Meghalaya is on the move, the State’s sports minister Banteidor Lyngdoh declared as the Second Northeast Olympic Games concluded in Shillong.
Meghalaya has been patiently waiting its turn to become a sporting powerhouse. The State got the hosting rights for this year’s National Games, but the event was moved to Gujarat, and with Goa and Uttarakhand higher up the pecking order, it would have to wait a bit to host that event in the future. But with the NorthEast Olympic Games came an opportunity. Originally set to be hosted by Arunachal Pradesh, the event was derailed by the pandemic in 2020. Meghalaya got a short notice but got the ball rolling this year.
Shillong Engineering College was roped in for the event and sporting facilities across the city were given a facelift. Nearly 1,500 bunk beds were called for and orders for hundreds of bio-toilets made as Shillong began its preparations to host more than 3,000 athletes from eight States.
Before the multi-State event, the Meghalaya Games were revived — after 18 years. The event, held in May with 19 disciplines, served as the perfect dry run for the Olympic Games.
At the main event, Shillong held through and Meghalaya proved that it can host a multi-sport event. The Olympic Games held competitions across 18 events with nearly 1,000 medals being awarded. Tournament officials and competition directors from various sporting federations including archery, badminton, weightlifting, and athletics helmed these events.
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“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. We’re here to celebrate sports,” Meghalaya’s Chief Minister Conrad Sangma said 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 North East Olympics, and the willingness to hold the National Games in the State, are part of Meghalaya’s three-fold strategy to build a sporting culture in the region.
Access to facilities
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 make them gel [with each other] and make them feel connected to the country,” explained John Kharshiing, president, MSOA.
The Games even had players who have played for India, or athletes who train under the Sports Authority of India. This was an opportunity for most athletes to rub shoulders with the best talent from the region.
Shilky Devi Hemam from Manipur is one such player. Shilky has been a member of the India Under-17 women’s team and recently played in the FIFA 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 team-mate Melody Chanu Keisham — another India Under-17 player — won the gold medal on the final day of 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 in the Games. Renthlei has been drafted in 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 step in the bid to promote sports in the region is investment in infrastructure. While the capital has had a sports complex and a Sports Authority of India ground, the slightly remoter districts like Tura and Jaintia Hills 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 ₹125 crore worth of infrastructure is on the verge of being completed,” Sangma said in his media address.
Talent identification programme
The last goal is to establish a long-term talent identification programme. The MSOA has hired a high-performance project director from Australia to run a pilot project. The first set of tests were completed in July with nearly 4,000 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 shall 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 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.
Progress has been made but there is a long way to go. Even an event like the North East Olympics just had 18 events. To put this into perspective, the National Games require nearly double the number.
Moreover, the long-term plans need diligent follow-up, implementation, and consistent financial impetus — something which often falls flat when there are changes at the top.