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The big back flip
At the Asian Games, India has shone in sports it wasn't a traditional power in. How can we ensure that our growing excellence in gymnastics, wushu and swimming is here to stay, and doesn't end up a flash in the pan?
A medal in swimming? Gymnastics!? It took some time for the truth to sink in after the events that unfolded in Guangzhou. India has never had the history of podium finishes in these sports, neither has it a tradition to fall back on. So how did two Indians reach up to the surface and beyond with their hands proudly holding a bronze which no one thought would be theirs?
A clear change in the work culture during the run-up to the recently-concluded Commonwealth Games, the funds that allowed these teams access to technology and better training techniques, the foreign tours that sharpened the competitive edge and the sheer will of a couple of athletes all contributed to this success.
These are no flashes in the pan though. Virdhawal Khade's 50-m butterfly bronze at 24. 31 was a result of a slow reaction time at the start. He could have gone at least a rung higher on the podium.
The 19-year-old lad, who gains a great deal of confidence getting atop the starting block from the side so that he gets a clear look at his rival - a ritual that he has been persisting with for many years - hasn't quite conquered the tendency to promptly get on with the race despite hearing the starter's gun. Had Khade mastered the art, he would have had the silver ahead of Kishida Masayuki of Japan, who beat him to it at 24. 13.
While his coaches admitted to the drawback, they felt Khade can only learn from his experience. The Kolhapur lad is only 19.
What his coaches also feel is that the powerfullybuilt Khade can go places once he steps into his 20s. "Sprints require strength.
That grows once you enter the 20s. Swimmers mature only after they are 20, " national coach Pradeep Kumar says.
Khade is a unique talent, but there are others too in the Indian squad capable of testing the Asians, feels Pradeep. "Except the 100 backstroke, all the national records have been broken in recent times. Sandeep Sejwal did a one-minute-12 in 100-m breaststroke. That is good enough for a medal. India broke the 4x100 medley record in the Asian indoor meet in Vietnam. In the Asian championships last year, we won seven medals. Khade was second in the 50-m freestyle. All this goes on to show that we are slowly beginning to match the Asians, " says the coach.
The most gratifying aspect here is that Indians are no longer shaving just nano-seconds off national marks in international events. For example, Khazan Singh's 2:02. 38 in the 200-m butterfly took more than two decades to be broken. India may be nowhere near the Michael Phelps' world mark of 1. 51. 51 or Asia's 1:52 but Rehan Poncha touched the 2:00. 70 mark. The country has also seen the 1500-m freestyle being covered in less that 16 minutes and the 400-m freestyle under four minutes.
"In the last two years, times have improved drastically. In the past we had Wilson Cherian, Bula Chowdhury, J Abhijit, Meghana Narayan, Nisha Millet all coming close to Asian standards, but it is only now that we have begun to get the podium finishes, " says Pradeep.
The National coach attributes the positive turn to the exposure the Indians have had in recent times. "In swimming, training alone does not help. We need assessment during training and testing (competitions). Both aren't available in India. We need competitions every week, whereas in India we have only the Nationals once a year. So how do you test yourself? Also the tests that are to be done with advanced technology. We need to virtually base ourselves in Europe or Australia. That involves a lot of money, " he says.
That is perhaps one of the reasons why many swimmers have quit the sport and chosen vocations which help them settle down in life. Khade too was emphatic the other day when he said he would move away from swimming if there was no money in it. "I hope the day doesn't come, but my livelihood comes first, " he said, raising the question every boy of his age would do.
Khade is right too as in a land that glorifies cricket and deifies cricketing heroes, swimmers stand little chance of holding fort with world class performances. Even if they do, they will buckle under pressure thanks to their shaky financial position and a likely obscure future in case they fail.
Obviously, government support is the only way out, an opinion shared by the all the medallists, including those from gymnastics and wushu. "I need to participate in the World Cups so that my ranking improves, " says the 19-year-old Ashish Kumar, who won bronze in the men's floor exercises at the Asiad. "Otherwise, there is no point in continuing in the sport. I know I am good, so why should my ranking continue to be 32?"
Unlike swimming, which has a comparatively large talent base, gymnastics suffers from talent that has gone unidentified only because of lack of equipment. But it has grown, producing athletes capable of challenging the best after having been mocked previously for fielding those who just didn't have the requisite body structure.
Ashish is just one from this pool, hailing from an Allahabad nursery and with access to basic equipment. Trained since he was four by Dr UK Mishra, who runs the National Sports Academy, Ashish has looked inward for inspiration ever since it dawned on him that the sport held out a bleak future.
"I had planned to quit a couple of years back, " says Ashish, who took part in his first Commonwealth Games in Melbourne four years ago. "I was going nowhere. But then, my mother was adamant that I continued. She told me I have a bright future. I think of her every time I am low on morale. I am thankful to her now and my entire family, I won the silver and bronze in the Delhi CWG and a bronze in Guangzhou. "
But the sad truth remains. Ashish continues to be a lower rung employee in the Railways, awaiting a bigger reward that will spur him to inspire a legion of champions in the same sport - one that does not suffer from want of equipment and funds. But then, he is optimistic. "We are well known now. Our sport is being discussed now. I am sure gymnastics will have a bright future in our country. Of course, we get little money out of it. But that can be sorted out if the government supports us throughout, " says the hopeful gymnast.
Wushu suffers from a similar plight, despite having produced a silver and bronze medallist - Sandhyarani Devi Wangkhem and M Bimoljit Singh - here. Bimoljit had also won a bronze in the 2006 Doha Asian Games. Despite being a sport restricted to the north-east and certain pockets of India, its practitioners made an impact in the World junior championships in Bali with four medals and the Asian junior meet with five medals. But then, the general feeling is that unless India brings in foreign coaches or spends considerable amount of time training in China, the sport would hit a plateau soon.
The consensus here is that India has made a beginning with the Commonwealth Games preparation in August 2008, with the government earmarking Rs 678 crore for training. "This has to continue until London 2012 and beyond. There is no point stopping an exercise after a particular Games. Let us accept that sport is getting more expensive by the day. If lesserknown sports are in the spotlight, then it is all the more reason that they are fully backed by the government, " says wushu coach Kuldeep Kumar Handoo.
It goes with the grain too as the government is planning a systematic hunt to unearth specialised talent. Will this give rise to a new order in sport? The ongoing Asian Games have shown us a window. It is time for us to prise open a door.
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