It was weightlifter Gururaja Poojary who opened India's medal account at the recent Commonwealth Games, but the 25-year-old from Karnataka has expressed sadness over the political battle surrounding his medal and the lack of real returns.
Speaking to The Bridge, the silver medallist said, "After I won the medal, everyone rushed to support me. However, when I had been preparing, no one had come forward. No politician. No sponsor. Now they are making promises about cash awards and support for my next event."
Karnataka Sports Minister Pramod Madhwaraj had announced a government job and Rs 25 lakh cash award for Gururaja soon after his win, but that is one promise yet to see the light of day. With less than a month to go before the Karnataka elections, the announcement had been charged as 'inducement to voters' and a case lodged against the minister by the Udipi district administration. The man at the centre of the controversy, however, thinks the matter could have been entirely avoided.
"This is the reason why Indian sports is down. If everyone runs to support someone who has already won, it is not very useful. If we support our state-level and national-level medallists instead, they shall definitely win international medals in the future," said Gururaja.
Only Indian weightlifting medallist not on TOPS list
The other thing that has rankled Gururaja since the CWG is his exclusion from the Target Olympics Podium Scheme (TOPS). Thirteen weightlifters currently benefit from the central government scheme - eight of whom won medals at CWG and five who did not. Gururaja is the only one not on the TOPS list to have medalled.Gururaja was the first medallist of India in the 2018 edition of the Commonwealth Games.
He said, "All the weightlifters who represented India at the CWG get Rs 50 thousand per month. Only my name is not there. It seems I'm the clear eighth member of the boys' team."
Gururaja added, "I told the coach to have a word with the weightlifting federation. He (India coach Vijay Sharma) is trying his best but the list is made by SAI and I do not know what went wrong in my case. It is very sad for me since all the other boys have been included in the scheme. I have not received any sponsorships either."https://twitter.com/TheBridge_IN/status/981749396982214658
Gururaja's 249 kg total lift at the CWG would have been good enough to earn him 11th place at the Rio Olympics two years ago, as high a finish as any Indian weightlifter has achieved in recent times. However, he thinks his performance could have been better.
"This was my first medal for India. I'm happy about that, but I had been targeting gold. I knew I was up against it once my second snatch lift was failed. My total at CWG was only 249 kg, 8 kg less than my personal best," he said.
Weightlifting's sponsorship troubles
When Gururaja finally managed to register a clean and jerk lift on his third and final attempt - he would not have received any rank if it had been disqualified like his two previous lifts - he gave the judges a look of defiance, holding the barbell in position a second longer than necessary.
Gururaja said coming to terms with judges' decisions is a necessary part of the sport but what he finds most disheartening is the lack of attention sponsors pay to weightlifting, despite the sport being one of the few where Indians can now compete with the best.
"Sports like athletics and badminton now get a lot of support in India. But weightlifting, despite being a very difficult and injury-prone sport, gets very little. Maybe weightlifting does not attract too many people," Gururaja rued."This is unfortunate because nowadays India produces world champion weightlifters. Olympic qualification rules are also being changed in such a way that more Indians will qualify. We can even expect 2-3 weightlifting medals at the 2020 Olympics," he added.