The rise of 'alternative' sports in India

Organised sport, at least according to those who practice alternative sports, has become far too competitive and insular
Last Updated 16 January 2022, 09:41 IST
Alternative sports like rock climbing and surfing are fast becoming part of lifestyles for the young and the old alike.  
Alternative sports like rock climbing and surfing are fast becoming part of lifestyles for the young and the old alike.  

There are bottles of single-malt whiskey and fashionable rum placed delicately on the hood of a jeep. By the liquor sat grease-stained youth, doling out drinks from paper cups and handling the music playlist. Around the massive machine stood older men, seemingly ignorant of their mid-life crisis.

It was nearly midnight in Hampi, and the parking lot had become party central to a group of off-road enthusiasts from Hyderabad. They were not derelicts, nor were they delinquents, these were doctors, architects, CEOs, grandfathers, fathers and some kids.

As the mechanics grooved to the music and prepared jeeps worth crores for the next day’s off-road event, the night ensued, everyone still awake, very alive. Come morning, they had their game faces on.

Once done and back at the hotel, the music returned, everyone helped everyone else fix their cars, young and old walked in unison, the drinking resumed. “We love this life,” says one of the doctors. “This is not about winning an event, this is family. This is a lifestyle.”

He was talking about that community feeling, not the alcohol.

The sentiment was identical at a nearby coffee shop. A group of rock climbers gathered to discuss a new route to tackle at Varalakonda (two hours from Bengaluru city centre). Two cups of coffee between five people as they haggled over the best way forward before getting down to ‘more important things’.

‘Where do we have breakfast?’, asked one. They all laughed, drank now-cold coffee and planned stopovers more than they did the climb. It was amusingly animated.

In both cases, they weren’t professionals, and they didn’t have any intention of becoming professionals either. That’s not to say they didn’t go all out sometimes, it’s just that they didn’t have to all-out all the time.

They wanted to enjoy a sport and the sense of fellowship it brings without getting strung up on the details. This would explain why more and more people are gravitating towards alternative sports.

This does not mean cricket, football and organised sport, in general, have reduced takers. In fact, those numbers have consistently risen over the last decade or so and will continue to do so, but there’s no denying the value of sport for pleasure.

“We don’t want to compete, we just want to give our best on these climbs. It’s me against the rock and all the things I have to do to overcome those challenges,” said Aditya, a climber for over a decade.“It’s our best efforts to get out of the rat race, I suppose,” he laughs.

Organised sport, at least according to those who practice alternative sports, has become far too competitive and insular. It’s a fair assessment because sport has indeed become a business in select cases since there’s a career to be made. “They have fallen prey to capitalism!” bellows Aditya.

In the case of, say, ultimate frisbee, there’s not even prize money and yet 100s of teams are showing up.

“When I started eight years ago, there must have been around 12 teams in the country,” says Prasanna Akela. “… now there are over a hundred. It’s fascinating because no one makes money. In fact, only recently there was a super league with prize money and the turnout was good, but even if we didn’t put up a prize money, they would have turned up. They want to play and feel a sense of belonging, isn’t that what sport is about?”

This is why Sarjapur, on the outskirts of Bengaluru, has over ninety cricket grounds at this very moment. Only a handful of these matches are recognised by the Karnataka State Cricket Association, but the rest are for amateurs to give their childhood dream a canvas.

The same with five-on-five football centres, 3x3 basketball leagues, rugby courses, frisbee events, climbing walls, surfing and so on. While these are all not alternative sports, it’s evident that the country as a whole is becoming more sport-centric, and for the right reasons.

There are still pockets that insist on sport for monetary benefit, fame and score-keeping Nazis, and given the socio-economic disparity in India, it’s inescapable, but there is more room now for sport to flourish as it was originally intended.

“My parents laughed at me because for them skateboarding was an American pastime and it’s nonsense, this was ten years ago,” says Nalini Vamshi, a skateboarder in Pune. “We come from a poor background so getting a skateboard was tough, but my friends in the community helped me with it. Later, my parents saw that skateboarding made me happy, they saw that I was a better person. They support me now. My husband supports me now. My five-year-old boy is learning too.”

“I never intended to become professional but I found something cathartic. I needed a sport to give me direction but I didn’t want it to direct me,” she adds.

That said, every mainstream sport has its roots in something more organic, something closer to movement and innocence. This is also why mainstream sports practiced at amateur levels assume a pseudo-alternative status.

Robert E Rinehart, a professor of Kinesiology at California State University, noted in his paper ‘Alternative Sports’ that the act of playing was the reward for it showcased human ability. It wasn’t just a process leading to monetary compensation.

He theorised that the advent of the television, and the subsequent monetisation of sport, has changed the landscape so dramatically that ‘people are reverting to sport in the way a child would approach it: honestly’.

“The sports themselves are self-conscious, seemingly aware of the fact of being seen, and though they are still fundamentally practices of the body in space and time, they are also about the presentation to others,” he had written.

This aligns with what Aalok Bharadwaj, a noted climber in Bengaluru, had to say. “Many who are climbers are here to be away from team sports and be away from the crowds,” he notes. “Cricket is huge and football is growing so more and more people want to get away from it because it’s tiring. They come to climb to avoid the outside noise.”

“It’s easy to become a tribe or a community when the language (of the sport) is so niche. There’s naturally a sense of belonging then,” he offers.

None of this is to say that mainstream sports don’t have camaraderie and union. They do, but few outside of that elite strata will ever know what it feels like, creating a feeling of us-versus-them.

But alternative sport, by design, brings people together. “It’s okay to be technically challenged, no one is going to judge us, that’s why it became fun and easy,” says Dhruva Vishwanath, basketball fanatic-turned surfer.

“Basketball was very different even though we were amateurs, we had to play to a certain rhythm and a certain way, it’s technical. With surfing, you ride the wave however you want to. No one tells you how to ride it. They teach you the basics and you can advance however you want and grow at whatever speed you want to.”

In a nutshell, be a sport, don’t become it.

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(Published 16 January 2022, 08:36 IST)

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