More than 30 percent of India’s individual medals in its entire Olympic history have been bagged by sportspersons from the northern state, making it the athletic epicentre of the country despite the lack of resources.
A group of three dozen athletes run out of an Akhara – a traditional Indian gymnasium or a wrestling school – in Rathdhana, a prosperous village in the north Indian state of Haryana. For 90 minutes, they sprint through small lanes, roads, alleys and rice and wheat fields before they reach back to the starting point. This is just a warm up. The dangal (wrestling) is yet to start!
These images are not hard to find in Haryana. Athletes glistening from the ghee (oil) on their bodies fighting it out in wrestling arenas, or weightlifters doing sets aside tube wells in the large paddy fields are a common sight.
Tanish, 6, and his older sister Siya, 8, wake up at 5 am each day and within half an hour can be seen warming up at the wrestling academy near their home in Sonipat district. For the next three hours, the siblings train hard with their coach, doing pull ups, squats, neck planks and deadlifts.
They come back for another session in the evening, repeating the arduous training drills. For the last two years, they have been doing it everyday with a single aim in mind: an Olympic medal.
“I want to get a gold,” says Siya, with sweat trickling down her face.
“I train for six hours each day and want to be like Mirabai Chanu,” she adds, referring to the Indian weightlifter who won a silver medal in the now concluded 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Such passion can seen across the state, which is now turning out to be the epicentre of Indian sports.
India’s contingent for the Tokyo Olympics included 126 athletes, out of which Haryana sent 31 athletes to the competition – nearly 25 percent of the total. The state accounts for less than 2 percent of the country’s population.
Overall, more than 30 percent of India’s individual medals in its entire Olympic history have been bagged by sportspersons from the state. Apart from hockey, for which the country has won a dozen medals (including eight golds), India has won 23 individual medals in its Olympic history, with Haryana accounting for seven of them.
This year was India’s most successful Olympics campaign, with the country bagging seven medals. Three of those medalists – including javeliner Neeraj Chopra, who became India’s first individual gold medalist in twelve years and only second overall – are from Haryana. The men’s hockey team which won bronze also had four individual players from the state.
“There are a lot of competitions and tournaments in the state. The more you compete, the better you become,” Ravi Kumar Dahiya, a wrestler from Haryana who won the silver in his Olympic debut in Tokyo, told TRT World.
Dahiya believes there are a lot of native sporting icons in the state for the youngsters to look up to, which is leading to continued inspiration and eventually, sporting excellence.
“I started wrestling early in my career because I saw icons like Sushil Kumar winning Olympic medals and receiving so much love and respect. I went ahead with passion following the steps of such icons,” Dahiya said.
Sushil Kumar is a two-time Olympic winning wrestler from Haryana, whose bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics is credited for reviving enthusiasm for athletics in the state.
The state, since then, has brought home medals for India in every Olympics, even though the country as a whole has had little success.
“All of it is driven by passion and hunger. Sports runs in the blood of people of Haryana,” says Rajesh Kumar, 44, who runs a sports academy in Haryana named in memory of his uncle Ch. Surat Singh, a member of India’s Olympic contingent to Rome in 1960.
In Kumar’s academy, which started in 2015, 40 children train each day. In the last six years, his academy has produced several national and international medalists.
Kumar believes that even though the state is doing exceedingly well in the sports, its potential still remains untapped.
“Even though we are bringing medals after medals in international competitions including World Championships, there are little or no facilities provided by the government. The day we start getting facilities, even a quarter of what China has, there will be no turning back,” he said.
“The government comes into action only after someone wins a medal. They do nothing before that. They shower money on athletes after they have won. But how athletes struggle before that, nobody cares. If the same money is pumped to boost the basic sports infrastructure in the state, we would produce dozens of Olympic medals,” added Kumar.
Haryana’s regional government announced cash rewards of Rs 4 crore ($540,000) and Rs 2.5 crore ($335,000) to the Tokyo Olympics silver and bronze medalists respectively, besides providing government jobs and plots at concessional rates.
Neeraj Chopra, India’s sole gold winner, was gifted a Rs 6 crore ($ 810,000) cash award.
A lot of people in Haryana seek economic security through recruitment into the Indian army and police, says Sanjay, a farmer in Sonipat. In a bid to be physically fit for these posts, parents bring their children to gymnasiums and sports academies at an early age.
“This has led to a culture of fitness. Everyone wants to be a bodybuilder, wrestler or a boxer. This is not what you would see elsewhere in India,” Sanjay told TRT World.
“Women are also doing exceptionally well in sports,” he says with discernible pride in his eyes.
Interestingly, the state fares low in most developmental indices for women and is infamous for female feticide. Historically, it’s had one of the lowest sex ratios in the country.
Yet, women athletes have managed to excel. Nine female athletes from the state were part of the Indian women’s hockey team that rallied against the odds to almost pull off a miraculous performance in Tokyo, before losing 4-3 in a close bronze medal encounter against defending champions Great Britain.
“When I started the academy in 2015, there were only two girls in the first year. Now out of 42, 25 are girls,” says Kumar.
“But they get little help or support from the authorities,” Kumar says while pointing towards 17-year-old Aarti Saroha, one of the most celebrated athletes of his academy.
Aarti, an Asian silver medalist in the Under-15 category, has been struggling with a broken shoulder for the last eight months. Because of the injury, she missed the World Championship in Hungary this July.
“In any other country, such an athlete would have been [taken care of] by national sports organisations. Here nobody cares,” says Kumar.
Aarti herself feels let down by the sports management of the state.
“We need scholarships. We need stipends. We need good medical facilities,” she told TRT World.
“The day we start getting these facilities, the medals will rain.”
Source: TRT World