Empty stands, but not empty hands for the host

India’s Deborahwith the silver medal she won in the sprint event.-Pics: SANDEEP SAXENA

Despite the absence of fans inside the velodrome, Indian cycling had much to cheer about. However, it has much more to work on in the aftermath of the Asian Championship. By Priyansh.

As this writer entered the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex Velodrome on March 7, the opening day of the Hero Cycles Asian Cycling Championship in New Delhi, that familiar feeling which comes to one on the first day of a Test series or a new football season, reappeared in all its energy. Let’s call it excitement.

Much of what witnessed that day was to become a recurrent theme over the next 10 days and cause significant narrative fatigue by the time the event drew to a close. This writer saw near-empty stands but reassured himself by repeatedly uttering, “It’s a Thursday. Wait until the weekend arrives.”

Unfortunately, the weekend arrived and went away without a flutter. Another came five days later and passed in silence, with road cycling being the victim this time at the Buddh International Circuit.

Spectator apathy at the Formula One track was not surprising. Far removed from the capital, the circuit struggled to attract fans due to the difficulty of following road races from the stands and India’s modest showing.

On the contrary, track cycling had all the makings of a blockbuster event. A top quality and spectator-friendly velodrome, which received rave reviews upon its completion before the 2010 Commonwealth Games, though not well-maintained ever since, was expected to be one of the major attractions of the championship.

Moreover, India began its campaign in junior cycling on a successful note with a bronze medal on the opening day. By the end of the track leg, the host could boast of a record medal-haul with two silver and two bronze.

The success stories of the medal-winning duo of Deborah (Andaman & Nicobar Islands) and T. Manorama Devi (Manipur) were being recounted in newspapers with much gusto and yet, no bums on the seats.

The reasons behind such apathy were inexplicable only to an extent. With a giant display screen which refused to function throughout the event and no food stalls, the description of the velodrome as ‘spectator-friendly’ came across as a cruel joke. The low awareness of the sport among the public was also a contributing factor.

Despite the absence of fans inside the velodrome, Indian cycling had much to cheer about. However, it has much more to work on in the aftermath of the championship. The home riders were involved in a high-intensity camp since last June and it bore significant rewards as Deborah and Manorama proved their mettle on the continental stage.

Many Asian coaches believe that the duo has the potential to perform well in tougher competitions too. Towards the end of the event, South Korea coach Yun Hee Tae even offered to arrange a training camp for the two riders with the support of his country’s federation ahead of the UCI Juniors track World championship in Glasgow later this year.

Remarkably, the teenagers’ triumphs overshadowed the relative failure of the rest of the Indian riders. Especially, the host’s cyclists in the elite events often found themselves at the wrong end of the ladder and indulged in a battle to avoid the wooden spoon.

Another Indian who excelled was Manorama Devi, seen here with the silver medal she won in Keirin.-

In fact, the reasons behind India’s average showing induce another narrative fatigue. Unavailability of top-class equipment, lack of quality infrastructure and fitness issues constitute parts of a pattern that runs through various disciplines in Indian sports. Due to constant repetition, unfortunately, such issues stand on the brink of being trivialised.

The answer to such problems, it is often argued, is to appoint foreign coaches. Sixteen-year-old Jashnjeet Kaur, after losing her bronze medal playoff to a Kazakh rider in the individual pursuit event, argued that the methods adopted by Indian coaches are inferior to the ones employed by their foreign counterparts.

However, ex-India and current Malaysia coach Graham Seers disagrees. “Her (Jashnjeet) coach has done pretty well to help her win the fourth place in an Asian championship. So, she should just work harder to improve.

“India needs better structure and planning for further progress,” said the Australian.

In fact, most of the participating nations in New Delhi banked on their home coaches.

South Korea backed its homegrown staff and displaced last edition’s table-topper Hong Kong to reign supreme. Eventually the former won 11 medals, including eight gold, but failed to finish on the podium in road cycling at the BIC.

Rather, central Asian countries like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan dominated the scene at the quick F1 track, which posed a unique challenge to the riders with its sharp corners.

The UCI Track Cycling World Championship held in Minsk, Belarus in February, however, provided a fairer estimation of the state of Asian cycling than the continental competition. In the latter event, a few countries like China did not even send their top cyclists due to visa delays and other issues.

With a stronger contingent in Minsk, the Chinese won two silver medals. Hong Kong, which finished second in the continental championship, was the highest ranked Asian country at the world event with a gold and bronze, both won by London Olympics medallist Lee Wai Sze.

None of the other continental riders earned a podium spot.

Importantly, India is one of the few Asian countries to be blessed with a wooden track velodrome. Multiple Asian championship medallist Alireza Haghi said that Iran still uses a 45-year-old open arena with a cemented floor for training.

Without the installation of the required infrastructure, the continent’s countries will struggle to hold their own against the traditional favourites like Australia and the United Kingdom. In the near future, this narrative fatigue looks set to endure too.