Why have South Asians lost out on sports?

Opinion | Sporting relations between member nations of South Asia were the first and foremost casualty of these conflicts. Holding of Dual and Triangular Sports Meets mainly involving India and Pakistan have become a thing of the past. - PRABHJOT SINGH

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Milkha Singh (right) barely edging out Abdul Khaliq in the 200-meter finals of the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo.

By Prabhjot Singh | Opinion |

Looking at the results of the just concluded Asian Games in Hangzhou, one may not agree that the South Asia has been losing its edge in sports. India, the undisputed leader of the subcontinent, attained an all-time high by crossing the century mark in the medals tally. But other member nations of the sub-continent – Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan – had very little to cheer about the performance of their athletes in the Hangzhou games. Intriguingly, all the medals won by the entire South Asian subcontinent fall far short of the third placed Korea.

Korea won 190 medals, including 42 gold. Compared to it South Asian nations aggregated 124 medals, including 29 gold, 28 of which were won by India alone. Only other gold medal won by the subcontinent was a gold in 800 m for women which went to Tharushi of Sri Lanka. And coming to Japan, that finished second in the games, had 188 medals, including 52 gold. China, the undisputed leader aggregated 383 medals that included 201 gold medals. Interestingly, gold medals won by the next eight nations that finished behind China also totalled 200 gold medals. They include Japan, Korea, India, Uzbekistan, Chinese Taipei, Iran, Thailand and Bahrain. The gap is huge and growing.

In the 72-year history of the Asian Games, the gap between sporting powerful and those at the bottom of the ladder, has grown manifold. Some of the nations, especially, the South Asians have slipped down the ladder significatly. Pakistan, for example, ended the Hangzhou Games without a gold medal as it had in its kitty only a silver and two bronze medals while Sri Lanka with a gold in athletics finished with a total of five medals with two silvers and as many bonze medals. Bangladesh had just two bronze medals and Afghanistan with a silver in cricket won four bronze medals to end with a tally of five.

India is the only nation from the subcontinent that has been trying to provide a silver lining.

Though South Asia may not boast of likes of Flying Sikh Milkha Singh, Balbir Singh Senior, flying horse Abdul Khaliq, World Squash champions Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan, sprint queen PT Usha, or Asian badminton champion Dinesh Khanna, anymore, yet it can take pride in producing likes of Neeraj Chopra, Tejinderpal Singh Toor, Avinash Sable, drag flicker Harmanpreet Singh and grand old man of tennis Rohan Bopanna besides the strong pair of Rankireddy and Shetty in badminton.

South Asia has once again regained its glory in men’s hockey and kabaddi, both men and women, after losing its supremacy in both the sports during the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games where both Japan (hockey men and women) and Iran (kabaddi men and women) had snatched the dominance.

The region’s diminishing dominance in some popular common man sports has been discerning. Last year when the World Bank came out with its twice-a-year update, it did highlight the socio-politico issues that are dwarfing the activities that had made the region stand out. Growth in the region is dampening, it says underscoring the need for countries to build resilience.

Though that World Report may be referring to the current situation in the region, decline in sporting trends has been continuing unabated for the past couple of decades. Though an effort was made to keep the sports activity and international competitions free from the tumultuous socio-political environment prevailing in the region, the downward trend could not be arrested. The worst hit had been Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Since the partition of India in 1947, the region has been repeatedly tormented by conflicts, including Indo-Pak wars in 1965 and 1971, and the bogey of cold war through cross-border terrorism.

Sporting relations between member nations of South Asia were the first and foremost casualty of these conflicts. Holding of Dual and Triangular Sports Meets mainly involving India and Pakistan have become a thing of the past. Efforts were made to revive the dual sports meets, including exchange of visits by hockey, cricket, athletic, and kabaddi meets but toughening of political stands had frustrated those attempts.

Some rays of hopes started becoming visible when teams from Pakistan – hockey and now cricket – were allowed to compete on Indian soil. A couple of months ago, Pakistan hockey team came via Wagah border in Punjab before it flew to Chennai to play in the Asian Hockey Champions Trophy for men. Now, Pakistan cricket team is in India to play in the ICC World Cup Cricket Tournament. The visiting cricket team has been overwhelmed by the warm welcome it has received on arrival in Hyderabad.

As of today, participation of teams from across the geographical borders between India and Pakistan are permitted only when the sporting events are conducted by the International Sports Federations themselves.

