Inside the murky world of Indian gymnastics

Dipa Karmakar’s stellar show at the Olympics owed nothing to the sport’s governing body, which has done everything in its power to nip any development in the bud


A scene from a training session at the Saroornagar Indoor Stadium in Hyderabad. Photo: Kumar/Mint
A scene from a training session at the Saroornagar Indoor Stadium in Hyderabad. Photo: Kumar/Mint

In March 2015, gymnast G. Shyam Sundar, then 18 years old, received a letter. Signed by a deputy director of the Sports Authority of India (SAI), the text was short and the prose terse. Sundar, the letter instructed, had to vacate the hostel room he had been living in for the past five years within a week. Sundar was not surprised. He had been warned about it around a month ago. But he had hoped someone, somewhere in the complex hierarchy of Indian sports’ bureaucratic web, would step in. No one did.

But Sundar, the son of a tailor in Vijayawada, isn’t the kind to give in without a good fight. He wrote back to the deputy director. There was no response. Then he got his coach to write to the regional director of SAI’s Telangana office . The coach knew it was a futile exercise, but he wrote nonetheless. After all, Sundar was one of his brightest students, one of the very few who had stuck around. The regional director maintained that SAI was only acting according to rules: Only national-level medal winners, the official clarified, were eligible to stay in SAI’s hostels, which provide free, shared accommodation and three meals.

Sundar had to leave. The first-floor room in the Saroornagar Indoor Stadium in Hyderabad had ceased to be his home.

There is only one word for what Sundar felt when he walked out of the stadium’s gate with a duffel bag in tow that muggy March evening: rage. He had been let down. Four years earlier, when he had dislocated his left elbow after a bad fall from the horizontal bar, and was reeling in pain, his father had asked him to give it up. But he had been steadfast: “Gymnastics is my life. I am not quitting. Not now.” Two months later, he was back in the gymnasium. A year later, at the National Games held in Hyderabad in 2013, Sundar bagged a gold medal in floor exercise in men’s artistic gymnastics.

A scene from a training session at the Saroornagar Indoor Stadium in Hyderabad. Photo: Kumar/Mint
A scene from a training session at the Saroornagar Indoor Stadium in Hyderabad. Photo: Kumar/Mint

“They think I only eat free food in the mess and sleep in my room,” Sundar told me earlier this month as he waited for his turn at the pommel horse at the gymnasium in the Saroornagar stadium. It was just past 6 in the evening and Hyderabad had been lashed by torrential rains over the last two days. Most of the city’s arterial roads were flooded and traffic had come to a standstill. Attendance, understandably, was thin at the evening session of the gymnastics coaching centre. Sundar, though, was there by 4.30. He was there in the morning too—at 5.45, he had put on his raincoat, stepped out of the rented room he shared with two other boys, and dashed through the deserted, wet road on his Scooty to the gymnasium in 15 minutes flat. At 8am, after a few rounds of table vaults and floor exercises, he had packed up and gone home, where he cooked himself a meal of sambhar-rice. Then he was off again; this time to the Delhi Public School in Nadergul, 11km away, where he is a physical education teacher. The job pays him Rs15,000 a month, crucial to his survival in the big city. “It was easier when I used to be in the hostel. I could just practise without worrying about how to get two meals,” says Sundar, whose biggest hero is the Japanese gymnast Kōhei Uchimura, a seven-time Olympic medallist.

After the gold medal in the 2013 Nationals, Sundar had thought he was closer to emulating his hero. A few more medals in the 2014 Nationals, and he was sure he would be on his way. Except that the senior Nationals were not held in 2014.

“SAI is saying I am not showing performance, but where will I show performance? There were no games in 2014. But I had won a gold medal in only the last games and I had practised even harder after that,” Sundar says, more exasperated than angry now.

In all fairness, though, SAI’s decision to evict Sundar wasn’t just due to one year of “non-performance”. According to SAI’s records, Sundar hadn’t performed in 2013 either. In fact, there were no records of the Nationals even being held. Or being held even the year before, for that matter.

It wasn’t a bureaucratic goof-up on SAI’s part. The truth behind the non-existence of any records of gymnastics Nationals from 2012 was far more complex, the result of a chain of events that had begun at the convention centre of Hotel Parkview in Chandigarh on 30 July 2011.

The annual general meeting of the Gymnastic Federation of India (GFI) was on. The new executive committee of the federation was to be elected. And like most elections to Indian sports bodies, this one too had two camps. On one side was Jaspal Singh Kandhari, a businessman and the incumbent president of GFI, and on the other, P.V. Rathee, then a serving Indian Police Service officer, believed to be close to the then Haryana chief minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda.

