Finally, the much-awaited hour is nearly here. As the clock continues to tick by, the 12th South Asian Games will be put on board with pomp and grandeur at the Indira Gandhi stadium, Sarurasajai on Friday evening.
Originally scheduled to be held in 2012, the prestigious multi-discipline event encompassing competitions in 23 disciplines and 241 events is being held across two cities – Shillong being the other host city – for the first time and will have the presence of a record turnout of over 3325 athletes and officials from all the eight countries in the region.
The event is being hosted for the first time in the North East of the country does also add significance to the Games, which ends on February 16. On a historical perspective, these Games were established as a movement to foster peace and friendship between countries in the region. Athletes from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and host India, will contest each other in the tournament, which was held for the first time in Kathmandu in 1984.
India will host the Games for a third time after Kolkata (1987) and Chennai (1995), hoping to continue its overall dominance across venues for a twelfth straight time. Through the last 11 editions, the Indian juggernaut has been virtually unstoppable, racing to a mind boggling haul of 1728 medals (900 gold medals, 542 silver medals and 286 bronze medals), and thereby opening up a wide gain between second-placed Pakistan (1022, 311-375-336) and third-placed Sri Lanka (928, 185-245-455).
This story is unlikely to change this time around too as the host having fielded a contingent of 704 including 521 athletes will be present in all the 23 disciplines and being cheered by a partisan crowd both here and in Shillong. The more keenly watched race will be one for the second spot involving Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and how best that these teams can close up the gap with the host nation.
Beyond the sporting arena, the Games are also likely to be followed closely on one more account also, given the recent political stand-off between India and Pakistan in the background of the gruesome attack on the IAF base in Pathankot early last month. The presence of the Pakistani contingent numbering 475 has thus also brought the Games to the canopy of an unprecedented security cover with the State and Central security agencies virtually turning both the host cities to a virtual fortress.
As the main host city, Guwahati has been given the major share of the disciplines in which competitions are to be held which includes those in athletics, basketball, cycling, football, handball, hockey, kabaddi, kho-kho, shooting, squash, swimming, tennis, triathlon, volleyball, weightlifting and wrestling. The rest of the eight disciplines – archery, badminton, boxing, football (women), judo, table tennis, taekwondo and wushu are to be held in Shillong.
While the continuing dominance of the Indian teams will give a lot to cheer for the crowds, there are on the flip side a lot of observers who feel that these Games would have been a more ideal platform for youngsters instead of the tried and tested athletes who have already done the country proud several times over. Though this could trigger off a heated debate, it should be admitted that there is some substance to this refrain that India could well have fielded its upcoming stars from the junior level and the Universities with an eye on the future, leaving at least those who have attained the qualifying mark for the Rio Olympics later this year to remain focussed on their preparations for the dream event.
However, alas, this has come too late into the hour and with just less than 24 hours remaining for the grand opening ceremony to be graced by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi as the chief guest the focus will once again remain on yet another class showing by the Indian team against the regional minnows for a straight 12th overall title and all its accompanied glory.