As a result, the standard of sports has suffered adversely. Sportsmen and women of the region have lost their superiority to other nations in the continent.

Attempts to hold bilateral series at neutral venues, including UAE, have met with limited success.

Hostilities of partition notwithstanding, sports relations between India and unified Pakistan continued with holding of dual and triangular sports meets. Besides India and Pakistan, Afghanistan remained one of the participants in these meets that provided a high standard of competitions and very healthy rivalry.

Many would still recall the fight for supremacy between Abdul Khaliq, Asia’s fastest man in late 50s and early 60s, and Flying Sikh Milkha Singh. It was at Lahore triangular athletic meet that Martial Law Administrator Ayub Khan had conferred Flying Sikh title upon Milkha Singh after he defeated “Flying Horse” Abdul Khaliq in Lahore. Before the Lahore meet, Abdul Khaliq was the undisputed sprint king of Asia having won both 100 m and 200 m titles in Asian Games.

After Abdul Khaliq and Milkha Singh’s era, both India and Pakistan could never regain hold of the “Fastest man of Asia” title. It was not only limited to athletics.

There were regular exchanges of hockey, cricket, kabaddi, wrestling and football teams. Indo-Pak encounters always remained big crowd pulls. If India and Pakistan continued dominance of World hockey for a long time, it was because of good bilateral relations. So much so that when India organized the World Cup for the first time in Bombay – now Mumbai – Pakistan led by center half Akhtar Rasul was the winner in January 1981. And a year later when India organized the Asian Games for the second time, Pakistan again won the gold medal defeating India in the final.

Other than hockey, cricket has been another game that had the two neighbors enjoy a love-hate relationship. They even jointly organized the 1987 and 1996 World Cup Cricket Tournaments. Cricket and hockey rivalries between India and Pakistan have always been with strong political overtones. While on one hand the sporting events between the two traditional rivals and neighbors are highly emotive, they also help the national sports federations in their financial rejuvenation.

Now for a long time, there has been no exchange of visits between Indian and Pakistan hockey and cricket teams. If Pakistan sports is in doldrums, it has been because of diminishing support, both from the State and the corporate sector. India may not have that problem but in the absence of good and healthy competition it used to get from across the border has certainly dented its international standing.

After Independence, India had a phenomenal rise in the world of sports. In 1948 it won the Olympic hockey gold. That was for the first time that a truncated Indian hockey team, minus players from Pakistan and the erstwhile British regime, won the crown in London. It retained the title in subsequent editions of the Olympic Games at Helsinki (1952), and Melbourne (1956) before losing its supremacy to Pakistan in 1956.

All these years, Pakistan was proving to be a strong rival and claimant of top position. It succeeded in Rome (1960) to displace India from the top but could not hold on to its top position at Tokyo (1964) where India regained its glory. Between 1947 and 1964, both India and Pakistan had a good exchange of visits and played each other regularly. This helped them to dominate the world hockey scene jointly. The worsening of hockey relations that started after the 1971 conflict climaxed to a breaking point in the 1992 World Cup in Lahore where the Indian team was under constant attack from a hostile section of the crowd. Even the Indian flag was burnt at the venue of the World. Cup and India had its second worst World Cup after London where it had finished last. Pakistan, too, suffered. In London while India took the wooden spoon, Pakistan finished a step better.

After touching a new low in London and then Lahore, India has gradually climbed back the hockey ladder to win a bronze at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games while Pakistan had been missing out on the Olympic Games. Because of deterioration of relations between the two countries, hockey has suffered immensely. Still India-Pakistan encounters are big crowd pullers and provide a glimpse of vintage hockey that had made this continent known as cradle of hockey.

In the Hangzhou Asian Games, India recorded its biggest ever win in hockey defeating its arch rival 10-2. The previous best was 7-1. And in Hangzhou, except for volleyball where Pakistan men beat India 3-0 to take the fifth position, India was victorious in all other contests, including kabaddi for men. Indian women beat Pakistan in squash and also in individual contests in singles and mixed doubles, Indians were victorious.

Squash at the Asian Games 2023: Dipika Pallikal and Harinder Pal Sandhu (photo) won a gold in the mixed doubles event, while India also picked up a gold in the men’s team event after beating rivals Pakistan in the final – Photo: Hangzhou2022.cn

The most recent healthy rivalry has been in athletics where the new World and Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra has been scoring over his Pakistani rival Arshad Nadeem. Unfortunately, an injury kept Arshad Nadeem out of the Hangzhou Asian Games.

