Inside the cavernous, glass-walled Mahatma Mandir Convention Centre in Gandhinagar, venue of several indoor events at the National Games, natural light poured in throughout the day. But even brighter were some of the performances of the athletes, such as Sambo Lapung of Arunachal Pradesh. (More Sports News)
The 25-year-old weightlifter hoisted a record total of 346kg – 148kg and 196kg in snatch and clean and jerk, respectively – to win the men’s 96kg gold medal. During the 196kg lift, as he stood on the mat with the crushing weight over his head, nearly every muscle in his body quivered and begged for relief, but Lapung held on. Job done, he let the weight drop and punched the air. The hall broke into cheers and whistles.
Lapung’s performance marked his successful conquest of adversity. In 2008, when he was nine and trying his hand at boxing, he would get beaten by his coach. Scarred by the abuse, he wanted to give up on his sporting dreams. But his sister Chitung convinced him to try weightlifting.
Even now, Lapung has several bills to pay. His supplements cost about Rs 12 lakhs annually. As a hawaldar in the army, his salary is not at all enough to meet such expenses. He has to take loans.
But now, Lapung has something priceless to show for it – a National Games gold medal, record and the sweet satisfaction of having beaten the odds.
“I tried boxing only for about a year in 2008. But I gave it up. What’s the point in getting thrashed both in the ring and off it?” he said, referring to his defeats and the subsequent beatings from his coach. “We used to train alongside weightlifters and I noticed that the weightlifting coach was much more lenient towards his wards.”
Further on, he said, “It feels good to win gold at the National Games, but what’s more important for me was the National record. I came here to compete with myself and I had an eye on the record.”
Battling Poverty With Football
One of the interesting stories at the National Games was the Gujarat women’s football team. Most of the team’s players are from under-privileged backgrounds, and from the village of Mahadevpura in Patan district, which has emerged as a nursery of football. Many of the players earn Rs 4,500 a month under the government’s COE (Centre of Excellence) scheme. This, in most cases, is their family’s sole or primary income.
At the time of writing, Gujarat had performed creditably. They went down bravely against Assam 4-2 and then beat Maharashtra 1-0.
The captain of Gujarat is Priyanka Bhil, a composed 25-year-old whose father works as driver and whose mother is a homemaker. Relatives keep nagging her parents about Priyanka’s marriage. But so far, football has won.
“That’s how it is among Gujaratis, log to bolte hi hai (people will talk),” said Bhil, a defender who looks up to Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri and women’s football star Ngangom Bala Devi. “But my parents support me.”
Sport has taught her how to fight the challenges life throws.
“Sport teaches you to never give up. Whatever the situation I might be facing, I I forget about it when I step on to the field. In fact, many times I find that solutions and ideas to overcome that situation strike me after playing,” she said.
The Rugby And Neeraj Effect
If it’s football in Gujarat, rugby is proving to be the lifeline for Bihar girls. They are the reigning National champions, and though they lost in the semis at the National Games, the sport has caught on in the state.
“Whatever their difficult circumstances at home, sport always brings you this beautiful sensation of, ‘Ok, there’s something else in life. I can forget about anything that I’m going through and I can focus on playing’. I feel Bihar is seeing the importance of that,” the team’s South African mentor Kiano Fourie said.
In athletics, Jyothi Yarraji, the women’s 100m winner from Andhra Pradesh, also comes from a none too privileged background. Her father is a security guard in Vizag and her mother is a homemaker. One of Jyothi’s motivations to do well is to improve the lifestyle of her family. She is getting there.
“Not much has changed in terms of our standard of living, but things are certainly better. Besides, my parents are proud of me,” the soft-spoken 23-year-old said.
Her role models are Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, the Puerto Rican Olympic 100m hurdles gold medallist. And of course, Neeraj Chopra, the boy from Haryana’s Khandra village who has done the impossible.
“I want to give everyone in Indian athletics hope, the way Neeraj bhaiyya has done,” Jyothi said. And the way she and several others at the National Games did.