India's next sports champions are being handpicked from tribal communities

Topics Tribals | sports | Sports in India

The Adibasi Rugby Team from Kolkata
It’s evening at the Loyola High School in Mundgod, a town in north Karnataka located 385km from Bengaluru. Rizwan Bendigeri and Lakshmi G M, both athletics coaches, watch intently as a muscular young boy launches himself into the air, kicking up a cloud of dust beneath his feet. He runs for about 100 metres, swivels, and returns to his position to repeat the exercise. He does the routine over and over again. This is Sajid Yargatti, 13, who till recently would watch legendary athlete Usain Bolt on YouTube on loop on his mother’s phone. “Someday I’ll break Bolt’s record and win a medal for India,” declares the boy, as he spells out his name on the dirt ground.

Yargatti is from Kengalgiri, not far from Mundgod. He’s a Siddi, a member of a reclusive, marginalised community that is said to have descended from Africa’s Bantu tribes. First brought to India by trading Arabs in the seventh century, and the Portuguese and British later, the insular community has lived largely in and around the forests of Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

Aspiring Bolt-challenger Yargatti’s dream of breaking records for India is one shared by many, but this is an especially uphill task for those who live on the fringes. Leaving behind everything they have known, some of these young Indians are now hot in pursuit of their goal of becoming champions of tomorrow. And the residential “schools” they live in are already making their today better than their yesterdays.   

Archers at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences

Yargatti is part of a team of nine children that a Bengaluru-based non-profit called Bridges of Sports is mentoring. They will be nothing less than India’s next “Olympic champions”, believes the organisation’s founder, Nitish Chiniwar. He started the non-profit in 2017, and is not alone in the quest to find India’s next champions.

Ooty-based Karan Singh’s Indian Track Foundation has been focussing on track athletics since it was founded in 2018. Singh has been working with a group of 10 children handpicked from tribal belts in Jharkhand (like Daltonganj and Latehar). These children, all between 10 and 15, live under the same roof as Singh and his family, and are homeschooled.

A former professional runner himself, Singh, who also founded Delhi’s Indian Track Club, left behind city comforts in 2018. His goal: to create from scratch an environment to train children who display the potential to be Olympic medal winners in middle- and long-distance running.

Athletes at the Bengaluru-based Bridges of Sports

Singh chose to relocate to Ooty for multiple reasons. Athletes who train at higher altitudes (Ooty is at 2,240m above sea level) tend to have more red blood cells, which aids in better oxygen delivery to the muscles, which puts them at an advantage when they run in the plains. Other reasons include “the simple, safe and humble lifestyle of Ooty; its supply of organic produce; easy access to uncrowded public stadiums and grounds; and the plain goodness of fresh mountain air”. 

Most of the children in Singh’s programme, even those who haven’t been brought to Ooty, are from the Munda tribe or have Birhor blood. “Their ancestors were hunters or worked on the land and that’s a definite advantage,” says Singh. But that’s just one of the many parameters they have to meet. 

Singh has two coaches on the ground in Jharkhand who keep an eye out for talent. Once the scouting folks and Singh are convinced of a child’s potential, his or her parents are roped in. If all goes well, the child is brought to Ooty, to live and train with Singh.

Karan Singh of the Indian Track Foundation (ITF) with his students

Bridges of Sports finds talent by holding annual contests in the district. Over the last two months, 90 children have made it to a longlist from 500 participants. The next step to ensure a promising batch in the new academic session is to sift through this longlist. Before being accepted into the programme, these children will be tested on many levels, including endurance, core strength, and what coach Bendigeri calls “phepde mein dum” (lung capacity). 

It’s easier to shape raw talent that’s been brought up far from cities: there’s minimal unlearning required and minimal distractions to wean them off.

Since establishing the Adibasi Rugby Foundation in Kolkata in 2013, former national rugby player Sailen Tudu often finds himself telling his students, “As adivasis we have the ability to hunt wild animals — how difficult can rugby be? It’s as much about mental strength as it is about physical tenacity.” From picking “two leaves and a bud” with their parents on chai bagans (tea estates) in north Bengal, these rugby-playing girls have used the sport as a passport to explore a world beyond tea gardens. 

