Long Read: What Makes Uttar Pradesh A Promising Participant To India's Sport Soft Power

by Sumati Mehrishi - Sep 9, 2021 07:23 PM +05:30 IST
Long Read: What Makes Uttar Pradesh A Promising Participant To India's Sport Soft PowerUP CM Yogi Adityanath
  • Tokyo 2020 put Indian sports on an irreversible upwards trajectory.

    Joining in the climb, and adding its own energy to it, is the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Athlete Priyanka Goswami did not win a medal in the 20 km walk at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo held last month. But when she returned home, she got a hero's welcome in Meerut. There are several reasons for it.

Goswami's debut in the Olympics set a tone for the "doable". She was leading initially in the event. She clocked 1:32:36 -- finishing 17th. Her personal best -- 1:28:45. The medal winners' clocking range at Tokyo was outside Goswami's personal best. She seems determined to do

more and has planted a seed of hope for aspiring walkers in her home state Uttar Pradesh.

Shooter Saurabh Chaudhary. Resident -- Kalina Village, Meerut. Event at Tokyo Olympic games: 10m air pistol. Chaudhary, gold medalist at the 2018 Asian Games, started out at a shooting range in the village. He is 19. Putting hope and work in perspective, the three medalists in the event final where Chaudhary ended at the seventh spot, are above

35 years. Iran’s Javad Foroughi, the gold medalist who works as a nurse in a Covid ward is above 40. Chaudhary is now looking at Paris and podium.

Last month, the Indian hockey men's squad won a bronze medal in Tokyo turning a new chapter in India's sporting history. The achievement of the men's squad ended a medal drought and suddenly revived the interest of the public in hockey -- a sport that's loved as, but is not, India's national sport. Uttar Pradesh has a special place in India's hockey history.

It is here that the stalwart of hockey Major Dhyan Chand emerged from, in British India. In the following decades, several other players of hockey from UP have contributed to the sport at the international arena.

In Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the central sports ministry ensured that the athletes are given the honour they deserve. The hockey squads, men and women, along with all participants of the Tokyo Olympic Games were invited to the PM's flag hoisting ceremony at the

Red Fort on Independence Day -- August 15.

On August 16, PM Modi, hosted an interaction over breakfast with the Tokyo Games participants. Among the participants who interacted with PM Modi was hockey player Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, shooter Mairaj Ahmad Khan who participated in the skeet event, Arvind Singh -- who (paired with Arjun Lal Jat) participated in the men's lightweight double sculls, walker Priyanka Goswami, javelin-thrower Shivpal Singh, javelin-thrower Annu Rani and Saurabh Chaudhary -- shooter in the 10m air pistol event.

The same week, the Tokyo medalists were called over to Uttar Pradesh, where chief minister Yogi Adityanath honoured them at a ceremony at the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Ekana Stadium in Lucknow. The gesture was noticed as unique.

At the ceremony, Adityanath announced that an upcoming sports university in Meerut will be named after Major Dhyan Chand.

Modi in Delhi and Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh, seem to be preparing for a two-man relay race in UP, with sports ministry at the centre and the sports directorate in the state working as the symbolic baton.

Adityanath also announced that a wrestling academy will be launched in Lucknow. The state government, he added, is also working expeditiously for the building of sports grounds in every village of the state. He reportedly added that the government will soon increase the diet money for players in sports colleges from Rs 250 to Rs 375 per day per player. This, he pointed, would be matching the Sports Authority of India’s amount towards the purpose.

He added that for medalists from UP in the Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, World Cup and World Championships, the government will make appointments on gazetted posts such as the deputy superintendent of police. Adityanath mentioned that the state government will give athletes from UP Rs 6 crore for gold medalists, Rs 4 crore to silver medalists and Rs 2 crores to bronze medalists in singles.

Uttar Pradesh is multifaceted in sports. The crop of grassroots-level coaching and players that emerge in varied disciplines indicate that. Hockey, shooting, wrestling, rowing, track and field, gymnastics, among other disciplines that feature at the Olympic Games, have shown participation and response in the state.

Moreover, in Uttar Pradesh, the whetted approach of making the youth choose sport in alignment with their body strengths and other allied backgrounds in sport, could come into play. Adityanath’s focus on Meerut as a sports hub and as the centre for a new university shows new promise for western Uttar Pradesh. Agra will remain in government attention for gymnastics and table tennis.

