There has been a historical bent towards agriculture and military among people of the state, both callings that equip one with deep physical resilience.
New Delhi: It is a discussion that has followed every international sporting event in the last decade, just as it did after the recent Asian Games: What is it about Haryana that makes the state top India’s medal tallies?
At the Jakarta-Palembang Games, Haryana won 18 of India’s 69 medals, and five of its 15 golds. At the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games earlier this year, the state won nine of India’s 26 golds, and 22 of its 66 medals. Before that, the state won 19 of India’s 64 medals at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, and 27 of the country’s 101 at the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games.
Such events shine a favourable light on a state that, despite being one of India’s richest, is usually in the news for its poor sex ratio, endemic crimes against women and high unemployment.
Experts say they also help highlight the fact that Haryana has worked hard to invest in its athletes.
“Look at the amount of money that the Haryana government is putting into sports,” said Sunita Khatri, who serves as secretary at the government-run Motilal Nehru School of Sports in Rai (Sonepat).
“This attracts more sportspersons. So many facilities and academies are now coming up for their training.”
M.K. Kaushik, former national hockey coach and former deputy director of the Haryana sports department, added: “Haryana is the only state giving big cash incentives. The government that has come to power has increased incentives in terms of money, which encourages participation.”
Others said Haryana’s success also stemmed from a cultural affinity for sports. There has been a historical bent towards agriculture and the military among people of the state, both of which are callings that equip one with deep physical strength.
In a piece after the Commonwealth Games this year, sports writer Saurabh Duggal noted in Hindustan Times that as the influence of the Army increased in the state, a foundation was laid for agrarian Haryana to channel its skills into sports.
The first Asian Games gold medalist from Haryana was Bhim Singh of Bhiwani in 1966, who set a new record in high jump with a clearance of 2.05 metres. He was also awarded the title of ‘most confident athlete of the games’ for his performance.
Dr B.K. Sinha, the former director of the Haryana department of sports and youth affairs, and a former secretary of the Sports Authority of India (SAI), told ThePrint that Haryana’s wave of participation in sports started after Independence, in southern districts like Narnol, Rewari, Bhiwani, where the influence of the Army was stronger.
In fact, many former Olympians from the state, such as wrestlers Lila Ram and Devi Singh, and long jumper Ram Mehar had an Army background. They subsequently became coaches and inspired a new wave of Olympians in the state.
From traditional to modern
Sinha told ThePrint how the state made a conscious effort around the turn of the millennium to bring Haryana’s traditional love for sports to a level where participants could compete internationally.
“From Najafgarh to Sonepat, the whole belt had many akharas since before Independence because it used to be a pastime there,” said Sinha.
However, he added, only traditional methods of wrestling, like kushti on the mud, were practised. The department of sports in Haryana then introduced a ‘mud-to-mat’ scheme where they encouraged wrestlers to shift to mats for training.
In Bhiwani and Dadri, he said, boxing was popular but participants were hesitant to compete because they feared that their lack of equipment made them vulnerable to injury.
“We then provided them equipment and showed them videos of how much internationally competing boxers could endure,” he added. “Now, we have at least a dozen national-level boxers from these districts.”
Sinha, who accompanied the Indian team to Jakarta for the recent Asian Games, also pointed out that Haryana introduced its first-ever sports policy in 2000.
The policy significantly increased the cash incentives offered to sportspersons who won medals in international games.
“Before the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, the cash rewards were given in the thousands, with the gold medalist winning Rs 1 lakh,” said Sinha. “But then the cabinet of Haryana decided to raise it.”
In 2000, the then chief minister of Haryana, Om Prakash Chautala, announced a reward of Rs 25 lakh for bronze medalists, Rs 50 lakh for silver winners and Rs 1 crore for those who won golds.
The practice of heavy cash incentives have attracted many sportspersons in Haryana ever since.
It was also in 2000 that the SAI, India’s apex body for sports promotion, began setting up regional training centres in the state.
Among the infrastructure built was the first astro turf for hockey, which was put in place at the Shahabad hockey academy. Ritu Rani, India’s former hockey captain who led the country to a bronze at the 2014 Asiad, was trained at the institution.
A promise of job security
In 2001, a cabinet resolution was passed where sportspersons winning gold, silver and bronze medals in the Olympics, world championships and Asian Games were promised out-of-turn appointment as officers in the Haryana Civil Service (HCS) and Haryana Police Service (HPS).
This served as further incentive for sportspersons to focus on training.
After the stellar performance of its athletes at the Asiad this year, Haryana sports minister Anil Vij announced cash prizes of up to Rs 3 crore for gold-winners Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia, and silver-winner Lakshay Sheoran.
— ANIL VIJ MINISTER HARYANA (@anilvijminister) August 20, 2018
— ANIL VIJ MINISTER HARYANA (@anilvijminister) August 19, 2018
Vij also said Tuesday that the state government will change its sports policy to allow cash rewards for junior athletes.
However, Haryana’s push for sports also landed the state administration in hot water earlier this year when it introduced a rule that mandated sportspersons in government jobs to hand over 1/3rd of their earnings from prizes and endorsements for a sports development fund.
The rule had to be rescinded following a strong backlash from local sports stars, including Olympic medallist wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt.
Lessons from Jakarta
Despite all the progress, Sinha said more needed to be done to retain the edge of local sportspersons.
“At sporting events, every moment is like the sensex. To maintain supremacy, every second is important,” he added.
There is massive progress taking place with regard to the quality of equipment, he added, and this means that “even the stitch of the clothes you wear during a match can impact your performance”.
He also stressed the need for Haryana to introduce better psychological training for sportspersons.
“In Haryana, people think that our boy has a lot of strength and he will pull through, but they don’t understand that this pulling through will not cut it in today’s time,” he added. “Skills matter much more than strength now.”