Ekamra Sports Literature Festival: Where Literature meets sports

It was quite fitting that the city being dubbed the new sports capital of the country should also host Asia’s 1st International Sports International Meet. Officially named the Ekamra Sports Literature Festival 2018 (Ekamra being the ancient name of Bhubaneswar), the two-day event, which on 3rd November in the capital of Odisha, included a host of high profile international and national sports stars from the country as well as abroad, including former sprinter Ben Johnson, Australian swimmer Stephanie Rice, retired Australian fast bowler Jeff Thompson, Indian sports stars Dhanraj Pillay and Mohammed Kair among others, who shared the dais with established and upcoming sports writers, commentators, journalists and an actor to deliberate on the issues dogging the world of sports.

The making of Bhubaneswar as a sports city

A joint initiative of the Department of Sports & Youth Services, Government of Odisha and Emerging Sports, this lit fest is yet another example of the Odisha Government’s commitment to the promotion of sports in the run up to the Men’s Hockey World Cup to be held in Bhubaneswar later this November.

The Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who inaugurated the event on 2nd November quite aptly described this gathering as a “one-of-a-kind platform for exchanges between authors, enthusiasts, and players.”

And, the Odisha Government’s zest for sports was highlighted on day one in one particular session titled ‘The Making Of Bhubaneswar As A Sports City,’ wherein the Odisha Sports & Youth Services Minister, Chandra Sarathi Behera and Vishal Dev, Commissioner-Cum-Secretary, Department of Sports & Youth Services, made it clear as to why Odisha and Bhubaneswar is progressing towards being the sports hub of the country. While the Sports Minister put it as the direct outcome of Naveen Patnaik’s dream, the Sports Secretary, more specifically described it as the Odisha Chief Minister’s knack of running the state like a corporate, where he works like the CEO so that things are done professionally, at a fast pace and the perception of the state and capital city improves.

They pointed out how the Odisha Government is the only state in the country to actually do things in Indian sports for the first time, such as owning a sports team in a league format, when it brought a hockey team called ‘Kalinga Lancers’, who were the champions of the last edition. Additionally, he also emphasized how the Odisha Government is the only state to sponsor the Indian Hockey Team (Men’s, Women’s, Senior, and Junior) for the next five years. These pioneering initiatives have been generated to turn Odisha into a global sports destination, which is the ultimate dream of the Odisha Chief Minister.

The key to Odisha Government’s success in hosting these mega sporting events according to Vishal Dev, has been its ability to plan every event meticulously and put in lots of hard work. He cited the case of the 2017 Asian Athletic Championships, when the state had only three months to prepare when the event got confirmed. The Kalinga Stadium, where the championships would be held was not ready, with no floodlights, warm-up track and so on. Thus, everyone involved, the sports and other departments, in fact, the whole government worked like a team putting 18 to 20 hours of efforts in those three months to make it a success, he further added.

These extra efforts certainly caught the attention of Lord Sebastian Coe, the IAAF President, who described the Bhubaneswar edition as the perhaps the best ever Asian Athletic Championships organised in its history.

The death of the test fast bowler

In the opening day’s other interesting sessions, legendary Australian fast bowler Jeff Thompson, considered one of the fastest to ever bowl, deliberated about ‘the death of the test fast bowler’, also the title of the session, in which he asserted he might actually be the fastest because the rules judging the speed of the ball bowled have changed (read made easy) over the years. In other words, earlier they used to judge the speed after it had reached the batsman, nowadays, they verify it immediately after it has been released from the bowler’s hands, meaning the161.3 kilometres per hour (kph), which the Pakistani fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar achieved in the ODI versus England at Newlands in 2003, that still has the record as the fastest bowl ever bowled, may actually not be the fastest when the above mentioned rule is taken into consideration.  Among the fast bowlers of the past, Jeff has the distinction of being the fastest, having touched a speed of 160.6 kph way back in the mid-seventies.

The inaugural day’s post-lunch sessions included insightful discussions with Australian hockey coach Ric Charlesworth, whom Dhanraj Pillay bluntly mentioned in the subsequent session of this lit fest as the only ‘foreign coach’ he ever liked. In that particular discussion, four former hockey stars, including Australian 2004 Athen Olympics Gold winning team member, Brett Livermore, the 1975 World Cup winning captain Ajit Pal Singh, Odisha’s greatest hockey player and former Indian captain, Dilip Tirkey, along with Dhanraj considered the teams have better chances of winning the 2018 Men’s Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar and other issues associated with the game and the Indian hockey team.

