Why Haryana state powers India’s sports engine
More sweets, fireworks, floral garlands, victory parades, and athletes with medals around their necks —Haryana celebrated more than anyone else when the Indian contingent returned from the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games this April with an impressive tally of 66 medals, including 26 gold.
The athletes from Haryana accounted for 22 or every third medal India won as the country finished third behind hosts Australia and England in the quadrennial event.
The feat is not new for this northern state with a population of 25 million people (according to the 2011 census). Haryana won 19 of the 64 medals India collected in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and 27 out of 101 in the 2010 edition in New Delhi.
And it’s not hard to know why the state is a sporting powerhouse. Scrape the surface and turn some pages from history and Haryana’s culture.
The state’s domination in sports is somehow linked to the majority of its people’s collective preference for a robust physique that helps them work the fields under a sweltering sun, get jobs in the military, and indulge in sporting activities, more likely wrestling, experts say.
Wrestling has always been an integral part of rural Haryana, where grapplers in loincloths competed for prizes that varied from a fistful of cash or a pot of ghee to nothing but village pride in dangals, or local competitions, held in red dirt rings.
These rustic rings produced some of India’s best wrestlers, including the Phogat sisters whose life and success spawned the 2016 Bollywood biographical blockbuster Dangal.
But it’s the army that laid the foundation for agrarian Haryana to turn into the country’s sports nursery. Before the green revolution in the 1970s that made the state one of the top crop producers, hundreds of able-bodied Haryanvis joined the army and paramilitary forces to supplement their family income and some of these soldiers eventually become national and international athletes with military patronage. The army continues to do its bit to this day.
All the early Olympians from the state had an army background. After retirement, many of them took to coaching young talents in their home state and helped inspire and shape generations of champions.
Wrestlers Lila Ram and Devi Singh and long jumper Ram Mehar, all three from the army, were part of the 59-member Indian contingent in the 1956 Olympics and became the pioneers from the state — at that time Haryana was part of Punjab — to compete in the world’s biggest sporting event.
Ram became the country’s first Commonwealth Games gold medallist in Cardiff in 1958 and was honoured with a Padma Shri for his achievements.
“Maharashtra and Punjab used to be the country’s wrestling hubs and royal patronage was the reason behind it. But Haryana upstaged them and the army has a major role in it. Today, Indian wrestling means Haryana,” says 83-year-old triple Olympian Uday Chand, who competed in the 1960, 1964, 1968 Olympics).
In Gold Coast, nine wrestlers in the 12-member squad were from Haryana and each won a medal apiece.
Chand from Hisar was the first Indian wrestler to win a medal in the world championship — a bronze in 1961. After retirement, the former soldier shouldered on by coaching and mentoring a number of international medallists in over two decades.
Five days after Haryana was carved out of Punjab on November 1, 1966, military athlete Bhim Singh from Bhiwani became the first Asian Games gold medallist from Haryana. A week later, soldier and heavyweight boxer Hawa Singh, who took to the sport after being enlisted, won the gold medal.
Hawa Singh became a coach later and shaped Bhiwani into the country’s boxing hub. He was given the Dronacharya award posthumously.
Bhiwani found another pugilist to admire when Mehtab Singh, a local man with the military, became the first Haryana boxer to compete in the Olympics in 1972 in Mexico. In the four Olympics between 2004 and 2016, 14 men from Haryana represented the country in boxing.
In Gold Coast, six boxers in the eight-member squad were from the state and they won two gold, two silver and two bronze medals.
“Earlier it used to be wrestling, kabaddi and boxing, now the state is a dominant force in multiple disciplines, including shooting and athletics,” says discus thrower Seema Poonia, who won a silver in Gold Coast, her fourth successive Commonwealth Games medal.
“Teenagers Manu Bhaker and Anish Bhanwala (shooters) and Deepak Lather (weightlifting) made it to the podium, which further adds to the growth of the state in sports,” she says.
In the 1968 Olympics, the state had just two athletes in the 25-member Indian contingent. Four decades later, Haryana had the maximum number of players in the country’s Olympics team — nine out of 55. Since then, the state’s share of athletes in all multi-discipline games is the highest.
Boxer Vijender Singh won a bronze in Beijing 2008, while wrestlers Yogeshwar Dutt and Sakshi Malik returned with a silver and a bronze from London 2012 and Rio Olympics 2016 respectively. Sakshi became the country’s first woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal.
If the army gave the initial push to Haryanvi athletes, it was the sustained effort of successive state governments that gave the players the incentive, including cash rewards and facilities, to hone their skills and excel.
“Cash incentives and job security are drawing more young people towards sports and it is a major reason behind Haryana’s success,” says Vijender Singh, dubbed the Haryana Hunk and an idol for many. “In rural areas, a sportsperson commands great respect and that motivates others to join sports.”
The state government offers the highest cash prizes for international medals to its athletes – an Olympic gold medallist from Haryana gets Rs 6 crore. The Union government gives Rs 75 lakh for an Olympic gold and the Indian Railways Rs 1 crore. Commonwealth Games gold medallists get Rs 1.5 crore in Haryana, and it’s Rs 75 lakh, and Rs 50 lakh for silver and bronze.
It all began when then chief minister Om Prakash Chautala announced a reward of Rs 1 crore to each athlete from Haryana winning a gold in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. There was none, but the buzz went far and wide across the state’s countryside and towns.
From Chautala to Bhupinder Singh Hooda to current chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar, everyone has given priority to sports. Haryana is the only state that offers equivalent cash awards to para-athletes. Deepa Malik, who won a silver medal in the Rio Paralympics, got Rs 4 crore.
And there are jobs too. In 2007, hockey player Mamta Kharab and cricketer Joginder Sharma were made deputy superintendent of police. After his Beijing success Vijender Singh was made a DSP in 2008. Till now 19 sportspersons have been appointed DSPs. Many became sub-inspectors and inspectors in Haryana police. Several other government departments also offered jobs to champion athletes.
“Every youth wants a decent career and they know that a decent life is just a good win away. Sports is working as a vehicle for a better life,” says Bhim Singh, Haryana’s first Asian Games gold medallist who won the long jump in 1966.
Hockey coach Baldev Singh, the recipient of the Dronacharya award, is happy with the cash incentives that motivate players but suggests that the government should also build better infrastructure.
“We lack basic facilities. The government needs to work more at the grassroots level. Today whatever the state players are achieving is all because of their personal efforts,” he says.
A dialogue from Dangal, the hit movie, rings a bell here. “Medals ped pe nahi ugte. Unhey banana padta hai … pyar se, mehnat se, lagan se. (Medals don’t grow in trees. They have to be produced with love, hard work and perseverance).”
Mehnat and lagan gave the state its most iconic sporting hero, Kapil Dev, the Haryana Hurricane. The rest is history.