The three-medal haul at the 2018 Asiad was just what the doctor ordered for Indian rowing considering the fact that the sport over the years has had to grapple with multiple constraints in being alive and kicking across the country.
Of course, if Indian rowers’ Asian Games performance over the last two decades is anything to go by, it is crystal clear that they are a formidable rowing force in Asia much like nations like China, South Korea, Japan and Uzbekistan. But the ‘biting reality’ is that all these Asian countries, including India, are many streets behind the all-powerful European nations like USA, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, France. In fact, China is the only Asian nation that has consistently managed a podium finish in the World Rowing Championships – the biggest event organised by FISA (the International Rowing Federation).
The sport of rowing has slowly but surely come up in India over the years, in terms of being a spectator-friendly sport. The sport got a huge leg-up when our rowers dished out a creditable performance at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, sewing up a gold medal in the Quadruple Sculls event via the quarter of Sawarn Singh, Dattu Baban Bhokanal, Om Prakash and Sukhmeet Singh as well as two bronze medals in the Lightweight Single Sculls (via Dushyant Chauhan) and
Lightweight Double Sculls (via Rohit Kumar and Bhagwan Singh).
India took part in the 2019 World Rowing Championships (its first participation in the marquee event after a gap of four years) – India’s best-ever performance at the World Rowing Championships came about at the 2013 edition held in South Korea, where Sawarn Singh finished 12th in the Men’s Single Sculls event.
Indian rowers made their Asian Games debut in the 1982 edition in New Delhi, where the sport was included in the Asiad for the first time, and the country has never returned home medal-less except for the 1986 Seoul Asiad. It took a couple of decades for Indian rowers to make a big impact in the Asiad – the big turning point came in the 2006 Doha Asiad, where they won a silver medal for the first time, capping off a haul of two silver medals and one bronze, thus breaching their earlier sequence of winning only bronze medals. The Indian rowers were on song at the 2010 Asiad, as they turned in their best-ever showing snaffling their first Asiad gold medal via Bajrang Lal Takhar, 3 silver medals and 1 bronze for an impressive haul of five medals and even followed it up with 3 bronze medals at the 2014 Asiad.
Even as the sport of rowing struggled to find its feet in the highly competitive international stage, Indian rowers made their Olympic debut at the 2000 Sydney Olympics with the duo of Kasam Khan and Inderpal Singh featuring in the Men’s Coxless Pair event and finishing 17th. The good thing about the Indian rowers was that they did not miss out on Olympic qualification in the subsequent Olympics – the country had a representation either in Coxless Pair, Single Sculls or Double Sculls events. What’s more, Dattu Bhokanal finished a creditable 13th – the best show by an Indian rower in the Olympics.
The improved performance of Indian rowers at the Asian Games and regular representation at the Olympics was a strong indicator that rowing as a sport was gaining momentum in India. Notwithstanding that, India, like other Asian countries, needs to do a lot more if they are to be considered serious medal prospects at high-profile events like the Summer Olympics and World Championships. In the Indian context, the sport of rowing is heavily reliant on the Indian Army, whose contribution has been humongous over many decades now.
One of the biggest roadblocks for the sport of rowing in the country has been the lack of the desired infrastructure. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) – the country’s apex sports body for development of sport in the country – runs three rowing centres – one in Alleppey in Kerala, one in Jagatpur in Odisha and another in Andaman & Nicobar Islands – out of these only the rowing centres in Alleppey and Jagatpur are functioning properly, while the rowing centre in Andaman & Nicobar Islands is almost defunct. Besides these three rowing centres managed by SAI, there is another rowing centre run by the Telangana and Andhra Rowing Association, but the country’s best rowing centre is the Army Rowing Node (ARN), which is located in the College of Military Engineering (CME) campus in Pune run Services – ARN is also considered the country’s Olympic-sized rowing facility.
Much of the Indian rowing’s success can be attributed to the efforts of the Indian Army, but one is tempted to ask why the sport has found it hard to be a big hit among the civilians despite the country being a regular medal winner at the Asian Games backed by consistent representations in the Olympics. Girish Phadnis, Secretary General of Rowing Federation of India, offers his perspective.
Phadnis agrees that sport of rowing is picking up but was frank enough to concede that the progress hasn’t been as per desired expectations. “Since our Asian Games debut, the sport is no doubt growing but when you look at 37 years down the line, you do feel that amidst the steady progress of rowing in the country, the hindrances you get are something you don’t expect when you take into account the fact that the country made his Asian Games debut in 1982. There are far too many constraints for civilians to take up rowing,” his words sum the reality of Indian rowing. The former international rower-turned RFI Secretary General believes there is a crying need for a full-fledged rowing academy. “Not just a rowing academy, long-term planning and international exposure trips are equally important,” he pointed out.
Phadnis said all the government support for RFI is welcome, but the onus is on the federation to devise ways to rope in sponsors, which is a challenge for a sport like rowing. He explained:
The challenges for setting up a rowing centre are enormous. “Even a basic rowing centre would cost in the range of Rs 5-7 crores and the boats would cost Rs 10 lakhs. Blades cost around Rs 75,000, and then you need land as well,” he explains the difficulties of creating rowing infrastructure.
It’s not just 2018 Asian Games where our rowers made us proud. Even at the 2019 Asian Indoor Rowing Championship in Thailand, the country’s rowers reaped a rich harvest of medals, bagging 7 gold, 5 silver and 1 bronze medals for a total medal haul of 13 medals. One hopes that the sport can tide over the prevailing infrastructure challenges and gets well spread out and help the country emerge as a world-beater.