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Champs to riches

These athletes come from modest backgrounds, but their talent and hard work helped them win big (and earn bigger) on the sports stage. A look at how that prize money changed their lives

brunch Updated: May 26, 2012 19:57 IST
Saurabh Duggal
Saurabh Duggal
Hindustan Times
Commonwealth Games,CWG,World Series Hockey tournament

They might come from different faiths, but all the men and women featured here share a common destiny. They’ve risen out of modest backgrounds, battled tremendous odds, and made India proud with wins at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in 2010 and in this year’s inaugural edition of the World Series Hockey tournament. And unusually for people in sports, they’ve also made a fortune from their achievements.

The cash prizes that have followed transformed life for them and their families and have infused future sports enthusiasts with the hope that a metallic medal isn’t the only material marker of success. Today, as they’ve traded humble homes for roomier lodgings and rickety bus commutes for smooth rides in luxury cars, much seems to have changed for our champions. But as Anisa Sayyed, Manoj Kumar, sisters Geeta and Babita, Paramjeet Samota and Gurjinder Singh show you: when it comes to what really matters everything’s still the same.

‘I never knew that my punches could take me so far’

ManojKaithal’s Killer Punch Manoj Kumar Rajound, boxer

Bought a Maruti Swift and built a house (both in this picture) with the Rs 1 crore he won in cash awards after the Commonwealth Games

Manoj Kumar Rajound’s father didn’t rest after he retired from the army. He couldn’t. His pension simply wasn’t enough to raise a family of five.
The hardships that followed were fresh in Manoj’s mind as he stood on the podium after winning a boxing gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. And the first thing he did with his cash award was renovate his house in his native village of Rajound in Kaithal, Haryana. “There is a time when you need the support of your family, and then comes a time when your family needs your support,” says Manoj.

“For me, that time has come.”
Not only has Manoj made his family proud, he has also become a star of sorts within the sporting fraternity and outside of it. His successes in the ring led to him sharing the dais with Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan on Kaun Banega Crorepati and Total Wipeout, respectively. “I never knew my punches could take me so far. Thanks to boxing, I was able to rub shoulders with Bollywood stars as well as Sachin Tendulkar,” Manoj says. “But what I love most about boxing is that it gave me a chance to help my family.”

Money Matters
The Haryana government’s cash award made Manoj richer by Rs 20 lakh and money from the central government and Indian Railways, his employers, apart from TV appearances, helped his bank balance touch the one-crore mark.

The newly acquired riches have helped Manoj not only renovate his existing house, but also buy a new one for his parents in Kurukshetra, complete with the latest in luxury electronics, including an LCD TV and a split AC. “I bought it so that my parents can live in comfort,” beams Manoj. “They want to spend more time in the village, but I keep telling them that they will live longer if they shift to the city.”

Apart from the house, Manoj has also bought his family its first car (the diesel variant of Maruti Swift), and a small shop. What he’s still looking to acquire, however is a plot of agricultural land. “It’s for my father, as in the village, land is equated with honour,” he explains.

And now, finally, he’s been treating himself too. “I’ve always liked to dress stylishly,” says the pugilist, who had a fascination for clothes all through his growing years. He now splurges on clothes from Diesel, Adidas, Wrangler and Spykar.

Then and Now
Earlier, travelling meant braving a crowded bus. Now, Manoj drives his car. “Recently, during a 10-day break from a national camp, I was training in Kurukshetra with my brother, Rajesh, when I was called back for a dope test. He dropped me there by car. Having personal conveyance helped us plan our trip and not depend on bus timings,” says Manoj.

‘Now we are the most respected family in the village’

Haryana’s Grappler sisters Geeta and Babita, wrestlers

Gita Babita
Got an SX4 (in picture) after the CWG. Built a wrestling hall from the Rs 1.25 crore they won as prize money

Sometime in 2009, even as her father waited for her at Charkhi Dadri, near their village of Balali in Haryana’s Bhiwani district, Babita boarded a bus from Patiala – venue of the women’s national camp – and headed in the opposite direction. Her father had to call a relative in Yamunanagar to intercept Babita and accompany her back home.Now, of course, there’s no chance of any such confusion. Success at the Commonwealth Games has ensured that Babita and her sister Geeta need not travel by public transport. The girls now have their own cars.

“The biggest change in our lives has to be the cars,” says Geeta, a wrestler who struck gold in the 55-kg class. In April this year, she created history by becoming the first and, to date, the only Indian woman wrestler to qualify for the Olympics.

