If ever having an Olympics silver medalist as Sports Minister of India should count for something, it is now. This is Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s moment of reckoning and the call he takes will make the difference between encouraging great talent and merely acknowledging it.
Make no mistake. India's latest athletics sensation Hima Das has already done the impossible – burst out from the muddy paddy patches of Dhing, a little known nondescript village in Assam’s hinterlands, to becoming the world’s best Under-20 women’s 400 metres runner — all in a matter of a mere 18 months.
Rathore’s short-term concern will be to ensure that the 18-year-old gets a firm leg-up while his long term challenge would involve initiating a system that helps identify, groom and develop such talent.
It would be appropriate to point out that only cricket has a stable system in place in India.
True, aspiring cricketers face an immense challenge to break into BCCI’s age group structure (under-14, under-16, under-19). But once they get in, the system takes over, with coaches, trainers, nets, camps, doctors, dietitians, competition, tournaments, selections, etc guiding, monitoring, nurturing and passing them on from one level to the next until the cricketer’s limitations arrested his advancement. The best though carry on and make the highest grade.
Of course age cheating is a big bug bear. But that’s another matter.
Unfortunately other sports do not have a similar well laid out structure, which is why when a pristine talent like Hima Das gets noticed on the world stage there is a gnawing despair of how many others might have slipped away unnoticed into oblivion. Hence the onus on sports minister Rathore to make his extraordinary firsthand experience of being Olympics silver medalist count for something.
In fact, he would well be aware that the most amazing aspect of Hima’s story is that she was spotted at all!
A rice farmer’s daughter from Dhing, a small village 150 kms from Assam’s capital of Guwahati, she played football in mud pits adjoining rice fields before being spotted by Nipon Das, coach with Directorate of Sports and Youth Welfare at a school meet in February 2017 where she won both 100 and 200 metres events.
He convinced her parents to shift her to Guwahati and got her admitted to the state academy although it served only boxing and football! Subsequently he and state coach Nabajit Malakar were so impressed with her talent that they took loans to send her to the World Youth Championships in Nairobi, Kenya the same year.
Hima finished fifth in 200 metres and thereby came to the notice of Athletics Federation of India who soon placed her under the tutelage of middle distance coach Galena Petrovna Bukharina, 72, former USSR Olympics bronze medalist at 1968 Mexico Olympics and later Texas State University’s track coach.
Frankly, at 18, Hima has some way to go before realising her potential. But the route to be taken from now can’t be hers to decide. She urgently needs someone, preferably Bukharina who has mentored Olympic champions, to chart out a path for her.
Decades ago, another gem of an Indian talent, PT Usha was offered a scholarship in the US. She would have benefited from world class training and competition. These could have spurred her to greater heights. Alas that was not to be. It was reported that her coach did not want to let go of his star pupil.
Not letting go is, unfortunately, a worldwide phenomenon. It is probably the reason Greek writer and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis was inspired to write:
True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse....
However, what happens when the coach does not or cannot ‘joyfully collapse’ when the pupil has outgrown him?
Not everybody can be an Alexander who is said to have refused to take Aristotle on his military expedition to India simply because he felt that he had learnt all that Aristotle could have taught and that he had nothing new to learn from him.
It is a sad fact that only two other sports in India have done reasonably well in charting out routes for its players and even that not because of their respective associations. Badminton has come to the fore of late through the magnificent efforts of former champion Gopichand and tennis through the excellent work of various families (as different from state or national association).
The Krishnans, Amritrajs, Bhupathis, especially the last two, also helped other top players, Leander Paes, Sania Mirza, Rohan Boppana, to name three, find their footing in international tennis.
But the overwhelming disappointment is that there is so little guidance, advise and steering for the many aspiring sportspersons coming from small towns, villages and cities of India. This is almost wholly due to the fact that coaches and administrators with their limited exposure themselves do not know the path. That being so, how can they point it out to their wards?
Hima Das is trapped in that environment. She might have great potential but without being set on the right channel it will never find true expression.
At 18 years of age she is, perhaps, a ripe candidate for America’s matchless National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) system.
Every country in the world desperately wants to emulate the NCAA system but not one has come anywhere near succeeding. To put its awesome impact in perspective, during the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Brazil 1,018 NCAA current and former students representing 107 countries took part.
The NCAA system is a giant magnet to the best talent from all over the world. It exposes them to superb training and competition. In short it virtually sucks talent to the top.
Hima Das deserves a shot at fame and fortune. If she succeeds she could be the flag bearer of Indian athletes’ aspirations. And there is no better system than the NCAA to make it happen.
Hopefully Rathore too will see it that way and make a timely intervention rather than just showering her with awards and goodies, though she deserves that too!
Updated Date: Jul 16, 2018 12:14 PM