On July 27, many people in Gujarat as elsewhere in the world will be glued to their television sets for the opening ceremony of the 30th Olympics being held in London. Unfortunately, there will not be a single athlete at the global sporting carnival to represent six crore Gujaratis. London 2012 will be the 13th Olympiad to which Gujarat, since its birth in 1960, has failed to send an athlete.
Long-distance walker Babu Panocha, ace shooter Lajja Gauswami and long-distance swimmer Sufyan Shaikh were the hopefuls for this year’s Olympics but they failed to make the cut. The six crore Gujaratis now have to wait till the Rio De Janeiro games in 2016 to have their first Olympian.
Panocha came closest to making it to the London Olympics — he missed it by a mere three seconds. Competing for a place in the 20 km-Race Walk, the 34-year-old youth clocked 1:22:56 when he was required to finish inside 1:22:30.
This wasn’t the first time Panocha had missed the Olympics. In the last edition of the Games held at Beijing, a freak injury cost him a place in the India contingent. But what was even more unfortunate was that even then the Gujarat government didn’t wake up and back the Sabarkantha walker to realize his dream.
Panocha, who was then 30, stood a good chance of winning a medal as he was, physically and mentally, prepared for the extravaganza.
He had smashed the 20-km walk and 20,000-m walk national records in 2007 and held the record for four years. His performance gave Gujarat some recognition in athletics in the country.
What to talk of monetary help, Panocha had to struggle for a simple appreciation from the state. For Gujarat State Amateur Athletics Association to back Panocha financially was out of the question as the sports body itself is struggling for survival.
This is where the state government should have intervened but sports has never been high on the state government’s agenda, neither the current government’s nor its predecessors’. This is reflected even in the state government’s annual budget.
In the last five years, the Narendra Modi government’s investment in sports has not exceeded Rs50 crore. In sharp contrast are Haryana, Punjab, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh who have given their sports heroes a royal treatment, besides huge financial
Gujarat, unfortunately, has never encouraged its sportspersons. This is best illustrated in the promise made by the state government to Munaf Patel and Yusuf Pathan who were in the Indian cricket team that won the World Cup 2011.
The state government had promised them Eklavya Award and Rs1 lakh as prize money. The prize amount itself was pittance as other state governments had honoured their cricketing heroes with Rs1 crore.
‘Yet it took the Gujarat government more than 12 months and the Opposition’s ire for the prize to reach the Pathan brothers’ doorsteps.
In fact, during the closing ceremony of 2010 Khel Mahakumbh (KMK), the state government had honoured Asian Games medallists with cash prizes. But Gujarat’s own athletes had to run from one room to another at the Sachivalaya.
It is claimed by officials that chief minister Narendra Modi’s pet project, KMK, is meant to encourage sports talent in the state. This is a strange claim to make. Organizers of the Khel Mahakumbh behave as if just by taking sports activities to the taluka and village-levels they will unearth future champions. The uncomfortable truth is that even 10 such Khel Mahakumbhs will not be able to produce an Olympian simply because the state’s sports extravaganza lacks the professional touch.
During KMK-2011’s badminton competition, players were forced to use plastic shuttlecock instead of feather ones. The football competition in which 30 teams participated was concluded in just two days.
Not only this, officials were missing during KMK-2011, ostensibly because they were busy with their professional commitments. This compelled participants and their parents to don the role of umpires and referees, giving rise to foul play during the match. When asked, the officials at the venue had justified the absence of official umpires by saying they had limited resources.
It was also rumoured that the number of players shown as participating in the Khel mahakumbh was also manipulated. Due to pressure from higher authorities to showcase the KMK-2011 as a big success, taluka and district-level officials had played with numbers. The government had claimed that more than 14 lakh competitors had taken part but the actual the number of competitors was less than 7 lakh.
Online registrations from rural parts of the state were mostly fake. Not surprisingly, there were walkovers in various games.
Then there is compulsory chess in schools across the state.
When the state-sponsored Swarnim Chess Mahotsav created a world record of brining together 20,000 chess players under one roof, the sports fraternity had for a new chapter in the sports-dry state. However, more than 18 months down the line, chess enthusiasts are still waiting for the government’s initiative which will bring to Gujarat top chess players of the country and outside.
If the state government can learn from past mistakes and wish to end the Olympics-berth drought in Gujarat, it should support athletes like Lajja, 24, and Sufyan, 21, who have age on their side and have shown promise.