Sepa... what? That is the general reaction you’re likely to get when someone discusses the sport of Sepak Takraw in India. But little do we know that the miniscule Indian representation has been fighting the odds for the past three decades to reach the top 10 of the world rankings.
Currently ranked eighth out of 45 regularly playing nations, India boasts of three medals across various World Championships, along with stellar performances at different editions of Asian Games. However, these accolades have not come without their fair share of problems.
Before we do get into the untold story of Sepak Takraw in India, let’s try and understand the sport and its growth trajectory in India. The sport was invented in the South East Asian country of Malaysia, from where it spread across the globe.
For a layman who has never witnessed the sport, this can be described as ‘foot-volleyball’, albeit the requirement for having gymnast-like traits is higher in the sport. A court of 13.4 by 6.1 metres is designated with two service lines on both sides.
A net 0.7m high divides the two sides, and the players attempt to kick the ball back and forth without letting it bounce.
India’s growth trajectory
Despite having its roots in the 15th century, the sport first came to India via the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, where it was included as a demonstration sport. After its selection in the Asian Games, an MP from Nagpur decided to create a team out of footballers that would represent the country at the event.
As predicted, India would go on to finish as one of the last nations, a far cry from Malaysia and Thailand, who all had flourishing leagues at that point. In 1984, the sport’s governing body in India Sepak Takraw Federation of India (STFI) was formed.
Subsequently in 1988 the first ever Nationals were held. However, even up to this point, the Sports Ministry did not give the sport any recognition.
Fight for legitimacy
Yogender Singh Dahiya, General Secretary of the Sepak Takraw Federation of India said, “In 1998, we desperately wanted to send a team because we had a very talented lot, but since we weren’t a part of the Sports Ministry, we were denied the funds.”
It was not until the beginning of the 21st century that the STFI would go on to attain legitimacy from the Sports Ministry. It was at the 2006 Asian Games that India would go on to send its first contingent. However, the Sports Ministry failed to financially aid the team here as well.
“The government told us that they won’t be able to pay for our trip to Doha, so members from the STFI gathered the funds themselves,” added Dahiya. However, this was not the end of their woes, as only eight players successfully reached Qatar.
The other eight did not get clearance in time from the Indian government, which forced Asian Games organisers to disqualify India. Dahiya said, “They told us no medals equal to no support, if that is the attitude how will a sport grow?”
2009 was the year when India announced itself on the world stage. A silver medal in the men’s team event was the country’s first ever major achievement in the sport. One of the members from that team Sandeep Kumar from Delhi said,
“Even after my silver medal, I still don’t have a job, my father is an auto driver and it’s very difficult for me to find a job while playing the sport.” – Sandeep Kumar, Member of India Sepak Takraw team
Lack of financial resources
Over the past three decades, the STFI has received just Rs. 4 lakh from the government. Three World Championship medals and one King’s Cup bronze, not a bad deal! But we’ve got to wonder: how well they would play if financial assistance was injected into the existent infrastructure?
When the Sports Ministry did decide to assist them by paying for National Camps prior to the 2010 Asian Games, the results were there for everyone to see. India finished an all time high of fifth, losing out to eventual bronze medallists China in a nail-biting encounter.
In the final set, both countries were locked into 24-24 as China ultimately edged out India in a match which is considered one of India’s greatest.
Myanmar has a huge role to play in the influx of the sport to India. Due to its close geographical proximity to Manipur, the sport started taking baby steps from the North-East of India towards the country’s heartland.
Kumar said, “When I went to play my first ever sub-junior nationals, I was just amazed by Manipur. The finesse and ease with which they were pulling out their bicycle and overhead kicks were amazing.”
The country’s growth in the sport can only be attributed to the STFI, simply because they somehow managed to send the team to International events. They also pulled off hosting the 2013 ISTAF World Super Series event in New Delhi, which saw the world’s best participate.
A total of Rs. 1 crore was required to host the event, out of which the Federation was only able to garner Rs. 10 lakh from extrinsic sources. Maharashtra Bank gave Rs. 5 lakh and a few sponsors such as ONGC and Coal India helped in raising the rest of the five.
The tournament was televised live across 70 countries worldwide, but the hosts never televised it. Yes, you guessed it right – India did not televise a World Championship event held on their own shores.
However, a crowd turnout of 10,000 people buoyed the Indian team to win the bronze medal. Sandeep Kumar, who was a part of the team said, “I would rate that as the most memorable moment of my career, the chance to play in front of my own fans; no silver medal can come close to that.”
No country for Sepak Takraw players
Now coming to the biggest challenge faced by the sport – categorisation. The Sports Ministry divides different sports into categories such as General and Other. The General category sports are liable for financial help from the government, but the ‘Other’ sports are not.
Sports such as Snake-boat racing, which have close to no representation in the country, have been categorised under this. It is simply absurd for a country that is ranked number 8 in the world to be under a category which doesn’t receive government support.
Sports like handball are yet to yield any international level medal winning results till date, yet they are given close to Rs. 2.5 crore in assistance every year, including a guaranteed spot for the Asian Games.
Despite being an indoor sport, not a single indoor court is present in the country. The national centres for Sepak Takraw are present in New Delhi, Bareily, Imphal, Dimapur and Aizawl. However, none of them have adequate facilities to hone top notch talent.
Dahiya stressed that practising on different surfaces for every tournament does not work. The specific material, paraflex, is much faster to run on as compared to any other ground.
Dahiya said, “We are a group of former sportspersons running STFI, we aren’t in the lookout for any money whatsoever. All we want is the sport to grow, just give us the recognition and provide us with the basic facilities like an indoor court. If we can host the World Championship, then creating infrastructure won’t be a problem.”
“We need to participate in International competitions more. How long can we sustain the sport ourselves? More exposure is equal to top three in the world.” – Yogender Singh Dahiya, General Secretary, STFI
It also gives an opportunity for other sportspersons to give it a shot; football and gymnastics are key contributors to the sport of Sepak Takraw. Dahiya said, “Players who have not cut it out in football, can easily transition to Sepak Takraw, if they have good agility. The same goes for Gymnastics.”
The previous government had promised Dahiya the conversion from Other to General would take place. This particular tenure has seen a promise that Sepak Takraw will become a stalwart after a couple of months.
With the World Championship in a few months’ time, the importance of the shift is immense. Lack of financial resources might just cost India its spot at the tournament. It’s about time the Sports Ministry realises the potential of a sport which has been ignored by them for the past three decades.