Pakistan had its share of dominance in Squash. Jahangir Khan and then Jansher Khan dominated the global scene together for more than two decades. They were unbeatable. This is one sport other than hockey that Pakistan dominated at the global level. Sri Lanka had produced some good runners, especially sprinters, other than cricket players.

Bangladesh has inherited its strengths from undivided Pakistan and has built a good will on the cricket front by quickly ascending to the status of a Test playing nation. It has done well in soccer also.

Internal strife, deteriorating fiscal health and vendetta politics have brought Pakistan sports to a piquant situation. The congenial and healthy atmosphere needed for development of sports has almost disappeared from the horizon. The only hope of its revival can be revival of sporting relations with neighbours in general and India in particular. But as of now, this seems to be a distant possibility.
Historically, undivided India was a cradle of sports. Before and after partition, sports men and women from the northern part of this region – East and West Punjab – had an excellent crop of sportsmen and women. Some of the greats of Asian sports like sprinters, middle and long distance runners, hurdlers, throwers and jumpers – all came from this region.

If Pakistan Punjab had Abdul Khaliq as the fastest man of Asia, India had Flying Sikh Milkha Singh, and strong quarter mile in Makhan Singh, besides sprinter Ajmer Singh. India at that stage dominated all throwing events through men like Parveen Kuma, Bahadur Singh, Gurdeep Singh and Parduman Singh besides ace hurdler GS Randhawa, middle distance runner Sriram Singh and long distance runners like Hari Chand and Shivnath Singh. PT Usha, TC Yohannan and Suresh Babu came from South to put India on Asian dominance. One reason for the emergence of Indian athletes was their regular competitions with athletes from Pakistan in dual, triangular and invitation meets.

Of all South Asian nations, India has made rapid strides in sports. Now its athletes are doing well not only at the level of Asian Games or Commonwealth Games but also in Olympic Games. Medals in the Olympic Games have given a major boost. After Abhinav Bindra won the country’s first individual gold in shooting in Beijing, Neeraj Chopra has taken it a step forward with Olympic gold in javelin in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games. He added another feather to his cap when he won the World championship title in Budapest weeks before the Asian Games.

Leander Paes put India on the Olympic tennis map with a bronze at Atlanta in 1996. Saina Nehwal and then PV Sindhu have taken badminton to a new level with medals in the London, Rio and Tokyo Olympic Games. Boxers, wrestlers, shooters are not far behind and India has asserted itself as a sports leader of South Asia as well. It needs to play a role in helping the other member nations of the region to come up to a level that they also become contenders for Olympic medals than remain in “also ran category”.

Limits on resources notwithstanding, holding frequent sporting events among member nations of the region with athletes from across the borders shall not only provide qualitative competitions but also help build the finance-starved associations. Interestingly, these competitions, especially those involving India and Pakistan, always drew overwhelming public response. The growing opposition to holding of bilateral sports meets is only a recent phenomenon that started growing in dimensions after the terror strikes in Mumbai. Besides, the Kashmir controversy added fuel to the fire and the sports rift started widening. It has now reached a level where only a bold decision, a strong political statement by both the nations, can revive the bilateral relations.

Besides athletics, hockey and cricket were other sports that benefited from these bilateral sports events.

Afghanistan has been no better. Devastated by internal strife, the country completely lost out on the sports front. Its strength was in some individual sports, including wrestling, besides football as a team game. Of late it has shown some promise in shorter versions of cricket. Again, it will need support and competition from neighbours, especially India, to continue its march forward in cricket.

Bangladesh and Nepal have limited resources but have a good base for the development of sports. The South Asian Federation (SAF) Games have been a great help not only in building sports infrastructure but also in raising the standard of games and sports.

What the region needs is better cooperation and sharing of resources for a healthier and stronger sports environment. They all look towards their bigger brother, India, who has quickly assumed the role of a new leader not only of South Asia but Asia as well.

(Prabhjot Singh is a veteran journalist with over three decades of experience of 14 years with Reuters News and 30 years with The Tribune Group, covering a wide spectrum of subjects and stories. He has covered Punjab and Sikh affairs for more than three decades besides covering seven Olympics and several major sporting events and hosting TV shows.)

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