THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
Had it not been for the South Asian Games towards the end of the year, it would have been really difficult to gauge the performance of myriad sports, which do not get the exposure and competitive platforms that cricket and football have. Thankfully, the 13th SA Games was held in Nepal from December 1 to 10, and it proved to be a proper platform to judge the feedback of the effort and investment in the ‘other sports’. The Bangladesh Olympic Association ran five-month camps ahead of the Games in most of the 25 disciplines that Bangladesh contested in the regional multi-sport extravaganza but unfortunately, many of those disciplines failed to deliver on the promises of their federation officials. Had it not been for a clean sweep of gold medals in archery and slightly surprising successes in karate and wushu, the country would have had little to cheer about from the Games. The following is a look back on the performance of those sports over the last year in light of the SA Games, and also a look back at what was good, bad and ugly about sports in general.
Archery shows the way
The meteoric rise of archery as a forerunner among sporting disciplines in Bangladesh owes a lot to the planned investment and performance appraisal by the federation as well as the sponsors. The sport, which is only 12 years old in Bangladesh, helped the country win more than half of their SA Games gold haul, making a clean sweep of gold at the archery ground in Pokhara. With Ruman Sana spearheading the gold rush, Bangladesh found a few new stars, including 14-year-old Ety Khatun who, like Sana, won three gold medals. This performance was the culmination of a successful year for archery, which saw Sana win a gold medal in the Asia Cup following a bronze medal in the World Archery Championship, which also earned him direct qualification into next year’s Olympics.
The success of the karatekas, who won three gold medals as well as three silver and 12 bronze medals, was a welcome relief for Bangladesh, a country not known for success in combat sports. Likewise, success from weightlifters, wrestlers, wushu and taekwondo athletes helped Bangladesh finish fifth out of seven South Asian countries.
A fresh spark in chess
Chess is one of the disciplines about which Bangladesh once had much to boast. The country, which gave the subcontinent its first Grand Master in Niaz Murshed, lost its way and started to lag behind India over the last three decades, producing only four more GMs since Niaz. However, it seems as if the long wait for another GM -- it has been 12 years since Bangladesh’s last -- will soon end as there are a few new faces in the block who are giving their senior compatriots a run for their money. Fahad Rahman, long considered the next big thing in domestic chess, filled the prerequisites to become an International Master by beating seniors and earning a place in the Chess Olympiad this year.
Manon Reja Neer, a nine-year-old prodigy from Chattogram, created a buzz by becoming the youngest chess player to qualify for the national league. He went on to upset a few stalwarts in the national league before ending the year with a runners-up trophy in the prestigious Telegraph School Chess in Kolkata.
Wooden spoon in five disciplines, disappointment in athletics and swimming
In the 13th SA Games, Bangladesh won a total of 142 medals from 23 disciplines, including 19 gold medals – the country’s best ever feat in the history of the Games. However, when one considers that the number of gold medals on offer this time was twice as many as the edition which had produced their previous best, there is little reason for the sports guardians of the country to bask in glory. There were a few high points, but those were far outnumbered by frustrating outcomes for Bangladesh during the 10-day meet. The country failed to win a single medal in as many as five disciplines -- basketball, volleyball, cycling, squash and tennis. Athletics and swimming -- two of the major disciplines in any multi-sport games -- continued their regression while shooting, an erstwhile goldmine for Bangladesh, failed to deliver a gold medal for only the second time in the Games’ history. Kabaddi, the country’s national sport, had given cause for optimism after Bangladesh won the bronze medal in the inaugural Junior Kabaddi World Championship in Iran in November. However, that optimism soon turned into disappointment after both the men’s and women’s teams returned with bronze medals from the SA Games in December.
Football’s false dawn
Football was another big disappointment in this regional meet. After 15 months of consistent performances under Jamie Day, there was optimism about the team regaining the regional title which Bangladesh won only twice. However, despite fielding a team featuring most of the national squad players and despite the absence of India and Afghanistan, the booters returned home with a bronze medal.
Stalemate in Hockey
Hockey had a quiet year in 2019. There was a peaceful transition of power through a long-awaited election, which should have opened up avenues for competitions to be held on time, but there was no club cup or premier league held at all. The only hockey activity in the country was a Test series between Bangladesh U-21s against Oman U-21s at home and then the women’s hockey team’s maiden participation in Junior Women’s AHF Cup in Singapore. The long-term absence of new general secretary Mominul Haque Shaeed, who did not return to Bangladesh following September’s casino raids, left the sport in limbo.
If the poor performance of athletes was not enough reason to worry for sports officials, there were enough off-field incidents that made sportspersons and sporting authorities hide their faces in shame.
The country’s sporting fraternity was rocked in September by Casinogate, a drive carried out by law enforcement agencies at the Club Para in Motijheel. The drive unearthed illegal gambling machines at some of the pioneering sporting clubs of the country, including Mohammedan Sporting Club, Wanderers’ Club, Victoria Sporting Club, Youngmen’s Fakirerpool Club, Arambagh Krira Shangha and Muktijoddha Sangsad Krira Chakra. All of these clubs used to be pioneering institutions in our sports, and even if some of the clubs had lost ground to more modern clubs in terms of sporting achievements in recent decades, it was quite a shock to everyone to see that these clubs had turned into a nexus of nefarious activities. The fallout from this revelation has had a deep and lasting impact on the country’s sports, football and hockey in particular, as these clubs are struggling to find a way out of this mess and relocate themselves into mainstream sporting culture once again.
Violence against women
Casinogate was not the only dark revelation in sports in the last one year, there were also reports of violence against women, both of sexual and non-sexual nature, exposing the dangers of being a female sportsperson in the country still in the 21st century. A Japanese swimming coach left his job and the country after witnessing torture on a teenage swimmer under the auspices of other coaches and officials at the Bangladesh Swimming Federation while an expatriate teenage tennis player resorted to law enforcement agencies after being sexually harassed by a high official of Bangladesh Tennis Federation. Unfortunately, none of the perpetrators of either incident have been brought to book for their offences, even though the tennis official lost his position in the aftermath of his misdeed.
In 2018, a case of sexual offence against a teenage weightlifter inside the National Sports Council had made nationwide headlines, prompting protests from all quarters and eventually forcing authorities into action against the offender. But these incidents showed that that was not just a one-off incident, rather a pattern of predators preying on vulnerable female athletes. So long as these incidents are not met with proper remedies and punitive measures, there could be repetitions of such heinous crimes too often.