Over the last few decades, gymnastics has constantly managed to catch the fancy of ad-makers, especially while promoting FMCG products in the Indian market, be it milk, cheese, butter, or even health drinks.
In the Doordarshan era of the early '90s, a brand showed a gymnast perform various sets of routines in sync with a butter-laden toasted bread slice. The ad film almost made one believe, that they could perform such maneuvers just by consuming the product. In another such ad, a young boy is seen struggling to get a double pike right, on the vault. After failing a few times, he finally manages to land one correctly, only after he had a glass of the health drink. Mind you, there was no coach around, under whom all these failed attempts were being made, but only the mother in the stands, who was cheering for her ward.
These ads, though visually appealing, just manage to depict everything which is wrong with gymnastics in India. If only consuming such products could produce a champion gymnast in the country, the sport wouldn't be fighting for its very survival. Even after all these years, when new nations have started taking gymnastics seriously, apart from the traditional powerhouses, India is forced to celebrate the qualification of a solo gymnast at the Olympics, be it Dipa Karmakar in 2016, or Pranati Nayak in 2020. With 18 medals at stake at the Games, it is just beyond belief that the stakeholders haven't found a way to improve the sport in the country. 1952 was the year when two gymnasts -- Vir Singh and Khushi Ram had entered the Olympics from India for the first time. Even though the duo ended last on the roster in the all-around individual event, which is understandable given the growth of the sport in those times, nothing much seems to have changed till now. 70 years apart, nations that had no history in gymnastics, are miles ahead of where India is placed today.
Look at the Philippines. With a proper program, investment, and dedication towards gymnastics, they have produced two-time World Champion Carlos Yulo, who has it in him to become the greatest-ever in floor exercises and vault. The results though have not come overnight for Yulo. It was only after Japanese coach Munehiro Kugiyama was brought in, given a free hand to train the gymnasts in his own way, that Yulo could reach these heights. In fact, Munehiro made sure that he took Yulo with him to Japan, so that the latter could train with the Japanese national team, and get the best exposure.
Yulo got the best coaching, best facilities, and the support of a strong federation back home, who wanted the sport to grow in their country. But here in India, the federation has ceased to work for the sport or the athlete. After the high of 2010, where Ashish Kumar won three medals at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games combined, it has all gone downhill. In an ideal scenario, those medals should have acted as catalysts to improve the sport, but unfortunately, it started a tumultuous 10-year period where the in-fighting in the Gymnastics Federation of India, only brought embarrassment to the country.
For the unversed, 2011 saw the rise of two factions within the GFI. Such was the situation that the government had to de-recognize the body and its functioning. So till the time the in-fighting continued, there were no national championships, no tournaments, and sporadic national camps, which were just conducted a week before a major tournament. So while the gymnasts from across the world were getting stronger and competition-ready, there was no one in India who could take Ashish or others, to the next level.
"In 2010 I had hit the peak of my form. Such was my level at that time, that I beat Feng Zhe of China, who won gold at the 2012 Olympics in parallel bars, to win my bronze at the Asian Games. In fact, the guy who came fifth was an all-around bronze medalist from the 2007 World Championship. The next year we had all the qualifiers for the 2012 Olympics, and I had a great chance to qualify too. But I missed out on the chance in the World Championship, for direct qualification. We did have the option of a wildcard entry, but the federation didn't do much for it and was later awarded to a Bangladeshi gymnast. Had we taken some initiative, I would have gone to the London Games," Ashish told SportsCafe in an exclusive interaction.
The last 10 years of his career have been a tale of misses but could have been totally different if a parent body had taken care of him. After the low of 2012, Ashish came close to medals in the 2014 CWG, but there were a lot of other issues playing on in his mind, that impacted the overall result. "I was in the finals of vault and floor exercises, but there were a lot of things in my mind, which hampered my medal chances. There were issues with the federation. And yes, we had no competition exposure. There were players who had played 50 competitions coming into the CWG, and I on the other hand had played only 15-20 in my entire career. While all these things continued to linger on in my mind, I touched the line in the floor final and missed out on the medal.
"It gave a sense that people around you were trying to pull you down, that too when you were in contention for a medal. That is a very lonely place to be in, and that's where I've been ever since, as far as gymnastics is concerned," Ashish continued.
Not only the people at the helm made it tough for him but also weren't there when he needed them the most. Ashish suffered five career-threatening injuries, but not even once was he offered help. If that is the treatment meted out to the top gymnast in the country, just imagine the plight of the not-so-established ones or the upcoming ones. But that is not what Ashish wanted. All he desired was to get some competitions under his belt while coming back from the injury. He was denied that too. "In 2017, I had wrist surgery, that pushed me back once again in my career. I was undone by the federation, as after the surgery I wanted to compete in the World Championship, just to get a competition under my belt. I wrote a letter for the same but was denied a chance. This is when a team of five could be sent, but we chose to send only three players.
"It was the same old story of dirty politics during the 2018 CWG. I stood first in the qualifiers in India, and as per a rule, my coach Manoj Rana should have accompanied me to the Games. But his name was not pushed forward by the federation. So, instead only a manager accompanied the team. The presence of a coach becomes vital in these competitions, and I feel if my coach was there, I could have probably won gold too. In the floor and vault categories, I was scoring 14.200 while competing with the Ukrainian team during an exposure trip, and the gold medal in Gold Coast went at the score of 13.900. In short, it was a medal lost."