UP has a good history in long-distance running. Long-distance running and throws will be in focus, former Olympian in hockey and UP sports directorate head Dr R P Singh told this author. He added that UP must now aim at giving special attention to long-distance, medium-running and throws.

Under the Adityanath government, the number of posts in sports in districts has more than doubled. From 102 to 266. Adityanath is now aiming for making the best coaches and sports officers converge to the state: A changed communication with children toward sport and choosing sport, 50 international coaches and better-equipped training avenues.

Ayodhya will secure its own place in sport under Adityanath's vision with a turf, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a badminton hall (indoor) which also accommodates handball, and a renewed, warmer, more muscular fervour in wrestling. Varanasi is the big brother in the region that's now going to use and represent sport as culture -- perhaps like never before (if things go right).

The Uttar Pradesh government recently adopted wrestling till 2032. The Purvanchal in UP is moving towards chaumukhi vikas of wrestling -- quite literally. Four dimensions of wrestling.

Gonda. Gorakhpur. Varanasi. Ayodhya.

These are places. How do they become dimensions? Is that your question?

Gonda. Dimension one. Academy-training-power. BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

Gorakhpur. Dimension two. Akhadas-Maharaj ji (Yogi Adityanath). Championships-Emotion.

Varanasi. Dimension three: Akhadas-Ganga-championships that emerge from the Ganga ghats-the connection of the glorious past with the promising present.

Ayodhya: Hanuman Garhi-akhadas-mitti-Saryu-spiritual centre-sport infrastructure.

When wrestling medals come to India, Uttar Pradesh is not the first state usually that wins the accolades for local representation. The fragrance of the mat and mitti is the same in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Gonda in eastern Uttar Pradesh is the lesser known hub of wrestling -- for the presence of the Nandini Nagar Mahavidyala. Then, it is the karmbhoomi and political seat of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh -- the Bharatiya Janata Party MP, who is the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president. The college is run by Singh. Under the adoption of wrestling till 2032, the UP government, reportedly, will provide Rs 170 crore in financial support to the governing body. The move, Singh said, was inspired by Odisha's support to India's hockey squads.

Bajrang Punia's medal in Tokyo brought the media's attention to Uttar Pradesh and the special bond that Punia shares with the state and Gonda in particular. Singh himself grew up smelling the mitti and evolution of wrestling --which is a part of the Sanatan culture in Uttar Pradesh.

Singh and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath have been Lok Sabha colleagues. Gonda and Gorakhpur have a lot common in emotion, including the emotion for sport in general and wrestling in particular. Singh told this author over the phone that Adityanath not only encourages and contributes towards the preserving of wrestling as a tradition in Gorakhpur, but marks the local championships with his presence. He says, "We have been together in Lok Sabha. Yogi ji has a great sporting spirit within him. He went to Gonda for nationals on our request. He sanctioned a wrestling academy which is under construction. There are 125-150 trainees in the existing academy in Gonda."

Then, there is Ayodhya, an inherent emotion that binds the common interests of Singh and Adityanath. During Covid-kaal, Singh approached Adityanath, requesting him for the opportunity and space for the senior national wrestling championships.

Singh told this author that Adityanath had some ideas regarding wrestling in UP. Then there is an alignment in how PM Modi and Adityanath see the traditional sport and how PM Modi's appeal to popularise and encourage sport in general and Indian traditional sport in particular gave a push to Adityanath's move of adopting wrestling in Uttar Pradesh.

The contribution of Odisha and Odisha government came into focus once again with the encouraging and historic results in Indian field hockey at the recently held Tokyo Olympic Games. Why not do the same for UP and wrestling? This was the common note between Adityanath and Singh. "Accepting the wrestling of UP is accepting the wrestling of India," Singh adds. He says, "Wrestling is the only sport that completed all its national championships during the Covid kaal. I thank Yogi ji for giving me permission and space for it. He inaugurated it. I gave a proposal to him to give us a training centre of international level."