Prem Siddi who trains with Bridges of Sports 

Sport has helped change lives at Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences too. A residential school that offers free education (from primary classes right up to post-graduate) to children from tribes across Odisha, this institution was founded in 1993 by Achyuta Samanta, currently a member of Parliament from Kandhamal. It has since gone on to be noticed for its sports programme after a team of 12 boys from Odisha’s tribes (including the Bondas and the Lodhas) won the International School Rugby Tournament in 2007 in London. The “Jungle Crows” had played rugby for barely a few months before they made the finals and thrashed the seasoned South African squad, the Langa Lions, 19-5. (The story has been captured in the sports biopic Jungle Cry starring actor Abhay Deol; the film’s trailer was released in Cannes last year.)

The institute coaches some 5,000 tribal children across 33 sports. Years of training have begun to bear fruit: the Indian team which scripted history last June in Manila by clinching the first ever international women’s 15s victory over Singapore in the Asia Rugby Women’s Championship Division 1 had five girls from this institute. In fact, the penalty kick that helped the girls claim the bronze issued from Kalinga’s Sumitra Nayak.

ITF’s Walter Kandulna in his village and later as a star athlete

Besides medals in kho kho at the recent Khelo India Youth Games, the institute’s Nitya Majhi, a Class X student, bagged a bronze medal for the country at the 2019 Commonwealth Judo Championships last September.

But one’s genetic inheritance can only take one so far, emphasise Chiniwar and Singh. Without an enabling ecosystem, many potential athletes who cannot even finish school become what Chiniwar, a former motorsports engineer, calls “sports dropouts”. “You know, they have no footpaths or pedestrian walks in Iten (Kenya), but tracks instead, because of the running culture that has slowly been built over years. People run for the love of running, and not necessarily to win medals,” says Chiniwar.

Back at Mundgod, Nayana Kokare, 16, sits apart from her fellow athletes. While everyone else practises hamstring-strengthening jumps into a sandpit, Kokare is doing ankle weights because of an injured knee. She refused to go home to Hangal (near Mundgod) last year, choosing instead to not miss a day of training while she prepped for her board exams. Her coach had to pull her out and take her home on a day-trip during Dussehra.

Among those training in the sandpit is Sushmita Siddi, 13, a tiny but strong athlete whom coach Bendigeri refers to as “chhoti si jaan”. Last November when she qualified in the district-level semis in a race in Karnataka’s Mandya where everyone was far older, several people attempted to get her to join their academies. “When they asked for her phone number she gave them mine,” laughs Bendigeri. 

Young athletes in training at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences

Nayana Kokare doesn’t see herself as anything more than an athlete in training, but little Sushmita Siddi sees in her a role model. “I want to be like Nayana,” she says, a simple statement that hints at the birth of a promising sports culture.

These young athletes wear injuries such as bruised knees, cuts on the lips, scratches on foreheads and the like as badges of honour. When Renuka Kharia, native of Alipur Dooars in north Bengal and who plays in the scrum half position at the Adibasi Rugby Foundation, bruised her face, she decided it was best not to tell her family. “Tudu Sir says these injuries make us tough,” she says.

Mala Soren, captain of the Adibasi Rugby Team of Kolkata, says it takes a while to get these shy girls to tackle opponents, a necessity in a contact sport like rugby. “To teach them how to do a lower body tackle, I ask them to fall back on memories of being angry with someone to instil the aggression needed,” she says. 

Daughter of tea garden labourers in Jalpaiguri in north Bengal, Urshila Khariya, 18, never imagined she’d play rugby, a game no one in her village had even heard of. Or step into a plane, leave alone to play that obscure game. Khariya now dons a number 5 jersey and plays in the scrum half position. In six years, she has played on the national team in places as far away from home as Dubai.And taken too many flights to remember.

