It was worth the effort

IT is now futile to examine whether the country deserved such an expensive inaugural Afro-Asian Games. What must be assessed dispassionately is the efficacy of the venture and the degree of sporting excellence displayed during those eventful days in Hyderabad. Even assuming that the contests were mediocre and lacked world class fare, the fact that India cornered as many as 80 medals, more than what the super power of the region, China, could aggregate must be acknowledged.

China did top the gold medal tally with 25, but India picked up 19 with 32 silver and 29 bronze. Statistically speaking, as many as 35 countries from the two continents figured on the medal board, and India's second place on it makes the effort noteworthy. True, the big names were missing in some disciplines like soccer, athletics and shooting, but these aberrations should not cloud what the Indians had achieved, nor be dismissed as worthless. The golds, in men's and women's hockey, testified the level of competence. While the men prevailed over Pakistan twice in a space of four days to take the top honours, the women outclassed two major powers, South Korea and South Africa.

In the individual events, stars who were expected to strike it rich performed with a measure of credit. Anju George, Neelam Jaswant Singh in athletics and Anjali Bhagwat in shooting are worthy of being named as outstanding in the meet. Competition in athletics acquired a trace of class with the participation of Frankie Fredericks of Namibia and a few world level stars in long distance running from Ethiopia. The Chinese women lifters enhanced the stature of the competition what with San Dan breaking the world record in an event in which the home team's star performer, Karnam Malleswari, was missing, after taking part in the opening ceremony.

Viewed from a larger perspective of globalisation and the role of India as an all round developing power, the inaugural Afro-Asian Games can be categorised as pathbreaking. Indisputably, the hiccups before the Games became a reality were far too many, genuine and created, more often the latter. Conceived as an instrument to strengthen the bonds between two large continents sometime in the late Eighties, it was difficult to convince many in the power hierarchy over the need for such a venture. Initially, it did look as though the chief proponent of the idea, the Indian Olympic Association, mishandled the whole project by making far too many commitments to crystallise the concept. But looking back, one should not flinch from paying a tribute to the persistence, patience and pragmatism of Suresh Kalmadi as head of the IOA. Several hurdles had to be crossed and so many power brokers had to be silenced before he struck a rapport with the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, whose wholesome support ensured the creation of a magnificent infrastructure for the Games. No effort was spared by the Government to get the venues ready. The hockey administration headed by the FIH President, Els van Breda Vriesmann, was amazed by the fact that two artificial pitches were laid in less than three weeks time.

The optimism expressed by Suresh Kalmadi that the launch of the Afro-Asian Games is a sure sign of framing a long chain to make sport a vibrant social, economic and political plank in the two continents is certainly not misplaced. He was not tired of citing the fact that it was India that gave shape to the dream of sportsmen and women through the first Asian Games in New Delhi in 1951 and how this idea caught the imagination of the youth to the point of staging as many as 14 successive Asiads without a break. One hopes that the fire lit in Hyderabad is kept burning in future with Africa taking up the gigantic task of hosting the second edition in 2007.

When the project was put up for approval, the International Olympic Committee, headed by the then President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, applauded it as a major promotional exercise. The present administration is unlikely to have any other opinion. But the delegates representing Asia and Africa in the IOC should endeavour to exercise their influence to get the event a greater recognition in future. After all, the two continents represent more than a majority of the global population thirsting for better conditions of living and dreaming of courting excellence using sport as the medium.

Whatever be the initial misgivings, the Afro-Asian Games mirrored the fact that India has the wherewithal and expertise to stage a mega event with eclat.