Earlier, their father Mahavir Singh would worry about how society viewed his daughters. But after the win, and its associated fame and prizes, it appears that the same villagers who were upset over the girls grappling in the mud are basking in the sisters’ triumphs.

Money Matters
The sum of the sisters’ winning booty at the Games (Geeta bagged gold and Babita, silver), stood at Rs 1.25 crore. They handed over the entire amount to their father, who had quit his government job to train them.

The family then invested around Rs 12 lakh building a proper wrestling hall in the courtyard of their home. “Earlier, we had an open wrestling arena. We could not afford our own personal wrestling mats and had to make do with mats provided to us by our college,” recalls Babita.

Their lifestyles have also changed dramatically. Mall crawling is no longer a distant dream. Babita, who is fond of music, is the proud owner of an iPod. And, after a Santro and an SX4, the girls have their eyes set on an SUV. “I saw it at a mall in Gurgaon,” said Geeta. “It costs around Rs 35 lakh, so if I win a medal at the Olympics, it will be my first acquisition.”

Then and Now
With no girls around to practise with, Geeta and Babita had to wrestle with their male cousins, and they defeated the boys regularly. “Our father was the target of sarcastic remarks,” says Geeta. But as the medals started pouring in, the villagers’ scorn turned to pride. “Around 100 villagers drove down to Delhi (around 120 km from Bhiwani) to watch us compete,” says Babita.

Now they are one of the most respected families in the village. And powerful, too – their mother has been elected the village sarpanch.

‘There was a time I couldn’t even afford ammunition’

Goldfinger Anisa Sayyed Khan, shooter

Bought a double-storeyed house in Faridabad and a plot of land with the R1.25 crore she won in cash rewards after CWG

Back in 2009, Anisa Sayyed Khan and her husband, Mubarak Husain, were finding it tough to pay the monthly rent of Rs 6,000 for their two-room house in Faridabad’s Sector 46. It took an understanding landlord, who reduced the rent to Rs 4,000, for the couple to stay put and for Anisa to resume her focus on shooting. But by the end of 2010, Anisa had made enough money to buy a two-storey house in the same locality where, exactly a year earlier, she couldn’t afford to pay the rent.

Born into a lower-middle class Muslim family in Pune, Anisa, the youngest of five siblings, moved to Mewat, a socio-economically backward Muslim-majority region on the Haryana-Rajasthan border after marriage. But the boundaries of conservatism couldn’t prevent her from winning two medals (the individual and team gold in the 25m sports pistol) at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and, in the process, giving her family a fillip.

“Shooting is an expensive sport. Due to a technicality, Indian Railways didn’t release my salary in 2009-10. So I was totally dependent on my husband.

At that time, it was really difficult for us to shell out even R6,000 a month. But the Games changed everything. Now, not only do we have a house of our own, young athletes look up to me in a neighbourhood where girls have very little freedom,” says Anisa.

Money Matters
The medals fetched Anisa cash awards worth Rs 1.25 crore. “I spent a lion’s share of that amount on the house, gave some money to my parents and in-laws and bought a piece of land in my village with the rest,” says Anisa.

Life after the wins has changed beyond recognition for Anisa. There was a time when shopping meant first checking the price tag, but not any more. “I am not brand-conscious, but love to buy branded clothes for my husband. So, not having to look at price tags gives me a sense of satisfaction.”

Then and Now
Economically, things were never too rosy for Anisa. When she was growing up, owning a house in her early 30s was something she could not have imagined even in her wildest dreams. “I hail from a very modest background. My parents still live in a rented house back in Pune,” said Anisha. “It was the support of retired police officer Gani Shaikh that helped me make it big in an expensive sport like shooting.”

Anisa had to work hard to become the toast of the nation. “There was a time when I couldn’t afford ammunition and did dry practice for months. In Pune, I had to change two buses and walk two kilometres to reach the range. One day, after reaching the range, I had to make two local calls to enquire whether the coach was on his way. After paying the bill at the PCO, I was left with no money to pay the bus fare back home, and had to walk around 10 km that day.”

No wonder, her Maruti Dzire is one of her proudest possessions.

‘We are leading comfortable lives today’

Boxing’s Dabangg Cop Paramjeet Samota, Heavyweight boxer

ParamjeetBought a Toyota Fortuner with some of the Rs 1.25 crore he won in cash awards

In the fall of 2010, two landmark events took place in India. First, a film called Dabangg opened to an earth-shattering response from audiences across the country. Second, the Commonwealth Games helped one boy from Dinod village in Haryana’s Bhiwani district punch his way to wealth. In Indian boxing circles, they call Paramjeet Samota dabangg (spunky).

