It's been 121 years, since India participated in its first Olympic Games in 1900. The nation first sent a team to the Summer Olympic Games in 1920, and has participated in every Summer Games since then. Indian athletes have won 28 medals at the Summer Games. Over the years, the success of Indian hockey has also been reflected in sports like wrestling, shooting, boxing, badminton where our athletes have won medals in the quadrennial sporting extravaganza. Players from Haryana, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan have shone brightly at the Olympics, while players from almost every state in India have been to the event. Somehow, Gujarat has missed its cut. Yes, you hear it right. Gujarat has never produced a single Olympian from the state.
For decades, the state that has been one of the bedrocks of Indian cricket, lacks the quality of producing an Olympic-level athlete. A lot of hope today, rest on the shoulders of cricketers like Cheteshwar Pujara, Ravindra Jadeja, Hardik Pandya, and Jasprit Bumrah. In fact, Jasprit and Hardik have become so important to Team India's plans that in recent times, the BCCI has been closely monitoring their workload. Apart from them, cricketers like Akshar Patel, Jaydev Unadkat, Priyank Panchal, Krunal Pandya, and Deepak Hooda, to name a few, have continued to impress.
Ironically, Gujarat which has been considered as the cradle of Indian cricket, thanks to the patronage the gentleman's game received from the erstwhile kingdoms, has struggled to find its first Olympian. Just two days before the 2004 Olympics, a senior coach had said "It is a shame that in spite of having promising athletes, who perform well at the junior levels, not a single athlete or sportsperson ever reaches the Olympic level from Gujarat," a senior coach said.
While coaches have attributed the dismal performance of sportspersons to their lack of dedication and perseverance, the sportspersons have blamed the government and the various sports associations for not giving adequate impetus and facilities to athletes in the state.
The Sports Authority of India, Gandhinagar, also the headquarters for the entire western region, had claimed to have all facilities of international standards but had cited poor upkeep of tracks and equipment as reasons which mar the athletes' chances.
A report in 2008, cited the Gujarat State Amateur Athletic Association (GSAAA), which forms the base for the budding athletes, gets less than Rs 2,000 per month to train 'future Olympians' and it doesn't even have its own office. The then state sports minister, Fakir Vaghela, had declared in a Sports Authority of Gujarat meeting a sum of Rs 2 crore to produce Olympians and targetted London 2012.
The minister promised equipment and trainers in schools and districts across the state, but officials working at the grassroots level laughed at such securities. Budding athletes in Gujarat in 2008 used to get Rs 20,000 a year from the government. Which meant less than Rs 2,000 per month. And they were supposed to set up infrastructure and organise competitions for the budding athletes.
If you think Gujarat University students don't excel in sports nationally and internationally, the reasons are not far to find. In 2018, after quietly inaugurating a world-class synthetic track in October, the varsity had refused to allow its own students to train at the facility. The track is part of a Sports City with multiple facilities that the university is developing.
While GU athletes have to travel long distances and look for paid facilities at other places to practice, a private athletic meet, as well as an inter-college tournament, have been held at the track. GU sports authority claims the varsity is yet to frame by-laws before the students are allowed to train. This sort of treatment has been a constant occurrence in Gujarat, which ironically boasts of setting up the Motera Stadium, which is world's largest cricket stadium.
Long-distance runner Babu Panocha in 2008 was an Olympic prospect from the state. The Gujarat athlete deserved to become the first Olympian of Gujarat, especially after putting the state on the athletics map of the country. Panocha, with his record-breaking 20km (1::23:06) and 20,000m (1::23:40) walks, attracted everyone's attention. The national record which he held for four-long years was broken by Gurmeet Singh at Patiala Nationals in 2011.
Panocha was considered a medal prospect for the Beijing Olympics 2008 as well before a tragedy struck. A miscommunication with the then coach saw Panocha preparing for 50km event rather than 20km walk. This took a toll on his body and after two practice sessions and one meeting in Russia, Panocha was found nursing cramped muscle which crushed his Beijing dreams.
Gujarat still remains elusive to reach their goal of producing an Olympian. The only prospect from the state, Harmeet Desai, a table tennis player doesn't see much hope for qualifying at the Tokyo Olympics, as Sathiyan Gnanasekharan and Achanta Sharath Kamal leads the race in qualification. Surat's table tennis champion Desai, the only sportsperson from Gujarat to win medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games (one gold in men's team event,one bronze in men's doubles), also had complained earlier the state government announced a cash reward of Rs 33 lakh for him, while CWG gold medalists usually get a reward of Rs 1 crore from other the state governments. Harmeet was only paid only one-third of that amount,as his victory came in a team event.