All dressed up and nowhere to play

Posted on: December 16, 2011

When Delhi decked up for the Commonwealth Games, its sportspersons were practising in makeshift camps.

Sanjana Nayak has a dream. She wants to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games next year. But Nayak can see her hopes ebbing away. With just a year before the Games open in Delhi, the medal-winning gymnast is still looking around for a place to practise.

The Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium (IGI), which has the sole gymnastic training camp run by the country’s apex sports body, the Sports Authority of India (SAI), has been closed for the past two years for renovation leading to next year’s mega event starting on October 3. Players have been asked to practise in a government school in east Delhi but the school lacks even basic equipment such as uneven bars and spring boards. “I want to win at least a silver medal for my country, if not a gold. But now I doubt that it can ever happen,” says Nayak, who won the bronze in the 49th Senior National Gymnastics Championships in January this year.

Nayak is not the only one in despair. Players from different disciplines have been complaining about the lack of basic training set ups in Delhi. All the major stadiums — the Jawaharlal Nehru Sports Complex, Talkatora, Shivaji, Chhatrasal and Major Dhyanchand — have been closed for the past two years for renovation before the Games. Players are practising in makeshift camps.

The government, surprisingly, is not greatly worried about the impact of shut stadiums on the performance of the players. “At present, we are concentrating on the physical infrastructure and nothing else,” asserts Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit. “Since Delhi is the host city, we have to make sure that everything — from the stadium to transport and hospitality — is perfect,” she says, suggesting that players make use of facilities in Delhi suburbs.

The Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) has not set any deadlines for the host country on opening up venues, but for both the Manchester and Melbourne games, hosted in 2002 and 2006 respectively, the playing grounds had been opened a year before the event.

Delhi is nowhere near any of its predecessors when it comes to practice grounds. Take the case of 20-year-old athlete Vipin Kumar, who won silver medals at the Delhi State Athletic Championships in 2007 and 2008. Kumar practises at the Lodhi Gardens in central Delhi every day. The park may be huge, but has no other facilities, such as a proper running track, that athletes need.

“The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium had two synthetic tracks which are essential for an international event. Since it has been closed for renovation, the only choice athletes are left with is the SAI-owned Central Secretariat grounds in south Delhi,” says Kumar. “Though it has a normal track, the field is full of potholes that can lead to injuries. So I avoid going there,” says Kumar, one of the probable athletes for the Games.

India won the bid for hosting 2010 Games in 2003. Six years later, players feel that little has been done to help or train them. As the Games near, the government seems set on finishing all the pending work. But while it focuses on completing its projects, the players complain that they are being sidelined.

“By 2010, the stadiums will be ready — but not the sportspersons,” says Pramod Kumar, Vipin’s coach and also a gold medalist. “There is no time to groom players to compete at the international level even if the stadiums open anytime soon.”

Kumar’s concern is justified if one goes by India’s performance record in athletics at the Commonwealth Games so far. Milkha Singh is the only Indian to have won a gold medal — way back in 1958. For the forthcoming Games, India is eyeing 141 medals, including 47 golds, in athletics. But old sprinters like Milkha Singh think it’s an “impossible” mission.

“It is heart-rending to see that not a single athlete could win a gold medal in the past 50 years after me. Athletics is an extremely important sport in the Commonwealth Games with the UK, Australia and Africa being the toughest competitors,” he says.

Clearly, the game is only as good as a player’s performance. And, Singh stresses, the interest in the Games and the number of spectators will wane if India doesn’t win a fair number of medals. “Looking at the present state of affairs, I have no hopes.”

Boxing, which is a game where Indians are expected to fare well, doesn’t present a rosy picture either. India, which won five medals including a gold, two silvers and two bronzes in boxing in Melbourne, has been hoping to bag 44 medals in the sport.

“The government has conceived big dreams for us, but the effort they are putting in to make these dreams come true is too small,” says Satinder Kumar, who won a gold at the Junior Asian Championship 2006 and a silver in the International Boxing Tournament in Russia this year. “There is no future for us,” says Satinder, who has been practising in a boxing ring in a government school for the past few days.

Celebrity boxer Vijender Singh, who won silver medals in the Beijing Olympics 2008 and a bronze in Melbourne, says he is shocked to see the “pathetic treatment” being given to sportspersons. “Nothing has changed since the last Games. I didn’t get any facilities then, and our juniors are not getting them either. The Delhi government received around Rs 400 crore from the centre for the preparation of the Games, but where the money has been invested is a big question. Nothing has been done to improve facilities for the players,” he says.

The government, adds award-winning boxer Raj Kumar Sangwan, should have come up with other arrangements for the players before closing down the existing stadiums.

Commonwealth Games Federation chief Michael Fennell agrees. “It is the responsibility of the local sports bodies, especially different federations, and the government of the host country to make adequate alternative arrangements for the home players,” Fennell told The Telegraph from Jamaica before arriving in Delhi for talks with the government. “We encourage the host country to prepare their players in a way that they give their best on their home turf. But we leave it to the host country how to do it.”

Needless to say, the host country has done little so far. A top Indian shooter complains that though Delhi shooters do not have an electronic range to practise on, India hopes to win 120 medals. In Melbourne 2006, Indian shooters won 26 medals — the largest number of medals for the country in the event.

“The Karni Singh Range at Surajkund in Faridabad has the only electronic range available in the national capital region. Now that it’s closed for repairs, shooters have to make do with the shooting range at the Siri Fort Sports Complex, which runs with the aid of a manual pulley,” he says.

But Organising Committee (OC) officials reiterate their promise to open the venues “well in time”.

“It is true that the facilities now available for the players are not of a ‘high’ standard but they are good enough for the players to groom themselves. All Commonwealth venues will be perfectly ready 10 months before the event,” says OC secretary Lalit Bhanot.

The players would find that funny — if they weren’t so busy finding alternative practice grounds.


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