Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bleak is the Word

Bangladesh's performance in this year's all South Asian meet has been its best in any international tournament. It could have been a lot better if the government had created more sporting opportunities for youngsters

Ten years ago Shibpur, which is 60 miles off downtown Dhaka, was a sleepy little village, famous for occasionally making it to the newspaper for road accidents in Boroitola. "It is at the bend of the road that cars used to slip," says Kamrul Islam Mridha, who hails from Narsingdi. Cars still go off the track, sometimes they ram into other vehicles, and in worst cases humans are run over by trucks.

Some things, however, have changed. "Boroitola was literarily in everyone's tongue," Kamrul says, "The place was famous for the sweet and sour deshi rose apples." A decade on, that rose apple tree has embraced a slow painful death; it seems old age has made her decrepit and worn out.

Along with the tree, playing fields in Shibpur are also disappearing. "There were numerous playgrounds; we used to play kabadi and football," Kamrul says. Last year, a company has established a composite industry where cotton is yarned into soft textile. The company has bought up huge swathes of land, of which include some playgrounds. "In two or three years time, football will become history in Narsingdi," Kamrul says.

Legendary football player Kazi Salahuddin is equally fearfull of the game's future. "To make sport thrive, you need a sporting culture," says Salahuddin, "And this is completely absent from our life." He says that Bangladesh has not fared well in different sporting events because sport is not in the priority list of our policymakers.

Kamrunnahar Dana, an icon of women's badminton in Bangladesh, thinks there is no opportunity for the budding talents to bloom in the country. "In the eighties, all the schools and colleges participated in different inter-school, inter-college competitions," she says. Tournaments like these are a highly irregular affair now. Only public universities and a few government-run schools and colleges have proper facilities like playgrounds and sport equipment. Most private universities do not have a campus of their own, let alone playing fields.

Bashir Ahmed, who has won the national award in hockey, thinks unless the government create new playgrounds in the cities, new sportspersons will not emerge. He says, "There will be temporary successes like the recently concluded South Asian Games, but in the long run, the country will be stuck with one or two gold medals in indoor sports such as shooting and taekwondo," Bashir says.

In fact, in the SA Games that was held last week, most of the golds that Bangladesh bagged were in indoor events. Salahuddin thinks it just highlights the problem of scarcity of playgrounds and the absence of a good management. "This observation will earn me quite a few enemies, but I must tell you that 90 per cent of the golds that we have won in this tournament are in unpopular indoor events," he says, "In a pre-game press conference, a cycling federation official said that Bangladesh would snatch the gold medal. When he was asked what his team's best timing was, he said that he wasn't aware of any timing. With officials like these, how can you expect sport to flourish in the country?"

MM Akash, professor of Economics at University of Dhaka, blames it on "ever-pervasive consumerism". He says that an apartment culture has been created in the country's towns where children go to school in the morning and come back home in the afternoon only to go to the coaching centres. "At the end of the day, they are tired and unhappy. We are robbing them of their childhood," he says. Dana says that most of the players now come from poor families. "Who would want their sons and daughters to become a badminton player? It does not earn your bread," she says.

Companies like the BJMC, BTMC, Ansar and Bangladesh Biman had quotas for players and they gave them jobs. BJMC and BTMC have stopped recruiting sportspersons, Biman has a cricket and badminton team. "Sportsmen and women are left with no other option but take up a situation in Ansar, which pays only around Tk 4000-5000 a year," Dana says.

A player's job description in the Ansar is a little complicated though; the organisation demands its player-employees to play more than one games of sport. "It makes no sense at all that Ansar wants a player to be good at football, cricket, ushu, karate…almost all the games on earth," Dana says.

Bashir puts more emphasis on the financing sides. He says, "The government must come forward to adequately finance the games in which the country has the prospect of winning medals in the Olympics." Akash thinks that because Bangladesh is a cricket crazy nation, more and more money has been pumped into it and cricket is delivering the goods. "Bangladesh's appalling performance in the track and field events prove that it is under-financed," he says.

As Akash speaks, news comes in: a manufacturing plant is going to be built on another playground in Shibpur, which has produced many good sportsmen. Salahuddin says if things go on like this, apart from football and cricket, Bangladesh does not have any future in any other sports. "There is no professionalism in our sporting world; to make matters worse there is a scarcity of good playgrounds. The future is definitely bleak. I am sorry, but bleak is the word," he says.