Athletics is regarded as the ‘mother of all sports’. This proclamation is derived from the fact that the root of every other sport, involving intense physical activity, requires at least one of the four skills - running, jumping, throwing, walking - that make up the ecosystem of track and field.
The athletic community in Karnataka is no different. Be it at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru or any other athletic facility in the state, one can never miss the sight of an athlete bowing to the track while stepping in and out of it. Respected and valued. Even though it has constantly been battered and bruised by those in charge of its well-being.
An apathy mirrored by the declining performance graph with each passing year.
In the recently announced 26-member Indian athletics team by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) for the Tokyo Olympics, none from Karnataka made the cut - an absence in representation for the first time since 2000 Sydney Olympics. What was more concerning is that the State’s contingent consisted of merely 10 competitors (five men, five women) for the 60th National Inter-State Championship - also the last Olympic qualification event - held in Patiala, winning just two medals.
A bitter pill to swallow for many followers of the sport who had a lot to cheer about in the past.
“Though athletes work hard day in and day out without decent facilities to win medals and bring glory to the State and the association, they are forced to fund everything on their own. From travel, stay and food to even the entry fee of Rs 500-1000 for the competitions are paid by athletes. No other State or association insults its athletes this way. It’s a shame,” rued a former athlete, who didn't want to be named.
Moreover, the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 has only added to the woes of aspiring athletes. The problem is at two levels here. While multiple lockdowns and travel restrictions made it difficult for the Indian athletes to take part in international events that robbed them of chances to improve or maintain their world rankings, trainees embarking on a journey to reach the ‘next level’ have nowhere to train and no tournament to compete in. The 16-month break has left many contemplating quitting the sport for good.
Pandemic or not, track and field - comprising 44 events - is being painfully neglected here by their own gatekeepers - impervious to criticism, blind and deaf to athletes’ distress.
The working of the administration, in charge of the sport in the State, has stagnated for a long time now. With hardly any significant strides made in creating a large talent pool or supporting youngsters to climb up the ladder.
While as many as five athletic world records were broken in the past few weeks ahead of the Tokyo Games due to begin on July 23, there is one more in the making here in Bengaluru. Not by an athlete but by the combined efforts of the Karnataka Athletics Association (KAA) and Department of Youth Empowerment and Sports (DYES) for taking the longest time to lay the synthetic track at the Kanteerava Stadium. Work that began way back in February 2020 remains incomplete to this day.
A Rajavelu, KAA’s Secretary, cited coronavirus as the culprit for the delay. “The current situation hampered the shipment of raw materials. We were short of labourers who left the city because of the lockdowns. Although the work has slowly resumed, we will begin relaying the track post-September 15, once the monsoon season ends. Only 20 days of work remains,” he stressed.
Former Heptathlete Pramila Aiyappa, Olympian and Asian Games bronze medallist, felt that the Government of Karnataka has spectacularly failed in keeping athletics its priority.
“Receiving cash rewards after achieving is no doubt gratifying but when there is no track to practice for an athlete, how can upcoming talent improve," she asked. "Non-campers aren’t allowed to train in the Sports Authority of India, Kengeri. The synthetic surface in Vidyanagar Sports School, close to the Kempegowda International Airport, is good but the location is too far for those living in different parts of the city to commute every day. Athletes perform better where the facilities and the coaching quality are of good standards. If the condition of the stadiums and the overall management of the sport in Bengaluru and other districts don’t improve, reviving sport will become an uphill task,” she explained.
Another factor that has contributed to diminished talent pool is the lack of financial security. It's a question often faced by coaches from parents and young athletes - especially those from smaller towns. “Can I get a job by winning medals?”
Not too long ago, a State medallist would be a lot less worried about getting employed. Openings at Railways, the Army, ITI, HAL, several banks, Income Tax, Customs, Karnataka Forest Department, postal service among others conducted yearly recruitments through sports quota. While a few have done away with such reservations years ago, call for applications have dried up in many other sectors due to the pandemic.
“There is always a question of ‘what after sport?’ One injury or a string of bad performances more or less indicates the end of our sporting careers. Besides, even during our prime, we require a decent paying job to take care of the expenses including nutrition, coaching fee, travel among others. This is when cash incentives and awards play a huge role. This too in Karnataka is highly mismanaged or insufficient. A medal winner never gets cash rewards on time as promised. We are made to run around for years to claim it,” said another former athlete, not wishing to be named.
Lack of vision and planning and failed managerial practices are hurting the progress of athletes.
With reasons given for every shortcoming by the KAA, DYES and the State government becoming too predictable and promises of improving the sport forgotten quicker than a 100m dash, the future of Karnataka athletics may get even bleaker if the same trend continues.