A show beyond our means?

INDIA'S P. S. SRIKANTH goes up for a spike against Pakistan. India's straight-game victory in the semi-final encounter was one of the high points of the Games.-PTI

The 2006 Games in Colombo has proved that India has made greater strides over the years when compared with the other nations in the region, writes S. R. Suryanarayan.

Sri Lanka's National Olympic Committee President, Hemasiri Fernando lamented that India came to the 2006 South Asian Games (August 18-28) with only a few of its top athletes. But Pakistan's chef-de-mission, Khwaja Sayeed was diplomatic. "The South Asian Games are the only platform for athletes from the region to interact with one another and foster a feeling of friendship and brotherhood. They are goodwill games and not contests," he said.

Whichever way one looks at it, this much is clear after the end of the South Asian Games — formerly known as SAF Games — in Colombo, that the event is a domain where India's pre-eminence remains unquestioned.

India has reigned supreme at these regional games right from their inception in Kathmandu (Nepal) in 1984. In Colombo, though, people expected India to be in for some unpleasant surprises and upsets for two reasons: one, India had sent its second-string teams to the Games, and two, the other seven nations (Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the latest entry, Afghanistan), especially Sri Lanka, were publicly issuing statements on the level of success each hoped to achieve.

However, India surpassed all expectations, winning 234 medals in all, including a record 118 gold. Its nearest rival, Pakistan, was a distant second with 43 gold, 44 silver and 71 bronze medals, while the host, Sri Lanka, won 37 gold, 63 silver and 78 bronze medals. In 1991, when Sri Lanka staged the Games for the first time, just 20 gold medals separated India, the leader, and the host.

Thus, the 2006 SAG has proved that India has made greater strides over the years when compared with the other nations in the region. And come to think of it, a country like Maldives, which has been participating in these Games right from the beginning, could not even win a single medal.

What is the relevance of the South Asian Games vis-�-vis the other major multi-sport events in the continent and the world?

A look at the performances in athletics, always considered the glamour event of such meets, shows that they do not match up to even the Indian national championship standards. Barring a few, the times, distances or heights recorded by the athletes is far inferior to even the Indian national records. Perhaps Pakistan's chef-de-mission is right when he says that SAG "is goodwill games and not contests."!

Take India's Anju Bobby George for instance. "Seven metres is my goal," she said on the eve of her first jump after a near three-month break from competition following an ankle injury. But what she finally cleared at the Games was only 6.42 metres, which was well below her best.

However, for Indian athletes such as Pinky Paramanik, Shanthi, Anuradha Biswal, Hamza Chatholi and Francis Sagayaraj the Games provided the stage to revel in. Though India was without its top shooters, it managed to win 19 gold medals. The one shooter the country sorely missed was Jaspal Rana, who reigned supreme at the last Games in Islamabad in 2002. And in his absence, the Pakistani shooters reaped the most benefit in the pistol events (centre fire and standard). They claimed five gold medals overall, and to that extent India's domination was not total in shooting.

Similarly in football, the Indian officials had decided that `participation was more important' than gaining medals and sent an Under-20 squad, comprising players mostly from the North-eastern states.

On a rain-soaked turf (Colombo had plenty of rain in the initial phase of the Games), it was difficult to gauge the performance of the players. Still it was disappointing to see the Indian players, who looked talented individually, but appeared lost while playing as a team. Coach Islam Akhmedov's strategy was unclear though India managed to produce a `result' against Bangladesh (India had drawn against Nepal and Afghanistan).

Playing against Sri Lanka in the semi-finals, India took the lead, lost it at the last minute of extra time and with it the confidence to do well in the tie-breaker. The defeat, followed by another against Nepal while playing for the third place, pushed India out of the medal count for the second time in the history of the Games. And interestingly enough, the last time India went out of the medal hunt in football at the Games was in Colombo in 1991.

Perhaps the most businesslike approach from India was in volleyball. Having lost to Pakistan in two tournaments recently — the Asian Zone Championship and the Rashid Memorial tournament — India exacted revenge by defeating its archrival with aplomb. The India-Pakistan encounter in the semi-final was one of the high points of the Games.

Pakistan's defeat to Sri Lanka in a crucial group match meant it had to face India in the criss-cross semi-final. And what a performance India produced. With Tom Joseph, Srikanth and Rajeev firing away, and Subba Rao putting up solid net blocks, India won in straight games.

The victory really boosted the confidence of India's Brazilian coach, Augusto Sabatini.

However, in the final, India ran into some complications against Sri Lanka. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and India's Sanjay Kumar stepped in to end the host's challenge with a flurry of smashes and near flawless blocking.

The Indian women, on the other hand, had a relatively easy time against Sri Lanka. Ashwini Kumari was the pick of the Indian women's team.

Hockey was expected to provide great excitement, but holding the event in Matale, a good four hours by road from Colombo, took away much of the interest. India defeated Pakistan in the opening match of the tournament, but lost in the final to its archrival.

Boxing provided some unexpected bonus to India. Considered a Pakistan stronghold at least in the history of these Games, India made a dent by winning four of the 11 gold medals at stake. Pakistan took the rest.

One glaring aspect of the Games was the plunging sporting fortunes of the other nations. With 10 editions having gone by and the SAF council having decided to keep the Games in line with the South East Asian and Far East Asian Games, it is important that efforts are also made to provide regional training schemes to prop up the overall standards of the SAG.

It is surprising that the SAF Council, instead of concentrating on this aspect, is now exploring the possibility of staging a `Winter Games' (as suggested by the OCA Secretary-General, Randhir Singh) or an `Indian Ocean Games' (Hemasiri Fernando thinks very highly of this idea).

However, one positive aspect of the SAG has been the awareness that it has helped create and the improvement in sports infrastructure that it has brought about in countries that hosted the Games. Hemasiri Fernando believes that the Games have given a new identity to sportspersons in Sri Lanka. "The rise of Susanthika Jayasinghe or Damayanthi Darsha or the latest star Rohan Pradeep should be attributed to the Games," he said.

No doubt the Games have been a godsend for many aspiring sportspersons in the South Asian region. But the question still remains — whether there is a need for a multi-million dollar 20-discipline extravaganza as the SAG when a more modest competition can serve the purpose.