Camp Kandhari won. Kandhari was to be GFI president for a third time. But not without the Rathee camp alleging foul play. “Rathee produced a no-objection certificate from the state government, but Kandhari insisted that according to rules, Rathee was supposed to furnish a no-objection certificate from the Central government since he was a Central government cadre officer, so his nomination was cancelled,” said a person who was present at the meeting but did not want to be named. Consequently, the Rathee camp staged a walk-out—and floated a parallel federation. And thus began Indian gymnastics’ theatre of the absurd.

Since 2012, there have been two separate Nationals every year (except 2014, when there wasn’t a single one); one each organized by the two warring factions. No one—not the players, not the coaches, not the state associations—knew which one was legitimate. Gymnasts participated where their coaches, and the associations they were affiliated to, asked them to.

The sports ministry refused to acknowledge either, refusing to intervene in what it viewed as an internal feud of the organization (most players and coaches, however, concede that it was SAI which organized camps and arranged for players to attend a few international tournaments as the two factions fought each other).

So, players participated, won medals but never got any certificates acknowledging their performance. As far as the sports ministry and SAI were concerned, there hadn’t been a single gymnastics national championship since 2011.

“There were no recognized Nationals, hardly anyone got to participate in international championships. If a player has a job with the Railways or the Services, she can still survive but what about someone without the safety net of a job? Imagine a player who was 18 in 2011; she lost the best years of her career simply because a bunch of men with big egos refused to compromise,” says Praveen Sharma, a former assistant coach of the Indian national team and now a Railways coach.

Basically, imagine Sundar.

But, of course, it affected everyone, even gymnasts who were fairly established. “It’s simple; one needs a target. And there were none. The Nationals had become a sham, international trips dried up. There was nothing to look forward to. What does one do to keep up motivation in a situation like that?” asks Partha Mondal, who had reached the final in artistic gymnastics at the 2010 Commonwealth Games held in Delhi.

After four years of complete anarchy, with both factions running amok, elections were finally held again in 2015. By then, there had been some realignment in camps. Rathee had moved away from the sport, and Kaushik Bidiwala, a trusted lieutenant of Kandhari, had fallen out with his once mentor. The new challenger to Kandhari was Sudhakar Shetty, a Mumbai-based real estate magnate.

There was to be more drama this time. In a bizarre scenario, all but one of the nominations from the Kandhari camp were rejected. The election’s returning officer, a retired judge of the Delhi high court, contended that everyone from the Kandhari camp had erred in filling the address column in the nomination papers. The one post for which elections were actually held—that of secretary—was won by Shantikumar Singh from Manipur. “If elections were held, Kandhari would have won. Most of the state associations were under his control, so Shanti won only because of Kandhari’s influence,” says a current office-bearer of the GFI who did not wish to be named.

Singh, according to people in the federation, tried pushing Kandhari’s agenda in meetings, but was stonewalled by the other members, who were almost unanimously against Kandhari.

Soon, Singh attempted a coup of sorts. He wrote to the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG), the international body governing gymnastics, asking for Shetty’s removal. Shetty sent a counter-complaint to FIG, saying he had the support of everyone in the federation except Singh, who was trying to derail the body. FIG ruled in Shetty’s favour by virtue of him being president. Almost immediately, Shetty called for an executive committee meeting and suspended Singh.

Speaking over the phone from Imphal, Singh maintains he did nothing wrong and had tried to work in tandem with Shetty and his supporters. “Shetty had forced me to sign off on resolutions to issues that had not even been discussed in the executive committee’s meeting. I told him it’s not possible, that’s why all this is happening.”

Why did then FIG, a neutral party, rule against him? “They have got it all wrong; their decision is against the constitution of the GFI, against the constitution of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA),” says Singh.

That wasn’t, however, the end of the dispute. When the Shetty-controlled GFI announced its first nationals, the 24th Rhythmic Gymnastics National Championship in Hyderabad, the Kandhari group called for a similar competition in Mohali, leading to confusion all over again. A young gymnast, Rishab Singh, moved court seeking clarity. The Punjab and Haryana high court stayed the event in Hyderabad with immediate effect. “We went ahead with the event nonetheless, but refrained from giving anyone certificates fearing contempt of court,” Ravindranath Mangla, part of the Shetty-controlled GFI, says on the phone from Pune.

Meanwhile, Singh too moved court over his suspension. Indian gymnastics was back to where it been: in an anarchic lurch.

On 26 August, the courts intervened. The Punjab and Haryana high court dismissed both the petitions in a stinging ruling, rebuking the sports ministry for passing the buck for so long and asked the IOA to take control of the situation. “...any citizen of this great country would be at pains to see that how cruel joke is being played with our players, at the hands of our sport federations, like the present one...,” the court observed.