This is just one aspect of the murky tale. The other is, the need and want to control things, by the ones at the top. It was sometime in 2009 that well-known coach, Vladimir Chertkov was roped in, keeping an eye on the future. And the coach delivered instant success at the CWG and the Asian Games. But soon the relationship between the coach and the authorities soured, to a point where Chertkov was allegedly threatened by an SAI official, of an arrest, if he came back to India. All this was just a few months prior to the London Olympics where Indian gymnasts actually had a decent chance to qualify. "He told me (the official), I dare not come back to India or he will have me arrested at the airport," Chertkov had told a daily upon his feud with the official. And this wasn't the only feud between the coach and the official. Rightly so, the coach never returned. In 2014, another foreign coach Jim Holt was appointed, but his stay was short-lived as well. He too, soon after arriving in India, got fed up with the way sport was managed here, and departed soon. Since then, Indian gymnastics has never been the same.
While the issue of lack of coaches was always there, now what haunts Indian gymnastics, even more, is their quality, right from the grassroots level. One of India's most reputed coaches, who was part of the national coaching setup during Chertkov's tenure as well, Praveen Sharma aptly highlights all the shortcomings in the system. The veteran is currently a mentor of the Gymnastics Academy in Delhi, and talking to him gives a sense, how hopeless coaching in the SAI centers across India is.
"The way things stand now, money is not an issue, neither is the infrastructure. But from what I've noticed is, we don't have enough quality coaches. Sometimes a coach has to take care of 50-60 students at a time. Now just imagine what would a coach teach, and what would the students learn in such a scenario," Praveen, who is a mentor at the Gymnastics Academy in Delhi, said.
To think that India can't produce quality gymnasts would be a false statement to make. If a certain Mohini Bhardwaj of Indian origin can win an Olympics silver for Team USA in 2004 and have a move named after her (the Bhardwaj on uneven bars), why can't it happen to an Indian gymnast? The simple answer is the system there is in place, which can either make or break a gymnast. It is only fair to say that the type of coaching an average gymnast at the junior level receives in the US, is far superior to what India's top gymnasts have access to.
"As a coach, I must admit one thing. The coaching level at the grassroots is not that great. Honestly, it is poor. Right from U-8, there is no set pattern of the coaching set by the federation, that the state associations follow. Now that we are talking about it, there is another problem related to it. Since there is no fixed program for beginners or junior gymnasts, these budding gymnasts start doing the tougher maneuvers, which only the seniors should be doing.
"What happens abroad is that they have a fixed pattern of coaching, and they judge the children on basic things, which have practically zero difficulty level. In short, 'India mein basics theek nahi hai'."
To gauge how much difference good coaching and ordinary coaching can make, let's keep Bhardwaj and her coaches as the benchmark. She trained under the likes of Chris Waller, Galina Marinova, Valorie Kondos Field, and Rita Brown, who are few of the most qualified coaches in the US. After missing the Olympics qualification marginally in 1996 and 2000, the gymnast came back stronger and made it to the team in 2004. It goes without saying, the immense role her coaches would have played in her rise all through those years.
This is in stark contrast to what M Shinoj, a former World Championship participant from India, would have got in his career. A product of the Special Area Games scheme (SAG), Shinoj was among a handful of kids, who were selected to train in gymnastics, under the ambitious SAI project. The aim of the SAG scheme, particularly for gymnastics was, to pick up kids in and around Thalassery, an area that was famous for its circus academies, and train them in the sport. Even though the gym and the facilities were top class, coaches always remained an issue, as per Shinoj.
"It all started in 1990, where around 150 kids from circus families were invited for the trials, and from them, around 75 were selected. Honestly, we had never heard of gymnastics before, but the SAI had advertised well in the papers and made sure the message reached out to the circus families in the area. And interestingly, after the selection into the academy, there were a lot of physical and other scientific tests done on us, just to find out if our bodies were suitable for gymnastics. All these were conducted in the aegis of foreign experts. We had the best equipment from the USA. The first time I entered the gym, it felt like I was in some foreign land.
"But I think the biggest problem that we faced was with the coaches in place. There was only one permanent coach and another who would be there on a temporary basis. So despite our training, I think we were headed nowhere. Then another reason was, Kerala didn't have any culture of gymnastics. Since only the circus kids were preferred under the scheme, we didn't have adequate competition also. For the longest of time, we kids didn't know why we were training in gymnastics. There weren't any tournaments either. In hindsight, I can say that despite planning the scheme so well, it wasn't executed properly, in gymnastics," recalls Shinoj.
Only once it happened during his formative years as a gymnast, that he was coached by a foreigner, and which by his own admission, made him a gymnast in the true sense of the word. "In 1997, we were lucky to train under a coach from Kazakhstan who spent a total of six months with us. The reason he could improve our game was that he had no emotional connection with us. He was a man on a mission. No matter what the situation was, even if he was unwell, he made sure he was there and trained us in the way he wanted to. Except for those six months under that Kazakh coach, we never had a proper coach. And in gymnastics, even 5-6 years is not enough to get the results. So I think we were hard done," said the ex-Navy man.
Most of the mess that prevails in Indian gymnastics today, started during the period of 2011-2020, only due to the absence of an apex body for the sport in the country. It was only in 2021 that the GFI was recognised again, and allowed to function properly. Despite this, the question still looms large, whether the federation can finally work for the betterment of the sport? At the end of the year, the GFI's work will be reviewed, just like all other federations in the country, and a call over their future will be taken, but till then, there is no certain answer to, what holds in store for gymnastics in India. The gymnasts, coaches, and the officials here have a lot of catching up to do, and a year's good work, if at all, won't suffice. The efforts will have to come in constantly from the top brass, just to keep our players only competition ready. Winning a medal at the Olympics is still a far-fetched dream.