasing, as shown by Treesa Jolly from Kerala and Aakarshi Kashyap from Chhattisgarh, but training is still very centralized: Treesa is trained at Gopichand Academy, Aakarshi at Padukone Academy.
Hockey’s center of power shifted from the northwest to the east and with it came increased representation of the region it went to (Odisha), but the spread of hockey’s most (historically) successful sport India at the international level should, logically, have been much more than it is now. And it has declined in traditional power centers like Mumbai and Karnataka.
Even in sports where centralization has more or less been removed, there are problems. More ridiculous. For example, in football, Dadra and Nagar Haveli winning the Junior Women’s National Championship seem to be a testament to the spread of the game. Except there was one small problem: the team was made up exclusively of players from Haryana and Delhi. There were no rule violations, but what is the point of the whole exercise?
In athletics, it is almost predictable where the athletes of a particular field come from. Long jumpers? Think Kerala. Sprinters? Odisha. Launchers? Please Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh. There will be exceptions, and there are, but that’s what they seem to remain – exceptions.
There are Sports Authority of India facilities located across the country including 10 regional centers (including one in South India) and two academies (Punjab and Kerala) and while most of India’s top athletes spend around here (since they also run national camps here) it is perhaps instructive to see how many top stars are coming out of these centers.
Neeraj Chopra started at a local SAI center but soon moved to a government facility in Haryana and was mostly self-taught early in his career due to a shortage of specialist javelin coaches. Avinash Sable was introduced to the steeplechase by the army. Bajrang Punia, Ravi Dahiya and all the wrestlers who make their way come from the local akharas and then move on to bigger facilities like Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi and SAI Center in Sonepat, Haryana. Vinesh Phogat was trained, alongside her cousins, by her uncle. The badminton stars all come from the two private centers in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Sreeshankar Murali has been trained by his father since day one. Jeremy Lalrinnunga started out at a local gymnasium before joining the army sports institute, as did his good friend Achinta Sheuli. Amit Panghal also joined ASI from a local boxing academy.
SAI and other government centers have a good geographical spread, and many serve a purpose for the athletes in whose states these facilities are located (Mirabai Chanu, Mary Kom, Nikhat Zareen are outstanding examples of their success); but for every Jeremy and Sreejesh who is outside the traditional centers of power; how many were lost? Proximity is always essential.
This centralization of sport in one (or more) center(s) of power is understandable at the outset; and is arguably necessary to build a solid platform for the sport. But are we only at the beginning of the journey? Will we ever go beyond that if success has already been found with this method? Most sports in India are on an upward curve, but imagine what could be possible if all sides were exploited.
Now, there is every chance that even if they were dispersed, regional representation in the vast majority of national contingents would remain the same, at least for the foreseeable future. This should not, however, remove the need to give everyone an equal platform to compete and try.
Of course, in this endeavor, the language barriers that Sreejesh will face will exist; India’s greatest strength, however, is its diversity. Every challenge that comes with integration is incidental, something that must be overcome. And that’s usually when you put effort into it. After all, don’t athletes from all over the country train abroad? Aren’t the best foreign coaches hired here? Why, then, should we allow language to be a barrier when Indians train Indians?
This is of course part of a larger fight that society has to fight, but sport could well show the way. Shah Rukh Khan’s iconic Kabir Khan shouted on the big screen: “India! You all represent India!” … Is it really too much (or too naive) to ask, in real life, that everyone in this country should have an equal chance to do exactly that, to represent India?