Is interest dipping in the South Asian Games?
In a few days the New Year would have been ushered in. 2019 would have entered the recess of history. As always for those keen sports fans the thoughts would surround on what did the year that is just going by provide in terms of joyful moments.
To be sure Cricket's happenings, a seemingly never ending one, always has its own quota of ups and downs. The latest series against West Indies is a case in point with a nail-biting finish in Cuttack for another happy ending!
But aside from this perhaps the brightest phase must have been, at least on the face of it, the recently concluded South Asian Games (SAG) held in Kathmandu. Ironically the Games this year also threw up disturbing questions particularly from the way India had approached it and also the status of the competitions as such.
But first the bright side of it all. Now, where does India dominate an event in such pronounced way other than this periodically held Games! Even cricket, supposedly having the greatest public patronage in the country and a sport that more often than not has been providing unalloyed joy cannot probably bring up the kind of dominance story that SAG repeatedly has done.
This time again the delight stems from the fact that India has come up with a record haul of medals, 312 to be exact to finish once again, and this is the 13th time on the trot, as the top nation in this regional sports programme. A performance of that magnitude would normally have entailed banner headlines in the newspapers and the media of all hue in general would have joined the adoring fans in the country to take the sporting excitement to a dizzy high.
Conspicuous was the absence of such a happening and the reason should not be far to seek. While not lowering the efforts of all those medal winners, it still needs to be mentioned that this is not a Games programme that is even remotely second to a continental Games, like the Asian Games for instance. With just eight countries in the field, this time apparently Afghanistan not there so only seven, the settings or the competitive standards are not even perhaps at the level of the country's national Games for instance. Worse is the kind of apathy that seemed to surface.
Back in early eighties when the idea for such a Games was mooted while the talk was on strengthening regional cooperation among the South Asian Countries, it was thought sports would be an ideal medium for furthering unity among the people in the region. It was with much fanfare that the South Asian Federation (SAF) Games was launched then in 1984, Kathmandu being the first country to host.
The Games as such began on a modest note with very few disciplines for competition but the underlining factor was building a healthy rivalry. Quite early itself it became clear India was far ahead of the rest_ Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives. Afghanistan came later. If anything as time went by the gulf between India and the other countries only widened. The idea of catching up with a strong opponent like India never happened.
In a country where dearth of sports success stories is the order, the happenings in these Games provide the ideal forum to puff up pride. Even the sportspersons in India viewed this an opportunity to grab attention that often was elusive in other arenas.
Adulations and rewards sometimes reach feverish high levels like in the 1995 Games for instance when India hosted it in Chennai. Shiny Wilson the champion athlete with an illustrious international career to boot, will never forget the occasion for as the 'Best sportsperson of the Games', she was the recipient not only a brand new car but key to a new house, not to forget the instant celebrity status!
On the flip side are the moments that come from growing sense of frustration brought from over-domination! This writer had the nightmarish experience once in Dhaka in 1993 when Bangladesh hosted the Games. As a correspondent reporting for a leading Indian paper, I was at the judo competition where as luck would have it, was witness to an unruly scene after a bout when the Indian contestant was declared winner pipping a Bangladeshi on points! Things went so out of control that as an Indian I had to literally run away from the area to safer environs! Not everywhere is an Indian dominance a welcome idea.
Years later now has anything changed is the question. Has disinterest also set in is what struck one from the way chaos ruled before the departure of the various Indian teams for the Games. Granted the postponement of the event from originally scheduled March put everything in slow mode. But when dates were finally decided and the host nation had remarkably put everything in place after delays had dragged work following the earthquake there, it was time for all round enthusiasm.
Instead stillness marked the response from the Indian Olympic Association, it seemed. Until the Games got underway and thereafter too nothing was known on which teams had gone or what the strength of the Indian contingent was! Even the media coverage seemed more in the nature of taking note of the Games than going to the nitty-gritty of performances. Are we seeing a departure from earlier days or is it just a passing phase, only time will tell. Disturbing portends.