Amid the euphoria surrounding the success of wrestlers and shooters, bronze at Sepaktakraw may not have made the headlines, but it’s a life-changing moment for players like Harish.
The auto rickshaw tries to squeeze past the heavy traffic near the old Delhi train station. Driver Harish Kumar needs to drop off his passengers and return in time for his Sepaktakraw training session at Indira Gandhi Stadium. He cannot afford a drop in form as the selection for the Asian Games is on the cards. A spot on the team might just be the ticket to the elusive medal and financial gains that would help him focus solely on the game.
The 21-year-old’s hard work finally paid off when he made his entry into the Asian Games regular squad and became part of history at Palembang. Harish was an important part of the squad and one of the youngest members of the Indian team that won their first medal at the Asian Games in Sepaktakraw.
Amid the euphoria surrounding the success of wrestlers and shooters, bronze at Sepaktakraw may not have made the headlines, but it’s a life-changing moment for players like Harish. “This is the highlight of our sporting career. The feeling has yet to be felt. Hopefully the sport will be more recognized,” said Hem Raj, the team’s head coach. First post from Palembang.
The team felt the pressure to deliver at the Asian Games after the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) refused to allow the football team. Fingers have been pointed at how sports like Sepaktakraw and wushu have taken over football. “The sport can lack appeal to the masses and therefore the performance of the team is hardly noticed. Therefore, when football failed to make the cut, we were worried if our team would get the green light, ” added Hem Raj.
However, the sport has been included in the priority list of the Ministry of Sports which has ensured that players can participate in a number of international events. As the Asian Games approached, the government had sanctioned a two-month training program in Thailand. It was a big boost for the team as the team trained alongside the best teams in the country which is the power of world Sepaktakraw.
The Indian team currently has a number of experienced activists like Niken Singh from Manipur and Sandeep Kumar from Delhi competing in their third Asian Games. Along with Harish, other talented youngsters on the team include Akash Yumnam Singh and Henry Singh Wahengbam. Yumnam, known for his lightning kicks on the bike, is treating a slight knee injury that has slightly hampered his performance.
Sepaktakraw was a demonstration sport at the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, but struggled to find takers in India. It was not until 1999, when the National Games were held in Manipur, that the sport began to gain popularity. “During the National Games, the government of Manipur announced that medalists in all sports would be given government jobs. It was the perfect incentive and many young people in Manipuri took the sport seriously in the hope that a medal would help them overcome poverty, ”said Yogender Singh Dahiya, president of the Indian Association Sepaktakraw.
The game originated in Southeast Asia, with the name of the sport being a combination of Malay and Thai words. Sepak is a kick in Malay while Takraw means a woven ball in the Thai language. Played with a synthetic fiber ball on a playing arena almost the size of a badminton court, the games involve using your feet, knees, chest and head to touch the ball. But it’s the powerful, gravity-defying attackers’ bike kicks that make the game stand out.
India’s bronze medal was won in the regular team event where each team has 12 members. A team presents a different group of three players in each of the three sets. Building on its heroic exploits in the regular team event, India is also aiming for a podium in the regular Asian Games event. In case of regularity, each team will have three players playing all three sets. Niken Singh, Sandeep Kumar, Askash Yumnam Singh, Harish Kumar and Henry Singh form the regular five-member squad.
After the Asian Games, the next big test for the Indian team will be the World Championship which will take place next month in Thailand. “Thailand and Malaysia should dominate but we are a rising power along with Iran, Germany and the Philippines,” predicts Dahiya. “In the long run, hopefully improving our boys’ performance in events like the Asian Games will help them get noticed and they will get contracts in the lucrative leagues played in Thailand.”
The bronze medal at the Asian Games put the sport in the spotlight and for players like Harish it can make a difference in their lives.