Since the 2015 election was held under the aegis of the IOA, the court ruling would effectively hand over control of Indian gymnastics to the Shetty faction, the democratically elected body. Going by the turbulent history of the GFI, though, the transition would be anything but smooth. As a current member of the federation says: “This is a problem that can be solved only when both parties want to. For that, both parties have to care about the sport. The truth is, no one does.”

***

Dipa Karmakar at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters
Dipa Karmakar at the Rio Olympics. Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters

It’s 31 August, 17 days since Dipa Karmakar Produnova’d her way to fourth place in the Rio Olympics. The gymnasium is a happy place.

There has been a new admission to the beginners’ gymnastics class in the Saroornagar stadium every day since, says coach P. Ravindra Kumar. Parents bring along starry-eyed children, mostly girls, as young as six years old, to classes twice a day. “There has been a surge in admissions. If not for the rains, it would have been even more. It’s all the Dipa effect” says Ravindra Kumar .

Seven-year-old Sai Tanmeayi Reddy is the “new admission” today. The Reddy seniors, however, don’t quite want her to be the next Dipa. “Only for fitness purpose; studies more important,” says the father. Even senior gymnasts are relieved that Karmakar’s performance has given the sport some kind of a foothold in the national consciousness.

“Now, at least people know there exists a sport called gymnastics,” says Siddharth Verma, 21, described as another big talent.

Verma, an employee of Indian Railways, refrains from explicitly saying what he thinks is wrong with Indian gymnastics. “We could do with some allied equipment. Yes, that would be good,” he says. Allied equipment is apparatus designed exclusively for practice, and is not used in competitions.

Then, Ravindra Kumar, the proud coach, introduces K. Priyanka Sagar. All of 15, she has just come back from the World School Games in Turkey, where she participated in rhythmic gymnastics.

Scratch the surface, however, and there is bitterness. “Parents won’t let the kids practise, but they will get disappointed if their kids don’t perform as well as the others. Then they blame it on us,” says R. Ravindar, the other male coach. “Also, what results can you expect when they rent out the gymnasium for weddings?”

Coach Angurlata is also agitated: “Only time-pass these kids do. In the morning, they reach by 6.30 and then leave at 7. To become a gymnast, one needs to spend at least 7 hours in the gym.”

Angurlata’s life is all gymnastics. All her memories—good and bad—revolve around the sport. A senior Nationals champion, she has spent the last 23 years coaching young gymnasts. One of India’s brightest young talents, Aruna Reddy (a close friend of Karmakar’s) was mentored by her for seven years. Her husband, A.V. Giriraj, was India’s first FIG Level-3 (the highest accreditation level ) coach. He died in an accident on the way back from the gymnasium.

“I have asked my kids not to pursue sports. What’s the point? It has been 23 years and SAI still hasn’t regularized my job. Probably, the parents are right about academics being more important,” says Angurlata.

***

Ashish Kumar en route to his 2010 Commonwealth Games medal. Photo: Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times
Ashish Kumar en route to his 2010 Commonwealth Games medal. Photo: Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times

The best years of Indian gymnastics were 2009-11 and most accounts suggest it was almost singularly the handiwork of one man: a Russian-born American called Vladimir Chertkov, who was brought in, quite ironically, by the federation to train gymnasts.

The highlight of the period was 19-year-old Ashish Kumar from Allahabad. Ashish won two medals in the 2010 Commonwealth Games; a silver in vault and a bronze in floor exercise. Just to prove it wasn’t a flash in the pan, Ashish, against all expectations, pulled off a bronze in floor exercise at the Guangzhou Asian Games later the same year, an arena notably tougher than the Commonwealth stage. “No one thought—and perhaps justifiably so, since the competition is so tough in the Asian Games—that I would end up on the podium, but I did,” says Ashish, who is undergoing a physiotherapy regimen at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium for an injury he suffered during practice.

“We reached a new level under Vladimir then,” says Ashish. “He would make us go through this intense conditioning programme every day, which would involve doing nine apparatus every day. It took a toll on our bodies initially, but very soon we could feel the effects of it. My body just felt more prepared.”

Sharma, who had assisted Chertkov, agrees: “Our boys have always been hard workers; it was the technical element that we lacked. Vladimir brought that in.”

Girls as young as 6 have taken up gymnastics after Karmakar’s Olympic performance. Photo: Kumar/Mint
Girls as young as 6 have taken up gymnastics after Karmakar’s Olympic performance. Photo: Kumar/Mint

Chertkov’s legacy in Indian gymnastics goes beyond just medals. He changed the way players were selected for international tournaments and did away with the system of trials. “He would analyse performance over a period of time, select 15-20 players for a camp and then send different players to different tournaments depending on the importance of the tournament and skill-levels of the competing pool. The aim was to create formidable bench strength and give international exposure to everyone, not just the best three,” recalls Sharma.

