Five years ago, Madras was in the backwaters of Indian sport. Sure, it had provided the nation with great players across the sporting spectrum. But as far as playing facilities were concerned, the city could not boast much beyond the venerable Chepauk cricket stadium and a few other run-down edifices.
All that has changed. And changed dramatically. Today, as it prepares to host the seventh South Asian Federation (SAF) Games from December 18 to 27, the southern metropolis is all set to take its place as India’s premier sporting city.
The transformation has not come cheap. The state government has poured vast funds into the game’s kitty with Chief Minister J Jayalalitha taking a personal interest. Estimated budget, a large chunk of which has gone into refurbishing the city’s run-down stadia: a staggering Rs 240 crore.
The showpiece of the meet is the fabulous Nehru stadium, venue for cricket Test matches in the ‘50s and home of the Tamil Nadu Football Association. Now a FIFA (the world football body) approved stadium, it staged the international Nehru Gold Cup two years after the capacity was tripled to 75,000 and ultra-modern floodlights installed.
With India’s medals tally drying up at the Asian Games – our athletes failed to win a single gold at Hiroshima last year – the biennial regional meet for the South Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations provides some crumbs of comfort.
India has always comfortably topped the medals tally since the Games were first held at Kathmandu in 1984. Weightlifting (for men) a traditional Indian strength, is back after being excluded from the last meet at Dhaka. And even though our world-class women lifters will not be seen in action, "we will still beat the pants off Pakistan and the others," says Wing Commander P.K. Mahanand, a national selector with the Indian Weightlifting Federation.
A total of 1,242 participants from seven countries will compete in 14 disciplines. But the major focus will be on athletics and hockey, the latter included for the first time. The India-Pakistan hockey final group clash on December 26 at the refurbished Mayor Radhakrishnan stadium will surely be the climax. The inclusion of former captain Jude Felix bolsters the team in the mid-field, thanks to his extra pace, feels V. Bhaskaran, captain of the 1980 Moscow Olympics team and coach at the recent Azlan Shah Cup in Kuala Lumpur.
Another big-name comeback being staged is by former sprint queen P.T. Usha. Once the golden girl of Indian athletics, the Payyoli Express is being given another chance to prove she still retains some of the magic that made her one of Asia’s greatest in the 1980s.
While the Sri Lankans have made rapid progress on the track since Colombo staged the Games in 1991, India remains the best in South Asia and they will remain on top, feels Eric Prabhakar. "The same cannot be said for our position in Asian athletics in general, but we should once again dominate at the SAF level," says the sprinter who ran in the 1948 London Olympics.
Last minute hiccups continue to plague the final preparations. But while the Capital’s stadia, built with much fanfare and cost for the 1982 Asian Games show signs of crumbling. Madras is all spruced up for a grand show that could see it make a bid for bigger things when the curtain comes down at the Nehru stadium on December 27. Next: The Asian or the Commonwealth Games?