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Wednesday, Nov 13, 2019

Gymnastics in India on a downward spiral

Overworked coaches and creaking infrastructure means Indian gymnastics has failed to advance since Dipa’s high at Rio 2016

other-sports Updated: Oct 04, 2019 09:12 IST
Navneet Singh
Navneet Singh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Aruna Reddy will compete at the World Championships in Stuttgart
Aruna Reddy will compete at the World Championships in Stuttgart(Getty Images)

Dhulsirus, an urban village on the outskirts of Delhi, is dotted with warehouses. It stands close to the airport, just off a new expressway connecting Delhi to Haryana, so warehousing is busy business here.

There’s one warehouse here that does not hold stacks of goods, but is stacked instead with foam, rings, vaults and other gymnastics equipment under its tall ceiling.

At six in the morning, even as heavy vehicles snake in and out of Dhulsirus’s streets, this place has music and is abuzz with children tumbling, climbing ropes, and shaping themselves into handstands. In the evening, the children will make way for more advanced gymnasts. This is The Gymnastic Academy, a 2000 sq m training facility with world class equipment, a canteen, a waiting area for guardians, and a dedicated coach for ever six gymnasts. Opened last year by former international gymnast Praveen Sharma alongwith friends and family, it has already become the go-to place for aspiring athletes from Delhi and its neighbouring states.

The modern facilities, the well-maintained space, the healthy player-to-coach ratio—guess where you can’t get it? At the Sports Authority of India (SAI) training centres meant to develop India’s elite athletes.

Utkarsh Morankar, a college-goer from Nashik, Maharashtra, is among several outstation players training here.

“Good facilities are only available when a gymnast is selected for national camp. But being on the fringes, it’s difficult. Since the academy has a good setup, it gives a gymnast like me the chance to use the latest equipment,” he says.

Sharma says he decided to set this up for youngsters who aren’t in the national camps. “For a fee, the facilities will give them a good chance to polish their skills,” Sharma, who was an assistant-coach during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, says.

Old apparatus, overcrowded

Some 1,200km away from Dhulsirus, the scene is very different at the SAI training centre in Aurangabad, where many of India’s aspiring gymnasts train. The apparatus over two decades old. SAI coaches Ramkrishan Lokhende and Pinki Deb oversee more than a 100 gymnasts all by themselves.

“The multipurpose gymnastic hall doesn’t have even a foam landing pit,” said one of the parents whose children train at the centre.

Among those using this facility are teenage twins Siddhi and Riddhi Hattekar, silver and bronze medal winners respectively in the under-17 women’s artistic event at last January’s Khelo India Games.

“We manage,” was the somewhat terse response from their father Parveen Hattekar.

Joyprakash Chakraborty, a former India coach from Kolkata, says the Aurangabad centre highlights the need to improve grassroots infrastructure.

“There is no investment in gymnastics. That’s also one of the reasons why there is just one Dipa Karmakar in the country,” he says. “Right now, we can’t say with authority who will follow Dipa. This is because the gap is big. It might take three-four years or more to narrow that gap provided the juniors with potential get the right kind of exposure from this year,” he says.

Rucha Divekar knows all about this. She is 24 but quit gymnastics in 2015. The gymnast from Pune says she often trained on below par equipment.

“Since there was no foam landing pit at the centre where I trained, I couldn’t try out difficult routines,” she says.

Karmakar is the first and only gymnast to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games, a bronze in 2014; but after Rio 2016—where Karmakar performed brilliantly to finish fourth—her coach Bisweshwar Nandi had revealed how, in her formative years, he had to modify a discarded scooter seat as a vault and use crash mats instead of foam pits.

Things have not got better for India’s gymnasts since.

How will it? The sport does not even have a proper federation. Instead, it has two warring factions involved in a bitter dispute since 2012. One faction is not recognized by India’s sports ministry or the Indian Olympic Association but is affiliated to the world governing body for gymnastics; the other faction is just the opposite. It’s all so messy that even the team selection for the worlds happened hurriedly on the final day for sending the names, with just a day and a half’s notice to the gymnasts, after months of trials being announced and cancelled at the last minute.

Why Reddy chose Poland

So it figures why Aruna Reddy, the first Indian to clinch a medal at Gymnastics World Cup, says she left home in Hyderabad. The equipment there wasn’t good enough to prepare her for the World Championships, in Stuttgart from October 4 to 13, she says.

Aiming to win a berth in the team for what is also the first Olympic qualification of the season, Reddy shifted base to Gdansk, Poland, to train with top coach Andrei Levit.

“It’s a big challenge if you are thinking of excelling at world level as there are few options to train within the country,” she says.

Leszek Blanik, one of Levit’s trainees, won Olympic gold in vault at 2008 Games in Beijing. “Good result in gymnastics is possible only if equipment is regularly upgraded. It should be done every four years (from one Olympics to another) at various training centres across the country. Otherwise, it’s challenging task to train,” she says.

Reddy began 2018 with a bronze in vault at the Melbourne World Cup. It was her first international medal. She missed the podium at the Asian Games in Jakarta.

Last November, Reddy hurt her knee while vaulting at the Cottbus World Cup in Germany. It sidelined her for the first half of the 2019 season.

Recovered, she is focused on the World Championships. “Vigorous rehabilitation has helped me come back earlier than expected and following medical advice, I began training. Should be in good form by October,” says Reddy, 23. Besides strength training, training her mind during rehab was more important, says Reddy. “Body and mind has to synchronise for optimum performance.”

Excluded from tops scheme

“Individual players (women) are winning medals at international level, but there isn’t any investment to nurture the talent,” says Reddy who switched from karate to gymnastics in 2002.

“After I got injured, my name was excluded from the TOPS (a project of the Sports Ministry that gives financial assistance to elite sportspersons). That was the time there should have been more support,” says Reddy whose first international meet was the 2009 World School Games.

If she is back, it is because of support of ‘private’ sponsors and friends, she says.

Need regional centres

Chakraborty, a coach who has retired from SAI, says a steady flow of talent is only possible if there are six to eight good training centres across India.

“Various types of mats, trampoline and springboards should be installed at the centre for school students. Some of the allied apparatus where children can perform without assistance is also helpful as they learn faster,” he says.

Bengal, says Chakraborty, has clubs promoting gymnastics. “They came up during British rule and might have ordinary equipment, but act as springboard for young gymnasts to learn basics and then move on to national camps,” he said.

Pranati Nayak and Pranati Das, the two leading women’s gymnasts right now, are products of this club culture. Nayak, who recently won bronze at the Asian championships, says she didn’t even know the sport when she started out. “All I knew was that it was yoga,” she says.

Despite the presence of a club culture in gymnastics that dates back to the 19th century, nothing has been done to help upgrade or develop this existing grassroots system.