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Where champions are made

When we list every Indian athlete who has won a medal at the Olympic, Asian and Commonwealth Games and divided them into the regions they come from, patterns leap out

Where would Indian wrestling be without Haryana and Delhi? At the ongoing Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Glasgow, where the wrestlers have been unstoppable, winning three golds and a silver on Tuesday, all the medallists were from these two states. Sushil Kumar (gold in 74kg) comes from the border between the two states; Amit Kumar (gold, 57kg) is from Sonepat district in Haryana, a hotspot for wrestling and the place where Sports Authority of India (SAI) runs its Olympic training centre for the sport; Vinesh (gold, 48kg) is from Balali village, where she grew up in the house of former wrestler Mahavir Singh, who runs a wrestling school for girls; and Rajeev Tomar (silver, 125kg) is from the famed Guru Hanuman Akhara in Old Delhi. As this goes to print, four more wrestlers from Haryana and Delhi are assured of at least silver medals, having reached the finals of their respective weight classes.

This perhaps comes as no surprise. Since Sushil’s bronze medal at the 2008 Olympic Games, we all know that these two states form the very core of wrestling’s powerful rise in the country. Just like we all know that Punjabis and people from the tribal belt in Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand are born to play hockey. Or that if you give a few Bengalis, Goans and Manipuris a football, you have the national team.

But what lies behind these stereotypes, in the more sure-footed realm of numbers? Why is it that certain states produce world-class athletes in only a single sport? And just how powerful is this phenomenon?

To answer these, and to raise more questions, we listed every Indian athlete who has won a medal in an individual sport at the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games and the Olympics since 1998, and divided them into the regions they come from.

Patterns leap out.

A hundred years ago, the British would have explained it away along racial lines: Punjabis are of warrior stock, Bengalis are weak and effete. Thankfully, we know better. Let’s look at wrestling. Part of Haryana’s success in the sport is, of course, explained by the deep culture of wrestling that exists in the state, but it has equally deep roots in Punjab, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh, whose athletes dominated competitions in the 1960s and 1970s.

Two inter-connected events tilted the balance: The first wrestling mats in India were acquired by training centres in Delhi in the early 1980s (earlier, wrestlers would train on earthen surfaces and compete internationally on mats, a staggering disadvantage); and in the early 1990s, Satpal Singh and Chandgi Ram, two of India’s best wrestlers, switched entirely to mat-based training at their respective schools, and tirelessly propagated its use in Delhi and Haryana.

“In Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, coaches are still debating whether mats are good or if they are destroying our tradition of wrestling on earth," says Yashvir Singh, one of the coaches of the Indian team. “In Haryana and Delhi, there is no question of what we want; train on the mat at all times with international medals in mind, go fight local tournaments on earth when there is time to spare."

Individual athletes and coaches play an unusually significant role in influencing how a sport will develop. Before Dingko Singh’s gold at the 1998 Asian Games, boxing had little presence in Manipur. After the medal, it became a rage. Manipur then produced another star—the five-time world champion and now Olympic medallist Mary Kom. Since 2006, Manipuri boxers have consistently made it to the Indian team.

“Yes, Dingko changed everything," says Ibomcha Singh, who coached both Kom and Dingko. “Before him, I had to go around and force people to try boxing. Taekwondo was the big thing in Manipur then. After Dingko, I had to stop people from joining, there was such a demand for boxing."

P.T. Usha’s influence on Kerala is equally strong. After she narrowly missed a medal at the 1984 Olympics, running became a craze in Kerala. If Kerala was a country, it would beat India in track events handily.

Infrastructure, not surprisingly, plays a massive role, but only when paired with the right coaches. Haryana and Delhi have hundreds of wrestling akharas (but so does Maharashtra and UP); Manipur’s boxers find refuge in SAI’s training centre in Imphal, while runners from Kerala stream into neighbouring Bangalore, where SAI operates an elite training centre. Maharashtra and Delhi have two of the country’s biggest and most well-equipped shooting ranges, and an overwhelming number of shooters come from these two states. From Hyderabad, Pullela Gopichand’s iconic and very modern badminton training centre more or less rules the sport.

Shooting is that rare sport that doesn’t fall so neatly in this pattern. The Indian Army runs a training centre for sport shooting, the Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU), which, by its very structure, overcomes the regional divide. The 2012 Olympic silver medallist is from Himachal Pradesh, but learnt his shooting at the unit; likewise for Jitu Rai, who won the 50m Pistol gold at the ongoing CWG and is from Nepal, but joined the Indian Army in 2006 and trained at AMU. Shooters also tend to come from families that can afford greater mobility, sending their talented children to live, study, and train in a city which has better facilities for the sport. Delhi and Pune are the prime destinations. Ronjan Sodhi, who has won multiple medals at CWGs and Asian Games, is from Ferozepur in Punjab, but shifted to Delhi when he was 15.

“Punjabis generally like guns, and my father and I used to shoot at bottles and stuff on our farm, but I first entered a shooting range when I came to Delhi," Sodhi says.

This ability of individuals to seed and sustain this tight radius within a state also points to a failure in sports administration: a good system, with smart resources and solid pedagogy, will not be so skewed.

The effect of this systemic failure can be seen most starkly when you look at the number of states that produce almost no international medals: Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Tripura, Meghalaya, and Mizoram.

If the numbers caste a shadow on some things, they illuminate others: despite all the opposition and obstacles that women have faced and continue to face in choosing a career in sports, they account for a large share of the medals. In track-and-field, badminton and weightlifting they leave the men far behind in the tally and put up a reasonable show in almost everything else.

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