In 2021 itself, India's wrestlers gave a brilliant performance in the World Cadet Championship in Budapest, Hungary. They won 13 medals, including 5 gold medals. "There were 5 medals until 2019. Now we have 13 medals for cadets and 11 at junior level. There is no lack of talent. It's a great indication of how things are turning in favour of wrestling in India. Bharat ke andar kushti barh rahi hai, log ruchi le rahe hain aur jo sarkar de rahi hai uska faida humein mil raha hai."

"No one helped us before 2019. TATA helped us in 2019 and are continuing their support," Singh adds, pointing to the support of TATA Motors for wrestling -- it continues until the Paris Olympic games.

One of the powerful ideas that comes from Singh is the opening of a world class training centre for wrestling in Uttar Pradesh. He shared it with Adityanath during the national championship held in Noida. His argument towards it is as strong and promising as the idea itself.

He adds, "Indian athletes go to other countries, such as Russia for training at the international level. We approach those nations for training. Money is spent on their travel, stay, food, etc. I believe that there should be a training centre of the same level of facilities of world class standards in India, coaches of international standards and nations who want to train in India can."

He is creating room for some inward flow as well. This room will open the doors to sporting nations that take interest in wrestling and participate at international fora and would eventually embrace India as a sporting partner.

This author looks at the above development as a silent but bold emergence of another element of culture -- addition to India's softpower under the Modi-Yogi partnership.

He adds, "Some nations encourage wrestlers and have wrestling as a sport, par wo arthik roop se kamzor hain, we can invite them over. Wrestlers from India can train with them."

Has it been tried? "We had invited the team from Sri Lanka some years ago to Nandini nagar academy for a month, they spent on their travel and we provided them the space and food. They trained well there and got some good results."

The setting up of the centre of excellence in hockey was announced earlier this year. The Union sports ministry with the support of the UP government took the decision which is aimed at nurturing talent.

With the announcement of the centre of excellence for hockey in Lucknow, came attached the real blessing -- the set of facilities it would bring. These include, reportedly, a 100-bed hostel -- for boys and girls, modern sports medicine and physiotherapy centres. The crucial human resource -- top coaches at the state government-run Padma Shri Mohd Shahid Synthetic Stadium -- will be the flesh and blood of the new change.

One should not miss the real detail in the efforts sprouting in UP for hockey. The plan for the centre of excellence got approved by the sports ministers, sports directors, authorities of the sports ministry at the centre and the Sports Authority of India (SAI). SAI has largely been the unsung hero in hockey's change in fortune -- the biggest exhibit of it in Tokyo (subject for another article for later).

It means that just as wrestling, the hockey emanating from the soil of UP will go on to see the sprouts emerging for India's medal hopes in the years to come. Bijnor, Meerut, Rampur, Gorakhpur, Lucknow, Allahabad, Jhansi, Ghazipur, Rampur, Kanpur, Shahjahanpur and Rae Bareli are waiting for the finds and the fervour of the previous decades.

It could also mean that the legacy of legends such as Mohd Shahid, Zafar Iqbal, Ashok Kumar, Abdul Aziz, Shakeel Ahmed, Vivek Singh, Rajneesh Mishra, RP Singh, Devesh Chauhan and others, will be passed on to those who will play with a new set of ideas, preparation and

inputs spurred by India's medal in Tokyo. It's something that the crop consisting of Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Danish Mujtaba and Hamza Mujtaba would be able to play baton-passers to.

Medal orientation is the mantra of Uttar Pradesh sports department's evolved approach towards present and the future plans, and ground work. The last day of August was an important one. Dr RP Singh gave shape to several ideas, perspectives in a meeting that would go on to decide the pace and power in steps being taken by the Adityanath government towards making the districts shine for India.

He added that the state sports department is now focussing its attention on is preparations and arrangements at sports colleges and hostels as trainees will return to the sport pitch amid Covid-related protocol.

With hockey turning to a brighter phase, Dr RP Singh looks at a scenario where the youth will turn to the sport in large numbers. He told this author that hockey has got a "jeevan daan" with the medal as a period of no results led to a drop in interest in the sport. "It is our Indian blood, people consider hockey close to their hearts, both squads have performed well, youth are showing increased interest and we need to avail their interest," he says.

UP is surely in the different laps of a long and continuous marathon towards sports talent and sports infrastructure for India.

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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