Historically, India hasn’t performed well in the International stage in athletics. Every year we hear disappointing results of the Indian competitors, and those few who do manage to notch up a medal tally are hailed as heroes, only to be forgotten in a couple of months. Some would even compare the result tally of India at par with the individual tally of some of the athletes from other countries. The news headlines hails the few victories and events confer congratulations and awards on the chosen few (very few). That is the end of the story.
With the less than stellar performance of our athletes, interest for sports (other than cricket, of course) has never been that great. The fanatical craze around cricket not only serves to keep the attention (and the money) concentrated on the sport, it also makes sure the other sports have no way of changing the status quo and have a rising of sorts in a country which has celebrated its sportsmen and women like no other nation. Many are quick to point at a lack of talent or serious pursuit in the field.
On the other hand, recent reports in the news media would have us question if that is what is holding the rise of other sports in India. In a recent series of articles and news updates, the case of the Siddi community has been highlighted as an example of official apathy, forgotten potential and an undeniable spirit to compete.
The Siddi community, based in parts of Gujarat and Karnataka among other areas, are descendants of immigrants and slaves who came to India from the African continent. While their physical features resemble their African forefathers, they have been settled in India since before the Mughal Empire. This is due in part to marriages being done mainly within their community and the lack of acceptance by the general population as citizens of the country.
In a project run by the Sports Authority of India in 1985, the “Special Area Games Programme” helped identify and train talent to compete at the international level. With the amazing show of talent by African and African descent athletes in the 1984 Olympic games and the talk of the role of genetics in what it takes to be the next great athlete, the programme showed some level of initial success, but was shelved by 1992-1993 without much by way of an explanation.
Now, after over 20 years since it was shut down, the Siddi community is again looking to rekindle the hope for excellence in sports. With athletes from the original program mentoring and coaching new age athletes, the community also hopes to find some form of acceptance with the general population by this method.
What once started out as an action plan based on gene theory is now slowly finding resurgence with the aim to perform and find acceptance in the country they call home. For the community which associates their success in life with their love of sports, this initiative is truly an inspiring reminder of the power of passion and love for sports.
Ranveer Raj Bhatnagar