Chennai: For a state with over seven crore population, Tamil Nadu’s representation at the 2016 Rio Olympics will be miniscule: just seven. One of the seven is hockey player Rupinderpal Singh born and bred in Punjab. He qualifies as a Tamil Nadu player only on account of his employment with a Chennai-based bank. Population-wise, the state is bigger than all European nations barring Germany and Russia but its Olympic record in recent years is far from resplendent.
After V. Baskaran led India to gold at the 1980 Olympics, marred by the boycott of Western countries, no Tamil Nadu player has come close to the podium. Tamil Nadu’s history in hockey is magnificent with a plethora of Olympic medals. A victory over India’s Olympic team in 1952 was proof to Tamil Nadu’s strength in the national game.
Former Madras city police goalkeeper Ranganathan Francis, a refugee from Burma, won three gold medals at the Olympics from 1948 to 1956. Army man V.J. Peter had a complete set of medals: gold, silver and bronze. P.R. Sreejesh, who will be leading India at Rio, cut his hockey teeth as an employee of Indian Overseas Bank. He was part of the Indian team that brought up the rear at the London Olympics.
Indian Overseas Bank coach M. Arif Ahmed said Tamil Nadu players are being discriminated against ever since K. Jothi Kumar lost his post as IHF secretary eight years ago. “The current national body still looks at Tamil Nadu as Jothi’s state. We have players who can represent the country, but they are being ignored,” he said.
According to Arif, there is a dearth of tournaments in Tamil Nadu. “Our players lack exposure because there are only a couple of tournaments in the state apart from the Chennai league. Hockey is on the decline in schools and colleges. The state association must take steps to ensure that the game is alive at grassroots,” he said.
M.V. Rajasekhar, a prominent athletics coach in the city, said it isn’t all doom and gloom in athletics as four will represent Tamil Nadu at Rio. “The infrastructure in Tamil Nadu is good and the state also has excellent coaches across all districts. Some of the athletes who missed out on the Rio bus are potential Olympians. There is no doubt about talent in our state,” he added.
Rajasekhar said the burden of academics is weighing many a promising athlete in Tamil Nadu down. “Excellence in athletics requires uninterrupted training for 10 to 12 years. Many of our athletes are struggling to balance athletics and academics from the school level.
The state government should ensure that top athletes in school and colleges get special permission to spend more time on the field. Our athletes also have the worrying habit of not trying hard enough once they get a job. They must always try to raise the bar,” he added.