North East Olympic Games: The first mile of Meghalaya’s road to sporting success

Originally set to be hosted by Arunachal Pradesh, the pandemic derailed the event in 2020 and Meghalaya took the onus to make a statement two years later.

The medal ceremony for the 4x400 mixed relay final at the North East Olympic Games. Meghalaya won gold while Manipur and Tripura secured silver and bronze, respectively. 

The medal ceremony for the 4x400 mixed relay final at the North East Olympic Games. Meghalaya won gold while Manipur and Tripura secured silver and bronze, respectively.  | Photo Credit: Abhishek Saini

Originally set to be hosted by Arunachal Pradesh, the pandemic derailed the event in 2020 and Meghalaya took the onus to make a statement two years later.

Meghalaya is on the move, said the state’s sports minister Banteidor Lyngdoh as the 2nd North East Olympic Games being held in Shillong concluded on Wednesday.

It has been lurking around the corners of India’s sporting centre stage for some time now, patiently waiting its turn. It got the hosting rights for the National Games in 2022, only for the event to be moved to Gujarat. With Goa and Uttarakhand higher up the pecking order, Meghalaya will have to wait slightly longer.

With the North East Olympic Games, came an opportunity to make a statement. Originally set to be hosted by Arunachal Pradesh, the pandemic derailed the event in 2020. It got a short notice but Meghalaya took the onus to get the ball rolling two years later.

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The Shillong Engineering College was roped in for the event, and the sporting facilities across the city were given a facelift. Nearly 1500 bunk beds were called for, and orders for hundreds of bio-toilets were made as Shillong began its preparations to host more than 3000 athletes from eight states.

But the stakes were high, and the organisers were yet to test their logistical bandwidth. Nothing could be left to chance. To ensure seamless operations for the big event, the Meghalaya Games were revived after 18 years. The event, held in May with 19 disciplines, served as the perfect test run for the Olympic Games.

Over the past six days, Shillong held through. It can host a multi-sport event. The Olympic Games held competitions across 18 events with nearly 1000 medals being awarded. Tournament officials and competition directors from various sporting federations including archery, badminton, weightlifting and athletics helmed these events.

Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma (C) with other dignitaries at the closing ceremony.

Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma (C) with other dignitaries at the closing ceremony. | Photo Credit: Abhishek Saini

“It is a celebration of the youth of the northeast. That’s the first thing I see. We are here to invest in the youth, who are at the centre of what we want to do with our state, our region and our country. We’re here to celebrate sports,” said Meghalaya’s Chief Minister Conrad Sangma at the closing ceremony.

Manipur bagged the top spot with 240 medals while Assam and Arunachal Pradesh followed in the podium places. The host state finished fourth with 36 gold, 35 silver and 78 bronze.

The biggest takeaway from the games for Meghalaya though was its athletics team. It won 15 golds, 9 silvers and 17 bronze medals, contributing a major chunk of the states’s total tally.

The North East Olympics, and the willingness to hold the National Games in the state, are a part of Meghalaya’s three-pronged plan to build a sporting culture in the state and the northeast.

The first goal is to have the athletes compete on a regular basis. Despite best efforts in recent years, access to sporting facilities remains scarce. Even if a kid picks up a sport, the topography of the region makes competing regularly with the best talent a logistical challenge. The Games aim at bridging that gap.

“It is a chance for all northeast kids to come together and bond. When these kids go out to mainland India they face a communication gap, then all the stereotypes about the region also affect them. So this is an attempt to gel them together and make them feel connected to the country,” said John Kharshiing, president MSOA.

The games even had teams field players who have played for India, or athletes who are under the aegis of the Sports Authority of India. This was an opportunity for most athletes to rub shoulders with the best talent from the region.

Onwards and upwards: Manipur footballers Melody Chanu Keisham and Shilky Devi Hemam pose with their gold medals.

Onwards and upwards: Manipur footballers Melody Chanu Keisham and Shilky Devi Hemam pose with their gold medals. | Photo Credit: Abhishek Saini

Shilky Devi Hemam from Manipur is one such player. Shilky has been a part of the India under-17 women’s football team and recently played in the women’s under-17 World Cup.

“I think this is a good tournament that will help promote and improve the quality of football in the northeast region, especially for girls,” said Shilky.

Shilky, and her teammate Melody Chanu Keisham - another India under-17 player, won the gold medal on the final day of the competition. Chanu also collected the golden glove in her category.

Similarly, Lalrina Renthlei, a basketball player from Mizoram who has played for the Indian team featured at the Games. Renthlei has been drafted into the Indian National Basketball League, and in Shillong, his team won the gold.

The conclusion of the basketball medal ceremony saw the teams sharing time on the court, learning from the experiences of senior players like Renthlei.

The second approach in the bid to promote sports in the region is an investment in infrastructure. While the capital has had a sports complex and a Sports Authority of India grounds, the slightly remoter districts like Tura and Jaintia Hils still need a facelift.

“In the next year and a half, we will have world-class indoor and outdoor facilities not only in Shillong but in Tura also. About Rs. 125 crore worth of infrastructure is on the verge of being completed,” said Sangma in his media address.

The last in the three-pronged programme is a long-term talent identification initiative.

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The MSOA has hired a high-performance director from Australia to run a pilot project. The first set of tests was completed in July with nearly 4000 children aged 8-9 years from all 12 districts.

“The entire idea is to put them through four tests - the 20m sprint, 10m ladder run, compass drill and the standing vertical jump. He gave us the benchmark for these tests and analysed the data collected.

“We had some kids bettering the international standards. The results have suggested nearly 200 children, male and female, for a special pathway programme for the next 10 years,” said Kharshiing. The detailed roadmap for this plan will be formulated in the coming months.

This, Kharshiing believes, will finally churn out an Olympic Champion from the state.

Meghalaya, much like its sister states, is turning to a simple philosophy - You reap what you sow. Manipur hosted the National Games in 1999 and had Mary Kom and Mirabai Chanu turn up in the following decades. Assam conducted the same event and has Hima Das and Lovlina Borgohain to brag about. The recent initiatives in Meghalaya are an attempt to get its facilities and sporting ecosystem to match the national standard.

The process is still nascent. Even an event like the North East Olympics just had 18 events. The National Games require nearly double. Moreover, the long-term plans need implementation, diligent follow-up and consistent financial impetus - something which often falls flat with the people at the helm changing.

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