The good times, though, weren’t meant to last long. Chertkov’s no-nonsense attitude, when it came to the game and his wards, irked many in the federation and SAI. Indian bureaucrats, used to treating coaches as employees, couldn’t stomach Chertkov’s refusal to be treated thus and often resorted to petty tactics to cut him down to size, according to fellow coaches. “As per his contract, Vladimir was entitled to a car. So, to settle scores, a senior SAI official once delegated an old run-down car without an AC to him. He refused to take it and that led to an ugly spat,” recounts a former support staffer of the Indian team.

During the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, the chef de mission of the Indian delegation, Abhay Chautala, reportedly refused to let Chertkov participate in the opening ceremony if he didn’t wear the team blazer, which, according to Chertkov, didn’t fit him. In a fit of rage, Chertkov left China by the next flight.

The humiliation continued.

After Ashish won a bronze at the Games, Kandhari is supposed to have asked Chertkov if that was the best he could deliver, leaving him incensed.

“India needs a professional federation. The Gymnastic Federation of India just does not have any knowledge of the sport. It is a useless organization,” he had then told reporters. Then followed regular skirmishes with SAI officials and members of the federation over camp venues, the choice of the support staff sent to international tournaments, and the choice of hotels players would be put up in.

After Ashish failed to qualify for the 2012 Beijing Olympics, it was abundantly clear that Chertkov’s days were numbered. Predictably, when his contract ended in December 2011, SAI didn’t renew it.

A session at the Saroornagar stadium. Photo: Kumar/Mint
A session at the Saroornagar stadium. Photo: Kumar/Mint

Chertkov’s departure still hasn’t been quite compensated for. In fact, contrary to popular perception, Indian gymnastics’ biggest problem (apart from an outrageously apathetic governing body) is not the lack of quality equipment; it is the absence of a world-class coaching machinery. For example, the National Sports Academy founded by U.K. Mishra in Allahabad, Hyderabad’s Saroornagar Indoor Stadium, Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium and Kolkata’s SAI centre house equipment comparable to the best in the world, but there is currently only one FIG Level-3 coach in the entire country. Even Ashish admits that he owes his success in large measure to the foreign coaches who trained him at the National Sports Academy: “They gave me a solid foundation.”

It is an unpopular hypothesis and is often countered by people with Karmakar’s example; her coach, Bishweshwar Nandi, is not FIG-accredited. Therein, however, also lies the biggest—and greatly inconvenient—truth about Indian gymnastics: Karmakar’s success was not a consequence of the Indian school of gymnastics, but despite it. Which is why it is so remarkable.

The question is: What after Dipa?

*****

Gymnast Siddharth Verma. Photo: Kumar/Mint
Gymnast Siddharth Verma. Photo: Kumar/Mint

The rising star

Siddharth Verma, 21, started training in 1998, when he was three years old, at the U.K. Mishra-run National Sports Academy in Allahabad, one of the most prolific breeding grounds for Indian gymnasts. Hailed as the next big thing by his coaches and compatriots alike, Verma says his immediate targets are the 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games, to be held in Australia and Indonesia, respectively. “If he continues to perform like he is now, he is sure to be one of the best gymnasts in 2018,” says Railways coach Sarfaraz Ahmad.

Indian gymnastics over the years

1951: A national federation for gymnastics is formed. A year later, it gets affiliation to the Indian Olympic Association and the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique.

1952: Two gymnasts, Khushi Ram and Veer Singh, both from Punjab, sent to the Helsinki Olympics.

1956: Three gymnasts—Pritam Singh, Sham Lal and Anant Ram—sent to the Melbourne Olympics.

1964: A six-member gymnastics team, led by Anant Ram, represents India at the Tokyo Olympics. In all three Olympics, the Indian gymnasts finish at the bottom of the pool. For the next 52 years, there would be no Indian gymnast at the Olympics.

2006: Uttar Pradesh gymnast Ashish Kumar makes his mark by qualifying for the Asian Games, and wins a bronze at the Asian Artistic Gymnastics Championships, India’s first international medal in the sport.

2010: Ashish Kumar wins India’s first medals, a bronze and a silver, in gymnastics at the Commonwealth Games, held in New Delhi. He makes an even bigger breakthrough with a bronze at the Guangzhou Asian Games.

2016: Dipa Karmakar becomes the first Indian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics (qualifications were introduced in 1972). She becomes the first Indian to make it to the final of a gymnastics event at the Olympics, where she finishes fourth.

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