A truly commendable show

DWARFED by the razzmatazz of the cricket series in Pakistan, the South Asian Games at Islamabad last week nevertheless reaffirmed India's sporting hegemony in the region.

DWARFED by the razzmatazz of the cricket series in Pakistan, the South Asian Games at Islamabad last week nevertheless reaffirmed India's sporting hegemony in the region. The tally of 101 gold medals from a contingent of 400-odd competitors is truly commendable, although it did not get the right kind of play in the media.

True, the SAF Games were postponed more than once, linked as they were to India's participation. Misgivings whether the concept of the regional Games would itself be given a decent burial as a result of India's reluctance to go over to Pakistan were genuine.

When the Games were shifted from the original city of Peshawar to Islamabad, ostensibly to generate more confidence among the contestants, who were concerned over the security environment in the region, the clouds of doubt were cleared. But what worried the Organising Committee was the timing. Islamabad was unprepared for such a high profile cricket series becoming a reality in such a short span of time. The pace at which the events moved, propelled by the Governments on both sides, was amazing. And when the tour was confirmed, the clash of dates with the SAF Games became inevitable.

That Pakistan managed to devote so much time in shaping the infrastructure, providing resources and preparing the personnel to ensure the Games, featuring 1000-odd competitors and officials, pass without a hitch calls for a warm tribute. The personal interest taken in the exercise by the President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who declared open the Games, and the sports loving Prime Minister, Mir Zaffarullah Khan Jamali, deserves commendation from every section, that enjoyed the warmth of friendship and hospitality.

Priority was accorded to the security aspect, in keeping with the threat perception, which all multi-sporting events, including the Olympics, face these days. In the context of the India-Pakistan equations, this factor received more than the usual attention. Happily, there were no complaints from any section on this issue.

An assessment of the performance by Indians should be made from the standpoint of the Olympic Games in Athens. There was nothing to suggest that the quality was noteworthy, apart from the fact that the Olympic medal prospects remained in focus, even though several prominent competitors chose to stay away. The Indians cornered attention and medals in areas where they are the strongest.

Jaspal Singh Rana and Richa Mishra shared the spotlight with a bagful of medals. Jaspal was the epitome of consistency. His tally of 23 in three successive appearances in the Games only substantiates it. The seven golds at Islamabad are a testimony to Jaspal's world class status. The performance should enhance his morale before the Olympics.

Richa Mishra was the queen of the pool, with seven gold medals and six meet records. She is another star competent enough to make waves in the higher grade competitions, where confronting the Chinese and Japanese will never be as smooth sailing as it was at Islamabad.

Save for the splendid 400 metres run by S.Geetha, who hit the Olympic qualifying mark, the overall performance of the athletes was anything but striking. The much talked about eight metre jump by Amritpal Singh failed to surface; the competitor himself finished with a bronze after he pulled a hamstring muscle. Failure to come up to expectations in boxing and in football needs to be studied in depth. The soccer administration has the ready answer to minimise the adverse impact of the reverse against Pakistan in the final saying that the team fielded was inexperienced. Studied against the backdrop of the thrashing received against Oman in the qualifier at Kochi, where the best of the seniors figured, the soccer scene remains as murky as ever.

What needs to be taken note is the fact that since the launch of the Games in 1984 at Kathmandu as the instrument for inculcating sports consciousness in the region and using them to promote peace, the monopoly of the medals by India has injected an element of monotony. True, the number of disciplines has been enlarged to 15, but largely they are shuffled to accommodate the interest of the host country. Unfortunately, the standard has remained static, probably due to the lack of interest from the internationally recognised stars. Barring Susanthika Jayasinghe, there were not many world class athletes in the fray.

As the major force in the region, it is India's interest to elevate the whole aspect of competition in the SAF Games to that of other regional events like the Far Eastern and SEA Games held at regular intervals in the continent. The need of the hour is the collective approach of the member countries.

The major outcome of the Islamabad Games is that the link, which many feared would snap, now continues. And that is happy tidings for all.