He was one of the very best in the world. But even the great Lakha — “the Wayne Gretzky of kabaddi” — had to walk away from the game he loves when he saw the steroids and other drugs around him spiralling out of control.
“It was hard. I found it was just time to give up,”Lakha told Vancouver Desi.
Kabaddi, the fast, thrilling and physically punishing contact sport from India, is getting bigger and more professional, but as the retired star player tells Vancouver Desi, the increased money and fame have brought the same scandal that’s plagued so many other sports: steroids.
Officially, his name is Jatinder Singh, but in the Lower Mainland’s Indian community where he’s been a star for 20 years, he is known to legions of fans simply by the one-word nickname he received as a child: Lakha.
Nitu Kang, president of the National Kabaddi Federation called Lakha “the Wayne Gretzky of kabaddi.”
Jett Bassi, a journalist who has covered the sport for several years, said Lakha’s combination of speed, finesse, and power made him not only one of the best in Canada for years — but among the best in the world.
“He was one of the best players in modern times for sure,” Bassi said. “It was a big thing, having a Canadian guy go around the world and promote Canada the way he did.”
Lakha said the sport has changed dramatically since he started back in 1994. For one thing, the money is bigger now than ever before.
Back in the 1990s, when Lakha trained at a Surrey gym with a few pro football players, he said, some CFL athletes would complain that he made more money in his sport than they did. In the past decade, the amount players earn through sponsorships and prizes has roughly doubled, Lakha said. Some players can pull in $50,000 or $60,000 playing a three-month summer season in Canada, travelling between BC and Ontario.
Elite players in India, meanwhile, command six-figure salaries. The top prize at the annual Kabaddi World Cup, sponsored by the government of Punjab, is worth more than $300,000 Cdn.
At the top levels of international kabaddi in recent years, as prize money has grown bigger and bigger, the game has become rife with doping scandals. At the 2011 Kabaddi World Cup in India, 53 players from 11 countries tested positive for banned substances, including eight Canadians. Canada had to forfeit more prize money than any other nation, losing more than half of their $180,000 winnings. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether the Canadian athletes had tested positive for steroids, or other banned substances.
All around the kabaddi world, including BC, Lakha said, with increased money in recent years, the sport has been plagued by doping issues just like other high-level sports — especially when there’s more money on the line.
“There’s a lot of steroids in kabaddi,” Lakha said. “Back in the day, it was nothing. But now, it’s a huge problem.” He favours a hard line approach against doping:
“They’ve got to ban people. They should tell them now: next year, if somebody gets busted, you’re going to be out for a couple of years.”
Canada’s most famous ex-kabaddi player is Lakha’s former training partner, Daniel Igali, the Olympic wrestler who won gold for Canada in the Sydney Games in 2000.
Looking back on his playing days, Igali agreed with his former teammate Lakha about the rise of doping issues.
“When I was playing, I spearheaded the anti-doping drive, because I was having very unfortunate experiences in the dressing room, where I saw people drugging up before going to play,” Igali said.
Igali picked up kabaddi in Surrey in 1995, shortly after he arrived from Nigeria. Reached in Nigeria earlier this summer, Igali told the story of how he picked up the game and went on to become one of the first non-Punjabi kabaddi players in B.C., and one of the top players in the competition.
He went on to star in tournaments across Canada, India, the U.S., Australia, and England.
“I had a different style,” Igali said. “Because of my style, because I was very fast, they called me ‘Toofan Singh’ — it means ‘Hurricane’ in Punjabi.”
Dal Aujla, 20, is one of the youngest members of the Canadian men’s national kabaddi team. A 6-foot-3, 215-pound stopper, Aujla said he’s one of the smallest players on his club team, Surrey’s Young Kabaddi Club.
Aujla acknowledges the sport’s struggles with doping, and said he always admired a role model like Lakha, who was known for being a bruising, fiercely competitive athlete, but also a clean player, always respectful and drug-free.
“Even now, I can guarantee, he could still compete with everybody else and he hasn’t played for three years,” Aujla said.
“And now there’s a lot of drugs involved and stuff. And he’s one of those guys that never took anything before the match.”