Glance to the right: a spirited game of basketball is on. Next to it, a volleyball game, and close by, a game of kabaddi. Cast your eyes wide, and every corner of the stadium is buzzing with sports of every kind, from wrestling to gymnastics.
At 5pm on a balmy Saturday, all roads in Rohtak would appear to lead to Sir Chhotu Ram Stadium.
There are children as young as five as well as a 27-year-old mother of two. Some women here have competed with gymnast Dipa Karmakar and dream of the day when medals will be theirs, while many young men hit the track or do cardio exercises with the express purpose of joining the army.
And all this under the eagle eye of coaches who, when not playing themselves, sit on the periphery of the fields, shouting instructions.
Owned and managed by the Haryana government, the stadium offers facilities for multiple disciplines for those who are keen to learn and play.
However, Sir Chhotu Ram Stadium is not an exception—in Rohtak district alone, there are 13 other such stadiums with similar facilities.
Other districts have similar stadiums as well. Villages that don’t have stadiums have akharas (wrestling pits) and school grounds. In fact, sports centres dot Haryana, where future Yogeshwar Dutts (bronze medal winner in wrestling at the 2012 Olympics), Vijender Singhs (bronze medal winner in boxing at the 2008 Olympics) and Sakshi Maliks take shape.
In fact, the only distinguishing factor of Sir Chhotu Ram Stadium is that it can be considered the cradle of the current crop of female wrestlers, be it Suman Kundu or India’s newly-minted Olympic bronze medal winner Sakshi Malik.
At the 2012 Olympics, 18 out of 81 athletes in the Indian contingent were from Haryana, and of the six medals won by India, two were won by athletes from Haryana: Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt. Interestingly, the state government has given cash prizes to Saina Nehwal and shooter Gagan Narang, who have Haryanvi roots, though they hadn’t trained in the state. Athlete Krishna Poonia, who made it to the discus finals, was also from the state.
For the Rio Games, Haryana contributed more than 20 athletes to the 118-strong Indian contingent. At the 2010 Commonwealth Games, 15 out of India’s 38 gold medals were won by athletes from Haryana; and at the 2014 Games, out of 64 medals won by India, 22 were bagged by Haryana’s athletes.
All of which begs the question: how did a state often in the news for the wrong reasons—think honour killings and a skewed sex ratio—end up being India’s hub of sporting excellence?
The reasons are many, including the state’s sporting legacy, but the principal one is something hard to miss: a robust sports policy that encourages a sporting culture, backed by facilities and incentives.
“The present crop of athletes and performances that you see are entirely because of government policies,” says Akhil Kumar, an Arjuna Award-winning boxer from the state.
Kumar, a gold medal winner at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, compares the facilities available now with what they were when he started out. “In 1994, there were only three or four of us training as boxers. We used to practise at Nehru Stadium in Gurgaon and believe me when I say that we did not even have a ring. We would erect a make-shift one with segments of broken aluminum water pipes,” he says. Today, the same stadium boasts an astro turf and a volleyball court, among others.
Haryana’s 2016-17 sports policy stresses the right to fitness and right to play for everyone and lists several ambitious plans, including the development of mini stadiums in each gram panchayat.
In the last decade, schoolchildren have been encouraged to play at least one sport each, but the biggest draw perhaps has been the incentives for winners. From cash rewards that range from a few lakhs of rupees to crores (Sakshi Malik has been awarded Rs.2.5 crore for her medal. Sushil Kumar in 2012 was awarded Rs.1.5 crore) to right to employment (Akhil Kumar is a deputy superintendent of police in Haryana) there are now insurance and pension schemes for athletes, apart from several measures to make sports attractive to youngsters.
In fact, at one point of time, the previous Bhupinder Singh Hooda government had a padak lao pad pao (win a medal, get a job) policy, driving many youngsters towards sports.
Pawan Kumar is a first-year student of Jat College in Rohtak, who comes to Sir Chhotu Ram Stadium every morning and evening. After a volleyball game, he is exchanging notes with his coach Lalita Malik about his technique and how to improve it, though he has been playing since he was in Class VIII.
“I want to join the army,” he says. Why the armed forces? “Because, then I can focus on developing my skills. The army has the kind of set-up that is required to train world-class athletes. I don’t have to worry about my diet also,” he says.
“Plus, there are promotion opportunities for medal winners,” chimes in Malik.
According to the coach, sports in Haryana have become intertwined with employment and success, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Earlier, we had to go to schools, call up parents and convince them to send their children to the playground. It’s not easy even now, especially where girls are concerned, but there is a huge change in attitude. Girls come from villages, take up rooms on rent here, so that they can practise in stadiums and build up their game.”
Pinki Malik, a housewife, has brought her 10-year-old daughter to the stadium. She has followed Dipa Karmakar’s performance in Rio with great interest and now wants her daughter to learn gymnastics. When Mint visited the stadium, she was deep in conversation with another mother about how long it will take for her daughter to become completely trained.
“Ever since Dipa’s performance, we have started getting more students. If only the state government had provided her enough facilities, her performance would have been better,” says Rajbala Dahiya, a gymnastics coach.
Roughly 60 girls receive gymnastic training here, out of which at least a dozen are competing at the state and national levels.
“When I am asked to explain what sport I follow, the closest approximation I can give is yoga. Sometimes I even say circus,” giggles 15-year-old Puja Malik, a Class X student. However, there is nothing funny about her reasons for being a gymnast. “Success ke liye (for being successful),” is her simple explanation. “Government gives you scholarship. You get to travel; there are many incentives.”
Sports policies also, however, need a base to build on. Haryana’s long tradition of wrestling and akharas provided this base.
“In peasant culture, a lot of effort has to be made to make a livelihood and their physical strength is valued. Their overall nutrition level is also high. If you see, people from Haryana are winning in combat sports. The state has also seen a high level of violence previously, which adds to this,” says Bhupendra Yadav, faculty member at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, who specializes in social and cultural history.
In fact, social mores and conventions do pose a hurdle, especially when it came to women’s participation in wrestling. Kundu, one of the earliest wrestlers from the Sir Chhotu Ram Stadium, said her coach Ishwar Singh Dahiya went against convention to allow girls to wrestle.
“It started in 2003. Sakshi (Malik) in fact came in 2004. Do you know I did not go to my village till 2010 when I won the bronze in Commonwealth Games? And that too, because they invited me. Otherwise, the backlash against my family had been so intense for letting a girl get into wrestling,” says Kundu.
Today, out of the 80 students who come here, 35 are women.
“Now, there are several centres in each district for women to come out and wrestle,” she says.
There are several children in the wrestling hall who took to the sport seeing the likes of Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt wrestle.
Vignesh Dahiya is one of them. All of 11 years, he has been coming to the centre since 2012 and his ultimate goal is to be a part of the under-19 team by 2020.
“Believe it or not, till 2000, there was no cricket in Haryana. Even now, it (cricket) competes with other sports, it doesn’t eclipse them,” says Anirudh Chaudhry, secretary general of the Haryana Cricket Association. “Even now, if you go to villages, you will see young men running because that is the solution to most issues, whether you are underweight or overweight.”
According to Chaudhry, the current crop of medal winners are because of the successive generations of athletes who have preceded them. “The standard improves with every generation. There is a curve you have to beat to get to the top and athletes are identifying the curve and punching above that,” he says.