The literary part of the festival actually took off in the concluding sessions of the opening day, when Dhoni’s biographer, Bharat Sundaresan talked about his book ‘The Dhoni Touch: Unravelling the Enigma That Is Mahendra Singh Dhoni,’ followed by discussions by former cricketer Aakash Chopra on his book ‘Numbers Do Lie: 61 Hidden Cricket Stories.’

The inaugural day of this innovative lit fest was wrapped up with a discussion on the hot topic of ‘hyperandrogenism,’ wherein a motley group of speakers, such as former Australian Olympic 800 metres runner and present research scholar, Madeleine Pape; young gender rights activist, Gopi Shankar Madurai and former Indian woman athlete Santhi Soundarajan, a victim of hyperandrogenism, talked about this issue, which continues to haunt some women athletes, international and national, including Santhi, whose career was destroyed after the IAAF stripped her of her silver medal won at the 2006 Doha Asian Games for failing a sex verification test. While a decade later, Odisha’s women’s 100 metres national record holder Dutee Chand and South African Caster Semenya, both associated with the same issue, have challenged and overcome the IAAF’s meddling with their respective careers, Santhi continues to be a symbol of suffering.

This ground-breaking lit fest suffered a bit after three of its important speakers – Pakistani fast bowler, Wasim Akram and authors, Andrew Downie and Richard Moore were repeatedly denied visas to attend the festival. Though, the latter managed to make it in the last minute and shared the stage with Ben Johnson to discuss about his book ‘The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis and the 1988 Olympic 100m Final,’ which was the most awaited session of the second and penultimate day. On the 30th anniversary of that legendary, memorable race where Ben blasts his way to glory leaving a world class line up of Carl Lewis, Linford Christie, Calvin Smith and others hopelessly trailing behind, only to face the worst ignominy one could face couple of days later, being stripped of his gold medal and his reputation biting the dust. It was a setback he could never recover from. However, Ben once again highlighted his perpetual defence, that, his drink has been spiked with steroids that day in Seoul. He also pointed out, how three decades later a Canadian newspaper, Toronto Star, helped him get hold of the actual paperwork of the 1988 Olympics 100 metres drug test, which is full of inconsistencies. Ben believes his name will finally be cleared.

Richard Moore described the race as one of the ‘outstanding sporting moments’ in the history of sport, which people look forward to fondly, in spite of their knowledge of what happened afterwards.

In a session titled ‘The Secularist & Cricketer,’ former Indian cricketer Mohammad Kaif was asked to share his views on secularism in cricket, a topic thrust upon him by the organisers, much to his discomfit, as he repeated stressed throughout the session and also while interacting with the audience, that, he would prefer to be queried on sports and his sporting achievements rather than religion.


Also read: Indian Cricket and the Ghost of Democracy


Later, the audience dipped into the world of wrestling with Olympic bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt and Asian Games gold medallists Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia. The latter defined his dedication by stressing how he shunned mobile phones for nearly a decade to focus on his wrestling, with Yogeshwar also chipping in his sacrifices by sharing how less movies he has actually seen hitherto. Meanwhile, Vinesh lamented how people often irritate her by asking if the movie Dangal is based on her. She stated she would prefer to be known for her sporting achievements rather than a certain wrestling movie.

“The Small Wonder”

The other interesting deliberations of the day featured around gymnastics, swimming and athletics. Dipa Karmakar, the petite gymnast, who won the nation’s heart with her dangerous Produnova vault in the 2016 Rio Olympics, talked about the difficulty of being a gymnast. The occasion also marked the release of the book cover of her biography ‘Dipa Karmakar – The Small Wonder,’ written by Vimal Mohan and Digvijay Singh Deo.

Conversely, India’s brightest prospect for 2020 Olympics, U-20 World Champion and Asian Games gold medallist javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra discussed with his coach Uwe Hohn and moderator, actor Rahul Bose about his goals for the future. While interacting with the audience, someone suggested he cut his hair to improve his performance, or whether the long hair was an attempt to get into Bollywood. Uwe Hohn too was cornered with a tricky question by a member of the audience, when he was asked if his amazing and greatest recorded throw of 104 metres (with the old javelin) was actually better than Jan Zelenzy’s current world record throw of 98.48 metres (with the javelin used nowadays).

Stephanie Rice, the Australian Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer gave valuable tips to aspiring swimmers present in the audience on diet and training. She shared few details of her training regime and the reason for retiring so early at the age of 24.  Most importantly, he believes Indian swimmers have it in them to be world beaters provided they are nurtured well, which, in her opinion the government isn’t doing much at the moment.


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Overall, this unique lit fest managed to achieve what it aspired to do – bring in national and international sports writers and sportspersons on the same platform, to generate meaningful interactions concerned with the world of sport. And, the organisers have assured this isn’t a one-off event, as they plant to turn it into an annual event.