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Conflict between spirit and sense

The 10th SAF Games seem more like a microcosm of cultures from the SAARC milieu, writes Ajai Masand.

india Updated: Aug 19, 2006 02:03 IST
Ajai Masand
Ajai Masand

A general sense of well being and a feeling of déjà vu all the way!

The first images one conjures up of the South Asian Federation Games are one of a friendly atmosphere, a feeling accentuated by the fact that all countries participating are neighbours, coming from almost similar cultural, traditional and religious backgrounds.

Indeed the Games — the 10th edition of which kicked off in Colombo on Friday — seem more like a microcosm of cultures from the SAARC milieu that have not changed much, albeit altered slightly by the geographical boundaries.

In fact, thousands of athletes from the region are attracted to the Games not just for the sake of competition — well that is one area that is highly debatable as the level of competition has never risen above mediocrity — but for meeting their counterparts from other SAARC countries, something that would otherwise not have been possible given the economic condition of most of the countries.

The main contributory factor for the Games coming into existence was that the power of sports was recognised as a vital tool to strengthen the SAARC movement.

There was a feeling that a sports organisation should be formed for countries in South Asia — quite akin to the South East Asian Games — that would give a fillip to the SAARC movement.

The concept was discussed in 1982 and, in Bahrain in 1983, a decision was taken regarding formation of the South Asia Sports Federation. And the membership was limited to eight countries in the region - India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives.

In 1984, Kathmandu preened itself for the inaugural Games. The process set in motion.

Some 22 years hence, Colombo is hosting the South Asian Games — one of the biggest multi-sport events in the country — for the second time, and close to 4,500 participants are expected, including Afghanistan.

The security scenario has changed; Sri Lanka continues to be racked by turmoil, with separatists wanting an independent Tamil state. Pakistan, on the other hand, is often blamed for abetting terrorist activity in India, while Nepal has become a hotbed for Maoists, many of whom are reportedly infiltrating and fomenting trouble in India.

Given all these hostile situations, there is a feeling th

t the real purpose of "strengthening of SAARC moment" which was the main reason why these Games came into force looks defeated. The body is still there, but the heart seems to have gone out of the Games.

Countries like Nepal and Pakistan have, for whatever reasons, not been honouring their commitment.

The ninth edition scheduled at Islamabad in 2001 saw many cancellations before it was finally held in 2004; Kathmandu postponed the Games by two years because of lack of infrastructure before hosting it in 1999.

And no longer are these Games — if ever they were is not known 1 being able to solve the purpose of bridging the barriers with neighbours through sport. Relations are getting strained and the ethos of friendship is taking a beating.

On a purely sporting front, in the past nine editions — and 22 years — not even a single Asian mark, leave aside World and Olympic timings and records, has been breached.

For the 700 odd gold medals — and maybe a thousand more baser medals — India have won in the previous nine SAF Games, the country has only three individual bronze and a silver to show from the Olympic Games post Independence.

So are these Games really competitive and does India stand to benefit from them? Being the dominant country in the SAARC — and with better sports facilities and infrastructure — India is bound to come home with loads of medals and an ‘inflated’ ego.

As for the competition, if India could bag 101 gold medals at Islamabad in 2004, and win a solitary silver at the Athens Olympics the same year, one can easily judge the level of competition. It is next to non-existent!

Then why is India spending crores of rupees just to be part of the Games without providing quality competition to the athletes is concerned?

On the face of it, it’s more of a commitment and India’s walking out on the Games would be construed as a breach of the commitment.

But, given the resentment among the public in India as well as countries like Pakistan about the Games and precious revenue being lost which could have been spent in sports development, it could be in the fitness of things to look for an alternative — may be host fewer disciplines and send junior squads for exposure.

But that seems unlikely in the near future as it could mean a big dent to the Indian Olympic Association’s vote bank. The SAF Games and the Commonwealth Games are the two notable Games where the IOA can please all with it largess of foreign trips.

Standard-wise, it’s the same. Indian swimmers reaped a rich harvest in Islamabad in 2004 but went out without a whimper in Athens the same year. It’s time to wake up to reality. Money matters, while unfortunately, the kabaddi gold doesn’t mean a thing to the paying public.

First Published: Aug 19, 2006 01:51 IST