Despite winning India's first Asian Indoor Games gold medal, Poornima Hembram still worried about losing her job
As I gathered my documents to travel to Turkmenistan for India’s first-ever participation at the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG), I repeatedly thought to myself -- is this tournament really important enough? Earlier this week, as many as 70 Indian athletes travelling to Ashgabat were stranded for over 14 hours at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, because they didn’t receive a clearance from the Indian Olympic Association (IOA).
Baffled at the development, a hurried call to a senior IOA official yielded an unexpected response. He said, “Who really cares about the Asian Indoor Games? Why do you think Australia pulled out, why do you think China is sending a weak team? No one cares, and anyway, we were not notified by the Sports Ministry as some of the sports there are not recognised Federations. so you should ask them.”
The Sports Ministry bailed out the athletes after newly appointed Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore was swift to sanction their permission for travel. It was not until India’s first medal at the Games, that the country’s search for heroes really doesn’t go beyond their own backyard.
Poornima Hembram might not be a household name in India, but her performance today in the women’s Pentathlon event highlighted what any sportsperson can do if he or she is given one opportunity. Originally not selected for the AIMAG squad, the 24-year-old was only notified seven days ago about her participation, as Swapana Barman pulled out due a shoulder injury. However, this opportunity was not only a chance for the multi-faceted athlete to prove herself, but it was also one last chance for her to save her job.
Financial woes overshadow success
As an ecstatic Poornima exited the Ashgabat Indoor Athletic track, she said, “You cannot believe how happy I am, ever since I was a kid, all I thought about was winning a gold medal. At the Asian Championship, I narrowly missed out by a few points and got bronze. Pentathlon is something that is over one race -- you have to be consistent across all events. If I’m fifth across all events, I have a higher chance of medalling than if I win an event and place bottom at another. And more importantly, I might now have a permanent job.”
Perturbed by her statement, I asked “Job? What do you mean?” She replied, “Actually two weeks ago, the Railways notified me that my job is not permanent. So I asked them if I medal at the international event, will they make it permanent? They said maybe, but if you attend two months commercial clerk training! You get paid more if you’re permanent and it would really help my family back home if I send them money."
She added, "My situation was so bad back home as we are farming adivasis (tribals), that there were days when I couldn’t even afford two meals a day. We used to eat once at night so that we could have enough spread across the month. So for me, the most important thing is to give back to my parents right now, as in my village no one believes anyone can do anything. For them, their lives begin and end with farming, I want to show them that all you need to have is self-belief and you can take on the world. I might just have to do that.”
Her statement begs the question, is India the only country where multiple-time continental medallists have to still worry about their livelihood? Turkmenistan, which ranks much lower than India in the athletics hierarchy, pays its medallists $983 a month, plus benefits. The central Asian country is yet to medal in track events on the continental stage. Meanwhile, Poornima is currently being paid Rs 15,000, which roughly translates to $234.80 a month, which might just even be taken away from her upon return.
Humble beginnings, fighting societal norms and winning gold
Born and brought up in the Adivasi village of Asna in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, Poornima's only goal in life was to make ends meet. However, despite winning several medals at the continental level, this particular gold just might be in vain, for her family as she is still unsure about retaining her job.
She said, “I really didn’t know what to do at the time, I think it was 2011 when I decided that to give the Sports Authority of India (SAI) trials. I used to run with other boys in my village and always beat them. Hence, my parents and village elders banned me from running with them."
"All I wanted was to run, so I went for the first SAI trials. When they took them, I didn’t even know who I was trialling for. All I knew was that if I trialled, I would have a better life than I already have. The coach at the Cuttack SAI hostel, Shankar Roy wasn’t letting me participate because I didn’t have shoes, I convinced him a lot and then he gave me the chance. I was the only one to get the qualification timing.”
Then a sprinter, her next target was to convince her family, to let her leave for Cuttack. After multiple attempts, they finally agreed, much against their own wishes. You couldn’t blame them, as Poornima was the first ever girl from her household to leave the village. This particular decision didn’t go down well with the village elders, who staged a protest outside their house. However, nothing was going to stop her now -- the small girl who was asked not race against the boys, had found her calling and this time, it was her choice.
Her attitude of doing everything that is put in front of her proved to be a fruitful one as unknowingly, she was training for the Heptathlon/Pentathlon. She added, “My coach just told me to keep doing what you’re being asked to. When they asked me what I want to do, after two years of training. I said whatever you want me to. I couldn’t choose and so, they asked me to try heptathlon.”
Within a year, she was awarded the Biju Pattnaik Sportsperson of the Year award, ahead of established state compatriots such as Dutee Chand, thanks to her multiple medals across various Asian Championships.
Even as she worries about her future as a ‘commercial clerk’ for the Railways, for a country starved of potential Olympic heroes, India has quite reluctantly unearthed a gem on this sultry evening in Ashgabat.