India’s tryst with contact sports in the Olympics goes way back to 1952, when wrestler K D Jadhav came out of nowhere to win the country’s first post-independence individual medal. Since then, wrestling and boxing have made up a majority of the contingents, including medal winners such as Vijender Singh, Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt and Mary Kom.
However, other contact-based sports such as judo are yet to make a stark impact on India’s Olympic growth trajectory. This particular situation could soon change with Punjab’s Avtar Singh successfully qualifying for the 2016 Olympics.
Least number of events participated in to qualify for Rio 2016
An unsung journey saw the 24-year-old from Gurdaspur become the only Indian judoka to book a Rio slot, playing less than 10 sanctioned events. Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, he said, “If you go and see other countries, people have played 24-25 events to qualify for Rio. But I knew that I didn’t have those kind of resources to do so. I had six tournaments to prove my worth and I am thankful to my family who mortgaged our house and spent all their saving, just to give me one shot at Rio.”
The Kothe Ghurale village in Gurdaspur is in sheer delirium. A young boy who was working in the village farm until a year back, is all set to represent India at the Olympics. But it didn't come easily; the transition required Avtar’s parents to mortgage their house and spend all their savings, to give him one attempt at Rio.
This particular risk could’ve broken the Singh family’s financial spine. Avtar added, “For our sport judo, there is negligible financial and infrastructural support. If you want to make a name for yourself abroad, it has to be through your passion. Actually after one point it has to be an obsession. My family lived the obsession with me, they had no doubt that I would make it. The family is our actual backbone, not the Federation.”
Earlier this year, the Sports Ministry decided to suspend the Judo Federation of India (JFI), due to improper election procedure. The negligible amount of international exposure also dried up with, Avtar attending only a couple of international events in a year.
Despite support from JSW Sports, they found it difficult to raise the money for his road to Rio. It is around this time, that Avtar’s parents decided to mortgage their house and break all their fixed deposits. His father said, “My only goal was to see my child represent India. We would give him everything he needs to do that. It’s as much as our dream as it is his. And against all odds he has done it.”
Participating in just six events, the least among all qualified Judokas, Avtar successfully secured enough points for Rio. However, India’s budding prodigy almost quit the sport in 2008. He said, “Back in 2008, our local coach used to do a lot of politics. Despite me winning every tournament, other judokas from my weight category were sent to represent Punjab. So I wanted to quit. However, my father told me this is the true test. If you can stick through it now, you will make it anywhere. He is the one who motivated me to play, I honestly wasn’t interested.”
No money from Federation or government, backbone for qualification were my parents: Avtar
Hailing from Gurdaspur was an automatic introduction to Judo for him. The town boasts of close to 30 judo clubs, and its popularity saw JFI open a national center in the town. Each and every household has some history with Judo. Avtar’s Coach and former India/Punjab Judoka Yashpal Solanki said, “Families are closely tied to Judo there, you have members who have represented the state or district at one point in their history. Hence, you have a lot of Judokas practicing there.”
Solanki added,”I first spotted Avtar at the National Junior Championship. He was miles ahead of the seniors as well. You could see that just 18 years of age, he was far ahead of everybody at the event. Unlike others who were becoming seniors at 24 or 25, Avtar was already better than them. His best quality is his sincerity, he will never miss training. Till date he has never missed training, if that kind of dedication is there, sky is the limit.”
Under proper guidance, Avtar burst onto the scene by winning the Junior Nationals in 2010. Within two months, he would go onto win gold at the Commonwealth Junior Championship, defeating members from 11 different countries. Success at the junior level prompted a senior call-up in in 2011 via a direct entry to the national World Cup team in Mongolia.
Road to Rio
With Avtar steadily climbing the Judo hierarchy, finances were getting equally important. He said, “JSW helped me with a lot of funds and supplements, but my annual cost was almost Rs 12- Rs 14 lakhs, which was difficult to raise for a sport like Judo. JFI wasn’t interest and SAI didn’t even listen, so I had to attend lesser events till about 2015.”
Attending just one to two events in a year stemmed his upward charge. His Coach Yashpal added, “I assure you, if he played more events I assure you he would be the top contender for gold. More exposure equates to adaptability and exposure. Avtar used to get events like South Asian Games, how will that help him prepare for the Olympics. It helped him financially, he got Rs 4 lakhs, but in terms of actual growth it was nothing as he was far superior to his competitors.”
Now in the Asia top 5 in his category, Avtar has played half the number of events as his competitors. This is also an advantage because he will head into Rio as an unknown entity. Yashpal said, “I really wish he would play at least 10-15 tournaments in a year. He fought only six last year and this is the result. However, thanks to his qualification the Ministry has given a clean chit to us. We can go and practise anywhere, at least that’s what they have said.”
Avtar now aims to fight in Grand Slam events across Hungary, Russia and Mongolia. The Target Olympic Programme (TOPS) will also send him to a country of his choice for training, two months ahead of the sporting extravaganza.
Talking about his expectations from Rio, Avtar said, “It will be redundant for me to say that I will give my best. However, I know that I’m a serious medal contender, and that I can make India proud.”
India’s last judoka to qualify for the Olympics was Akram Khan in 2004. After a 12-year absence, Avtar Singh is all set to write a new page for judo and his family.Published 28 May 2016, 23:35 IST