Thanks to Delhi 2010, Paramjeet now has everything that Chulbul ‘Robin Hood’ Pandey (the cop portrayed by Salman Khan in that box office hit) has: an off-road vehicle, the love of his life, as well as the style and swagger that accompany the men in khaki.

With the cash won at the CWG as well as the Asian Games the following month (where he won a bronze), one of his first acquisitions was the sports utility vehicle Toyota Fortuner. This January, he got married, and in April, the 24-year-old was appointed a deputy superintendent of police under the sports quota. “When I started boxing, apart from donning the tricolour, a job in the Indian Railways (IR) was all I hoped for. Today, thanks to the sport, I have got name, fame and money. I never knew that boxing could be so rewarding,” says Paramjeet.

He admits that his newfound riches, his new life is a little surreal – even for him. “My father is an ex-serviceman. Apart from his pension, the only source of income we had was a small tract of agricultural land. But, today, our fortunes have changed, and how!”

Money Matters
Paramjeet’s medals at the CWG and the Asian Games also earned him cash awards from the Haryana and central governments, and the Indian Railways, his employers at the time.
Once his total earnings touched Rs 1.25 crore, the first thing he did was to renovate his village house and add more rooms to it. Then came the electronic gadgets, other luxury items and an SUV. “I handed over the balance to my father, and he has invested it in property,” says Samota. “Thanks to the Almighty, we are leading very comfortable lives today.”

Then and Now
The wheels of mobility are turning for the Samota household after his successes in the ring. “Earlier, commuting from Bhiwani to the national camp in Patiala meant taking a crowded Haryana Roadways bus. Today I have a car and the money to foot the petrol bill,” he says proudly. “Other than that, life is more or less the same for a lot of us, except maybe for one other thing. Earlier, we used to kill time watching TV in the common room. But now, since most of us have laptops, Facebook has taken over almost all our spare time!”

‘I still stay in a small house’

GurjinderDrag Flick Devil Gurjinder Singh, hockey player

Plans to buy a house and the family’s first car with the Rs 1.12 crore he won in the World Series Hockey.

Like most other boys his age, Gurjinder Singh, too, dreamt of zipping along the national highway riding a flashy bike. But, since he couldn’t afford to buy a motorcycle on his own, he pitched in money with two other friends to acquire a Splendor. Since he contributed one-fifth of the total amount, it meant he could lay his hands on the machine only twice a week.

Now, Gurjinder has earned enough to make a cash down payment for a four-wheeler all by himself. His newly acquired financial status is the reward for playing one hard month of hockey at the highest level.

The inaugural World Series Hockey, a franchise hockey league that concluded in April, not only earned him the moniker of ‘Rockstar’, it also made him a crorepati. Plus, being the tournament’s joint highest scorer meant he earned another Rs 12.5 lakh in addition to his regular fee. "In 2009, I got a scholarship of R10,000 for winning gold at the under-17 nationals. Back then, it seemed like a very big amount, enough to take care of all my expenses," says the 18-year-old son of a small farmer. "Today, I have more than R1 crore!"

Money Matters
Keeping his humble roots in mind, Gurjinder plans to use his prize money to extend some of life’s luxuries to his parents, who cut corners in order to help him pursue his passion for hockey. “Once my cheques get encashed, I’ll give the entire amount to my father. We plan to invest a chunk of it in a house – the one we stay in is quite small and dilapidated – and some agricultural land,” says the native of Sangatpur village in Punjab’s Batala district. “With the rest, we’ll buy our family’s first car.”

Despite knowing that participating in the World Series Hockey might jeopardise his chances of representing the country, Gurjinder went for it, as the incentive was, in his mind, bigger than the risk. “Five lakhs (the compensation for playing in the rebel league) is a big amount for someone from my background. So I went ahead and decided to participate,” says Gurjinder.

With money in the bank and a bit more trickling in every month (he has been contracted by Indian Oil for a three-year period), the hockey rockstar now dreams of donning India colours. “Even as I took part in the WSH, I kept believing that if I’m really that good, I’ll definitely get a chance to represent the country. I hope I get that chance soon.”

From HT Brunch, May 27

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First Published: May 25, 2012 18:05 IST