A fraud or a God? Dattu Bhokanal vows to return for Paris Olympics
Rower Dattu Bhokanal crashed through international headlines with his 13th-place finish at the 2016 Olympics - the best yet by an Indian. But since then, he has been caught in multiple controversies. Now his students call him a God but his federation calls him a fraud.
Nashik: Dattu Bhokanal sits on the shore of the Godavari river as the sun sets. He has lost some of his hair in the last few years, but the flash of his smile is still just like it was when he returned from the 2016 Olympics as a history-maker.
"People say a lot of things. They say 31 is too old for rowing, they say once you get married you become unfit. Only I know how my timings have been improving. I think I have become even better with age," he tells The Bridge with that familiar smile.
Seven years since onion farmer Dattu Bhokanal returned to a thunderous reception after his 13th place finish in Rio - the best by an Indian rower till then - he now has a child; wears glasses almost all the time; and spends most of his time in the city, going to his ancestral village only on weekends and special occasions.
Eight months ago, he started his rowing academy, the first such facility here. The sixteen rowers currently training at the 'Dattu Bhokanal Sports Institute', are all eager to show off their calloused hands from hours of rowing and list out their recent achievements. But they all agree the spotlight is squarely on who they call 'Maharashtra's devta (God)' for now.
The upcoming open nationals from February 20, from where the Indian team will be selected, offers the devta a chance to return to the Indian team after years in the wilderness.
"If we row 10kms, Dattu sir rows 20kms. We have learned all the techniques from him, but none of us have his endurance yet," chimes in one of his star students who won gold at the recent Maharashtra Olympics.
How the superstar rower fell foul of his federation
If the few years after the Rio Olympics were a golden period for Dattu Bhokanal and Indian rowing in general, the aftermath of the 2018 Asian Games began a period that was a nightmare.
The Rowing Federation of India (RFI) slapped a two-year ban on him; his former wife lodged an FIR against him alleging physical and mental harassment; and even after his ban got over, RFI officials complained about his attitude and sent him back home.
"The federation now wants to wash its hands off me, but doesn't the federation exist for the players? It's their task to take the players along, motivate them. I am just the horse, they need to drive me well," says Dattu.
"Everyone makes mistakes. Making mistakes is what makes us human. I tried a lot of times to approach the federation for us to forget our differences, but they refuse to come to a compromise. They have only hatred for me. I fail to understand why they treat me as a traitor," he continues.
He then takes a long hard look at the setting sun shimmering on the river - the second longest river in the country - and says, "But if I win gold at the nationals - I'm telling you this is not a fanciful thought, I am confident I can do it - they cannot stop me from returning to the Indian team. I have no fight with anyone, my only fight is against the water."
Dattu Bhokanal brought shame to country: RFI
In the small town of Gangapur just outside Nashik, Dattu Bhokanal is a God. Locals are glad to direct visitors to his rowing club, the only one in the vicinity. People stop and wave to him as his white SUV zooms through every morning and evening for training sessions. But this adulation finds no resonance with the RFI.
"Dattu Bhokanal is not an outstanding rower. He never won a gold medal in single sculls. Every time there is a big event coming up, he tries to get back into the limelight, pretending he is a big star. Why should we give him importance? He is just a product of media hype," Rajlaxmi Singh Deo, the president of the Indian rowing federation, tells The Bridge.
She explains the fallout between the player and the management started after a 'moment of shame' in the 2018 Asian Games, which she alleges the athlete tried to cover up with a story about braving a fever.
"He stopped rowing with around 200 meters left in his singles event. He claimed he had stopped rowing because he had a fever, but he later admitted that had been a lie. He was protecting himself for the next race and thought it was okay to lose, we cannot condone that. He brought our country a moment of shame by refusing to try to win," she says.
It was after this incident that a two-year ban was slapped on Dattu Bhokanal. But even after this furore got over, the problems did not stop, they spiralled out of control. So much so that the federation now calls him a fraud.
The RFI website has no mention of him in their archives for star athletes, even though this section features many of his former teammates. No one remembers if a conscious effort was made to remove his traces.
"Dattu Bhokanal is a fraud. He played games with everybody. Even after he came back to the national camp after his ban got over, he was in a messed up state. He had land deals going on back home, he was going through a divorce and living with another woman, he tried to pass off his girlfriend - who he later married - as his coach and get prize money for her," says the RFI president.
"It was a difficult time. All I could do was to believe in God and continue my training," Dattu says about this episode, choosing not to respond to the personal allegations.
Can the 'rowing man of India' reach his sea?
When Dattu Bhokanal had briefly led his heat in the single sculls race in Rio, it was like a promise of bountiful rain for this drought-parched region of the country. A crowd of people who had not known that rowing could be a sport till a few days ago descended on him at the airport when he returned to the country. A Marathi biography titled The Rowing Man of India was published soon after.
But seven years since then, that 'rowing man' now lives estranged from his sport's authorities, his heroic status restricted only to a very local area.
The federation says they have not had any contact with the 2016 Olympian since he asked to be released from the camp in 2020, and that even if by some chance he does manage to win a medal at the nationals this month, they are more eager to groom younger rowers for the future. Their eyes are on the medallists from the recent Asian Junior Championships, which ended two months ago.
Bhokanal says he has stopped trying to figure out why the federation dislikes him, but he does insist that the two-year ban on him interrupted his life, after which he thought it best to go under the radar.
"The river needs to face a lot of obstacles before reaching the sea," he says, his eyes wandering into the distance as he speaks about future events - the 2023 Asian Games and the 2024 Olympics.
"There have been lots of ups and downs in life before, but this was my hardest test. They started a false story about me, saying I was a fraud. People have their eyes and ears to understand things. If you use only your ears and not your eyes, you will be fooled. People should come to the ground to see if I'm a fraud or not," he adds.