While judoka Avtar Singh’s Olympic journey was short—losing in the first round to Popole Misenga of the Refugee Olympic team—the fact that he reached Rio is, in itself, a big success. Especially when you consider the broken journey he had to endure to make the cut for the Games.
The story of the judoka is not of help reaching late or resources being scarce. The 90 kg judoka never had any support or resources to bank on till the time he qualified.
With the national judo federation derecognised by the sports ministry, help from the governing body was not available when Avtar embarked on a near impossible mission to garner enough points from just five of the possible 20 events and make the Rio Cut. Most judokas in Europe compete in at least 15 events and gain enough points from them to climb up the rankings and qualify with ease.
Avtar had to pool money from his own savings and that of family and friends to travel for the competitions and garner points. He improved his rankings from five events to become 79th in his division — earning a spot for Rio.
The qualification system for judo starts two years before the Olympics. On an average, there are 25 to 30 events that enable competitors to collect points and improve rankings for a smooth passage to the Games.
The annual World Championships is a goldmine for earning points. The winner in each weight category gets 900 points. However the national team hasn’t participated in the global event since 2011.
Asian Championships is another good platform to improve skills as well as ranking. A first-round win would ensure 48 points in the kitty while gold medalists earn as many as 400 points. Then there is the Masters tournament, but only top 20 in the respective weight categories are allowed to compete there.
Avtar’s coach Yashpal Solanki, a former international and Arjuna Awardee, says lack of any form of system is the main reason why top Indian judokas are not making an impact at major international meets.
“There isn’t proper infrastructure for judo in the country. Good facilities would surely make it more popular,” he said.
With no permanent indoor judo hall in the country, the national camps are held in make-shift halls. The mats are spread whenever there is a camp and removed after the camp is over.
In the days leading up to Rio, Avtar had to train on mats spread inside the cycling velodrome at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Sports Complex.
“Better training facilities would encourage teams from other nations to come here and train with our judokas,” added Solanki. “Besides good sparing partners, what will help is systematic exposure for judokas. No matter how much you spar during training, it cannot be a replacement for competition bouts. It was evident when Avtar entered the mat that he was a bit rusty. His opponent, never dominated Avtar but the Indian lacked the edge that would have been the difference between the two fighters.”
Mindset need to change
Judo Federation of India (JFI) Mukesh Kumar said funds are inadequate, which is why top players can’t participate in all the tournaments in one calendar year. But according to him participation is not the answer; the players’ attitude needs to change as well.
“Only participation in tournament would do no good. Players need to understand that. Also judokas need to improve their skills to score a point in big matches. We have coaching camps but players need to keep fit throughout the year,’’ he added.
Kumar said there is lack of depth at the senior level as many potential players either quit sport or are not serious in the national camps. “Sometime the motto of the player is only to get a job. Financial stability is important but mindset of the players has to change as well,’’ he said.
He also denied that Avtar wasn’t given chances to compete
“Federation, players and government all stake holders have to be on a single platform, otherwise we would keep on debating why our medal tally isn’t improving,’’ he said.