Against All Odds

He doesn’t smile at you from the billboards, but his face does tell the tale of the oppressed athletes in India

By Rituraj Borkakoty -reporter/chief Sub Editor

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Published: Wed 17 Sep 2014, 5:28 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 11:01 PM

Facing hurdles is a part of an athlete’s life,” he said with a reluctant smile, his voice never rising above a whisper. It was a cold, gloomy day when this scribe met the 76-year-old Bhogeswar Baruah — the 1966 Asian Games 800m champion — in his hometown of Sivasagar, Assam. He still wears his India blazer with pride.

Forty-eight summers have passed since he defied a flawed system to emerge as the first Asian Games champion from India’s neglected northeast region, and yet so little has changed. It was only a few days ago that the Indian government dropped 146 athletes from the 2014 Indian Asian Games contingent on the pretext of taking only the medal hopefuls to South Korea, creating chaos at the last minute.

“Mr Indian Official: Thanks For Nothing.” It’s the title of a chapter in Abhinav Bindra’s autobiography — A Shot At History. It’s heartbreakingly tragic that the only Olympic individual gold medallist in Indian history also had to face humiliation from the country’s errant sports officials. Mary Kom, the famous champion from the northeast region of the country whose five amateur world boxing titles and an Olympic bronze as a mother of two even inspired Bollywood movie makers, also had her share of troubles with Indian officials. In fact, you could never put an end to the list of names that have suffered.

Bhogeswar Baruah is one such name. Now the significance of names like his can only be found in the record books! The Assamese runner once refused to take sports pension from the Indian government and demanded the appointment of the right people in the selection committees. “It happened with me so many times during my own career. Officials’ indifference and selection bias have been the biggest issues in our country,” Baruah said matter-of-factly as he began to tell the story of his setbacks and triumphs.

“I was a victim of selection bias so many times. It was because of that, I failed to get into the 4x400m relay team for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. They didn’t let me run in the trials in Patiala. Milkha Singh, Makhan Singh, Amritpal Singh and Ajmer Singh were all friends and they decided that only they would represent the country. But apart from Milkha and Makhan, there was none in the country who could have beaten me. Milkha didn’t want to run in the heats; he said he would run only in the final. Milkha was the star, so they dropped me and selected the team by only having the final.

“But there were some officials who were not happy with the way the team was selected and they went to Raja Bhalindra Singh who was the president of the Indian Olympic Association. But nothing happened and I missed the flight to Tokyo despite having the best record in the country after Milkha and Makhan.”

Baruah’s response was epic. “The National Athletics Championships were held a year later in Chandigarh,” he remembers. “Milkha retired after the 1964 Olympics. Makkhan, Amritpal and Ajmer were no match for me on the track. I beat the same athletes who had shattered my Olympic dream. The national media then launched a scathing attack on the IOA. Later when I won the 800m gold with a new national record in the National Games in Bangalore in 1966, Raja Bhalindra Singh came to me to apologise for what had happed in the trials for the 1964 Olympics. And he promised not to make the same mistake again. I didn’t know what to say as I was engulfed by incredible sadness. It was too little, too late.”

Bhogeswar Baruah, former Asian Games champion

Baruah’s most incredible moment came soon, but once again it was not without the hiccups. “There were 17 of us that got selected for the 1966 Asian Games. We won 11 medals, five of which were gold,” he said with a glint in the eye. “You may find it funny now but those days the funds for overseas sports events were sanctioned by the Education Ministry of the country. And they sanctioned the money for only 15 of the 17 athletes. I was one of the two unlucky athletes.

“But the athletics coach fought for me and wrote to the ministry about my gold medals. Eventually they approved my trip, but the athletics team had already left and I had to take the flight to Bangkok with the wrestling team few days later.” So, didn’t it affect his mental preparations? “It did, of course, as I was going for the biggest race of my life. But somehow I managed to remain calm amid the chaos.

“The competition was very tough in Bangkok and the Games record in 800m was broken by three athletes in the heats and I was one of those three record breakers! In the other heats, Mamoru Morimoto, the defending champion from Japan, easily won against not so strong rivals.

“But something changed when the final started. I led from start to finish to win with a new Asian Games record (1.49.4). I was an Asian champion. It really was an unbelievable moment as I came from a state not many Indians knew much about those days.”

Ironically, not many people in his own state knew about his Asiad gold either. “There were not many newspapers those days,” he laments. “When the Indian government honoured me with the Arjuna Award, people finally knew why I was given the Arjuna Award!”

The youths in his hometown now know him as Arjun Bhogeswar Baruah.

In 1984, the Assam government announced that his birthday would be celebrated every year as the State Sports Day. But what Baruah wanted was something more beautiful. “After retirement I opened an academy for young athletes. I went to the villages and picked talented athletes and made them national champions. But I couldn’t not continue the academy due to lack of funds and government support,” he says with a tinge of sadness.

The lack of a system in the country still hurts him. “Before the start of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, I joined a group of Arjuna Awardees and held a Press conference in New Delhi to tell the media how we — athletes that have served the country at the highest level — were treated by officials like Suresh Kalmadi. You won’t believe Kalmadi could never recognise international medal winners and he had to be told who they were and then he would organise felicitation ceremonies for them!”

That’s what the forgotten and neglected champions like Bhogeswar Baruah get in India — the meaningless felicitation ceremonies where the politicians invariably hog the limelight by making promises they never fulfill.

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