An athlete from Ooty's Indian Track Foundation

She grins that what she likes best about the game is “Maar khao, phir doosre ko maaro. Mazaa aata hai. (You get bashed up and then it’s your turn to bash them up. It’s a lot of fun.)”

Of course, it takes effort, consistency and funds to keep these ventures going. Tudu runs his foundation out of his fitness academy in Kolkata (Tudu Fitness). Born at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore’s social incubation programme, Bridges of Sports is aided by corporates such as BookASmile (a BookMyShow charitable arm), the Infosys Foundation, and Reliance Foundation besides the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. Singh of the Indian Track Foundation acknowledges the role of his board, and both individuals and organisations, in helping to get his foundation off the ground.

Hurdles exist not just in the form of finances and infrastructure. Tribal belts in Jharkhand have begun to recognise Singh’s good intentions and efforts after seeing their 14-year-olds such as Walter Kandulna and Aakancha Kerketta win medals at both state and national level. At the India Cross Country National Championships in Warangal this January, Kandulna bagged the gold, and Kerketta won the 2000m silver at the Tamil Nadu Open State Meet in Erode in October 2019. The Siddis of Junagadh, Gujarat, who have been less receptive to the Foundation’s efforts, are next in the scouting plans for 2020, says Singh.  

Despite the prospect of a better future the idea of their children moving away unnerves parents. Even after he had convinced parents to let their children leave their villages in north Bengal, coach Tudu took the precaution of informing panchayat elders and the local police that the Adibasi Rugby Foundation had taken the girls under its wing.

The story echoes in Mundgod, too. Chiniwar and Bendigiri have been trying to reassure Nayana Kokare’s parents that she’ll be safe when she travels to the Racers Track Club in Kingston, Jamaica, the academy that Bolt trained at and which is headed by the champion’s coach, Glen Mills. This trip is dangled as an added incentive to students to stick to the programme: Chiniwar intends to send two of his best athletes to the Kingston academy every year. Ravikiran Francis Siddi, 18, is the other young athlete who hopes to make it to Kingston this year along with Kokare.

Poverty, societal restrictions, family pressure — many of these athletes have overcome great odds to do what they love. “Everyone my age has got married in the village but this game has given me confidence,” says Monica Majhi, 20, who is a second row forward (lock position). The rugby player goes home to the Chuapara Tea Estate every year to appear for her graduate college exams and hopes to join the army. Her younger sisters back in the village idolise her.

On Tudu’s rugby team of 15 is a single mother, and two others who also work as domestic help. The young women have beaten the Haryana team twice consecutively in the national league, in 2018 and 2019. 

These young athletes have embraced a life that entails plenty of sacrifice for potentially dazzling rewards. Diets are strict for Singh’s students and they are weighed every day.  “We have to keep track of the smallest of details to ensure maximum efficiency. We keep detailed records of how the body is changing while training to ensure the athlete is at their prime during an event,” explains Tenzin C Zongpa, a sports scientist based in Mundgod with Bridges of Sports.

Anything with sugar, masala and oil is off most of these athletes’ tables. “Sir (Tudu) does not let us even eat Maggi. These restrictions are relaxed only on the day we win matches. That day I am allowed to feast on pani puri, my favourite,” confides Urshila Khariya. 

And even as Ravikiran Siddi, currently in Pune to train with a Jamaican coach, has been put on an unforgiving diet comprising no-masala meat, 18 eggs and loads of greens every day, Chiniwar suspects the boy sneaks in a bar of Dairy Milk on rare occasions. 

Meanwhile in Mundgod, which Chiniwar hopes will be India’s Iten, a scarlet sky dominates the forested landscape in which he hopes will train runners of all kinds — from sprinters to middle- and long-distance athletes. The only exception among them is a javelin thrower who trains with them in the absence of a javelin coach. As his fellow athletes wrap up their training, local boy Siju Philip, who is training for a marathon, keeps going around the ground, running without pause. His lean silhouette moves steadily in the twilight long after the sun sets. For young people like him, the race has just begun.  

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