Rising cost causing concern

Jaspal Rana... with 23 golds in the SAF Games, he is indeed India's falgbearer.-V. SUDERSHAN

It is not really surprising that India has been head and shoulders above the rest in this event. Right from the 1984 edition, the goal of each SPORTSPERSON from the other competing nations has been to `beat an Indian to the gold', writes S. R. SURYANARAYAN.

Twenty-two years have passed since the dream of South Asian youth took root in the picturesque Dasharatha Stadium in Kathmandu. To foster friendship and brotherhood through the medium of sport was the underlining desire of the seven nations in the region — India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Maldives and Bhutan — as the SAF Games was launched. On the broader front, at the highest political level, it was believed that the essence of peace, perseverance and progress could also be effectively met through the development of sports in the region.

From a humble beginning then in Kathmandu when there were just five disciplines, the SAF Games has grown. In the Colombo 2006 edition, which is the 10th in the series, there are 20 disciplines and what is more, the Games have been re-christened the `South Asian Games' (SAG) in tune with similar multi-discipline events in the Asian region, aside from the Asian Games.

But then the burgeoning number of events and ever increasing costs are beginning to make this sports extravaganza a drain on the economy of most members of the SAF region. The Colombo edition, for instance, has a budget close to a billion Sri Lankan rupees and China has come forward to share a little of the burden. In fact this is one area (rising number of events and increasing costs) that has not been given the required thought by the votaries of the Games. This aspect calls for urgent attention before the unwieldy nature of the Games leads to a decrease in the very enthusiasm that had marked its inception.

Standardising the number of events and starting a corpus fund to aid host nations are things that should be considered. For they will be in keeping with the essence of the Games itself — to bring the nations closer. Basically, the SAG has been a stepping stone for many an aspiring sportsperson to make it big in the continent before plunging into world-level meets. If athletics has caught up in Sri Lanka, then swimming and shooting have been areas of improvements in Bangladesh, while Maldives' love for football is beginning to show in the results over the years and in the way the national league is being promoted there.

All are agreed on another aspect that has gained focus thanks to the Games. The improvement of sports infrastructure has been significant when viewed on a broader perspective, although countries like Maldives and Bhutan are yet to host the Games. In Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and India the Games have brought state of the art infrastructure and in some cases renovation of existing facilities. This rubs off on the quality of the sport itself and also on the attitude of the sportspersons.

It is not really surprising that India has been head and shoulders above the rest in this event. Right from the 1984 edition, the goal of each sportsperson from the other competing nations has been to `beat an Indian to the gold'. And if it happens to be an India v Pakistan affair, the interest and stakes can be well imagined! Like the India-Pakistan hockey final in Chennai in 1995 that was scintillating stuff. Initially, such dreams seldom bore fruit, but things have been gradually changing. The Lankans are now proving more than a handful in the athletics arena with names like Sushanthika Jayasinghe and Damayanthi Darsha, well known as multiple gold medallists even at the Asian Games level. Sushanthika is also the first Sri Lankan to win an Olympic medal — she took the bronze in Sydney 2000.

And football has brought more joy to nations than any other discipline because India has stumbled many a time here. When seen in the context of its consistent successes in the other disciplines, football has been a humbling experience for India. It has won the football title three times, as has Pakistan. Bangladesh has also won the title once, at India's expense.

Yet India's domination overall has never been questioned. A mere look at the medals table in each edition is enough. The tussle among the other nations has been more for the second place. Here, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been keen contestants.

There have been extraordinary moments for India like Nisha Millet in the pool in Kathmandu in 1999, winning seven gold medals, something shooter Jaspal Rana emulated in 2004 in Pakistan. Swimmer Richa Mishra came up with six gold medals in Pakistan. In fact Rana's run in these regional games has been such that he has so far collected 23 gold medals from three editions! Perhaps the hunger for more remains.

It is difficult to imagine things being different this time, though in terms of preparation Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have put in more effort. Each of these nations has gone in for systematic training, home and abroad, with one aim: to better its performance. India this time will not participate in weightlifting, owing to the drug scandal that the lifters have got into — a ban from the world body is in force. Then again indications are that the best of Indian athletes will not feature in most other events. That could queer the pitch, but can all this displace India's overall domination? That's a big question mark.