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The art of storytelling: Why Digvijay Singh Deo chose Olympic sports over cricket

During a time when Indian sports journalism was predominantly cricket-centric, a journalist from Odisha took a mighty Olympic plunge.

Exclusive 08 Jul 2016, 12:03 IST
Digvijay with Sushil Kumar after he won silver at the 2012 London Olympics

Ever since Rajyavardhan Singh won Indian shooting’s first medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, reportage about sports outside the realm of cricket and football has periodically increased. Achievements of sportspersons donning the tri-colour are now being widely recognised, disseminated and celebrated.

Most sports journalists at the turn of the century were looking forward to their big India-Pakistan cricket match break, or even garnering an interview with then Captain Sourav Ganguly. Meanwhile, one young budding journalist was planting seeds for an unforeseen sporting revolution. Odisha’s Digvijay Singh Deo predicted at a very early stage in his journalistic career, that India was on the cusp of accepting coverage from other sports.

Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, he said, “I won’t lie when I decided to completely focus on Olympic sports, colleagues laughed at me. They said people don’t care about such things and the focus will always be on cricket. Honestly, for me I never got that kick out of covering cricket. I covered a lot of cricket, including the India Pakistan series, both in Pakistan and India and I enjoyed it as well. I felt though that the reporting in those days was largeloy personality driven, but, from a purist’s point of view, the amount of satisfaction one got when an Indian won a medal, it can’t be replaced.”

Born and brought in Bhubhaneswar, ‘Diggy’ as he is popularly known was one of India’s first Olympic sports journalists in television, giving him close to a five year head-start to his contemporaries, who mainly jumped on board post Abhinav Bindra’s gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A self proclaimed ‘failed sportsperson,’ Diggy’s closest tryst with competitive sport came through Billiards.

One of Diggy’s most fond interviews with Roger Federer

He said, “The problem with growing up in Odisha was that you had no one to look upto in terms of sports. You had the likes of Debashish Mohanty, but his period at the top was very less. Hence for me, my hero was Geet Sethi. I used to idolise him and wanted to become a pro-cueist like him. I still remember that I used to rush to the NALCO campus in 1996 to see the World Championship after my pre-board, so that I could get a chance to see him play. However, I don’t think I had the mental makeup to continue my journey as a sportsperson, hence the next step was journalism for me.”

He joined the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) harbouring dreams of becoming a political journalist but aware of the fact that that there were just too many in his family in politics, he decided to start like everyone else at the very bottom and chose sports.

Athletes are not just a rank or a stat, there is much more to them: Digvijay

He added, “It was around 2003 when I first came on air while covering the Arjuna Awards for Star News. During that time I didn’t have a fixed role, as I had to do everything else. But, when I saw the athletes and the amount of effort they put in on a regular basis, it was phenomenal. Hockey and Shooting were two sports I was immediately drawn to, two sports which I still consider close to my heart after all these years. 2003 was a great year for Indian Hockey while Indian shooting was starting to find its feet at the world level. In 2004 Rajyavardhan Rathore won the Olympic Silver medal and that was the trigger for the Olympic movement to go from strength to strength.

Meeting athletes at the grass-root level is something Digvijay has focussed on throught his career

Joining CNN-IBN in 2005, Digvijay was asked by Rajdeep Sardesai to concentrate mostly on Olympic sports, an administrative decision which worked perfectly as a build up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Attending the 2006 Commonwealth Games and 2006 Doha Asian Games gave him that much needed exposure to multi discipline Games. He added, “My aim has always been to change the perception of athletes as just a number. People generally relate to them as just a number such as a rank or a stat. Most people would see certain athletes participate in the Olympics and say this person only finished seventh or eighth, hence he didn’t practice properly. What they don’t see is the pain and sacrifices made by the athlete to reach that position.”

Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal was pivotal in Digvijay’s journey towards holistic sports coverage in India. Due to the early nature of that win, the entire country’s eyes were glued to the television for the next two weeks. Diggy added, “I personally know of one journalist, who didn’t go to the Beijing Olympics and decided to cover an India – Sri Lanka series, so that was an indicator of how important the Olympics was then. But, I feel there were two events that changed India’s sporting landscape, the first was of course Abhinav’s win and the second was the 2010 Commonwealth Games. I mean winning 100 medals for a country like India at that time was just unbelievable. The corruption issue overshadowed the sheer brilliance shown by our athletes. What the Commonwealth Games really did was that it showed people, that if money is pumped in, the results will show.”

The Olympic Journey

Digvijay’s marquee moment in his career came when he ran with the Olympic flame in 2008. He said, “By that time I was a regular in covering Olympic sports. I told the IOA I wanted to be considered as a torch bearer. Imagine my surprise when I ended up as the only torch bearer from the media after the relay got truncated due to the protests by the Tibetan activists. It was a huge honour and even today I consider it to be one of the highs of my career.”

A host of current and ex-sportspersons turned up for Digvijay’s book launch

In 2015, he was also among the three journalists chosen to be a part of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award selection committee.

During his 13-year career, Digvijay focussed on spending time with the Olympic athletes. These precious moments have now been captured in his new book, “My Olympic Journey,” which highlights stories of athletes and their unknown struggles. Stories such as the unsung journey of Karnam Malleshwari at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and how a government job motivated Vijender Singh’s Olympic participation are an integral part of the book.

He added, “I can honestly tell you, looking at the passion and dedication of these athletes motivated me to become an Olympic sports journalist. Sharing their passion helped me fuel my career and go out and look for stories.  I mean I can take an example of race-walker Devender Singh from the Army. When I went to interview him, he told me that ever since he started sports, his one desire was to be interviewed on Tv so that he his parents would be proud. I was the first person to interview him and it just felt amazing at that point. This kind of high cannot be matched, and the feeling couldn’t be better. I could get a Federer interview or a Tendulkar interview, but the sheer joy of these athletes overcoming struggle is unmatched. That is my motivation.”

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