A Punjab police officer’s unexpected journey to Rio
Judoka Avtar Singh’s parents had to encash their fixed deposits and hand over their savings to ensure his journey to Turkey for the Samsung Grand Prix in April. Two months later, little did they know that the government would fund their son’s trip to Hungary, Georgia and Russia, with a responsibility to hone himself before representing India at the Rio Olympics.
Hailing from the Kothe Ghurala village near Gurdaspur in Punjab, Avtar works for the Punjab Armed Police. He used to help his mother in the farm while his father served in the Punjab health department. His parents introduced him to judo so that the naughty 11 year old would feel tired. But the lanky, muscular boy gradually started dominating the judo mats. He finished the Asian Junior Judo championship in 2011 as the bronze medalist before representing India in the 2012 Commonwealth games in England. He also won the senior national judo championships in 2013-14 and 2014-15. But his biggest hurdle was the Olympic Judo qualifying system.
Judo, a sport in which opponents attempt to throw or wrestle each other to the ground, is struggling for relevance in India despite its similarities to the grasping and holding seen in Kabaddi. The complex Olympic qualifying system for a Judoka lasts three years spanning 40 tournaments. Avtar baffled his opponents in Guwahati in February to clinch the South Asian Championship gold and continued his dominance in Uzbekistan, where he finished fifth at the Asian Championship in the 90kg category. Despite participating in just six out of 40 tournaments open for Olympic qualification, Avtar rose up the ranks from 200 to finish 79th in the world ranking table, which was good enough to book an Olympic berth under the continental quota. His seeding will be 27 out of the 32 contestants at Rio.
Avtar’s inspirational journey to Rio hides more than what it reveals. It narrates the tale of another potential sport in India, which is affected by lack of coordination and exposure despite the establishment of five training centres in a span of one year. The Judo Federation of India (JFI) and the Sports ministry have been at odds over Mukesh Kumar’s third tenure as the President of the board. The sports code clearly states that no individual can continue in any post after serving two terms as the JFI president. Mukesh Kumar’s non-compliance could lead to the federation getting derecognised. Such a scenario will push the sport into doldrums as it is unlikely for a derecognised board to gain funds from the Ministry.
Avtar’s coach Yashpal Solanki, a former international feels that this has affected the players. In an interview to the Asian Age, he said that Avtar would have had greater chances of bringing home a medal, if he had enough exposure like the other players who have participated in 20 to 25 tournaments. The experienced coach is focused on ironing out Avtar’s weaknesses with the lock and improve his leg movement. During his stint in Europe, Avtar will be training with a sparring partner of his weight category, after four years of practice with Karan Mann, who belongs to a lighter category. The London Olympics saw Vijay Kumar, a Subedar Major, win a silver medal for India. This time, Avtar, a sub-inspector from Punjab has broken barriers to reach the big stage. His road to Rio could inspire young judokas even if he makes it to the knockout stage. He surely has the potential to make a name for himself. But will the lack of exposure come into play? Time will tell.
Edited by Prajwal Bhat