Fighting Chance

The Olympic aspirations of Punjab’s small-town judo hub

Punjab’s Gurdaspur district, many young people are attracted to judo because it can provide a leg-up in the application process to government jobs harsha vadlamani
01 May, 2017

In a small hall inside a red-brick school building in the town of Gurdaspur, Punjab, around 15 young men sparred in pairs, throwing one another to the ground in white judo suits. About the same number of players watched from the sidelines, waiting for their turn to practise.

Among the judo players—judokas—sparring that March day, Karanjit Singh Maan, standing at a burly six-foot-two, cast an impressive figure. Maan won a gold medal in the South Asian Games in 2016, and is a member of the Indian senior national men’s judo team. When I asked him if he wished to represent India at the Olympics, he replied, “I want to win an Olympic medal in judo, not just participate.”

His ambition is unsurprising, given that the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Judo Federation of India Judo Training Centre—where the young men were sparring that day—has produced 26 internationally competitive judokas. These have included Jasleen Singh Saini, who, like Maan, won a gold medal at the South Asian Games in 2016, and Avtar Singh, who competed in the Olympics last year in Rio de Janeiro. Of the eight players on India’s senior national men’s team, four come from the centre in Gurdaspur. The centre coaches over 150 boys and young men, from ages six to 25, including players from Punjab’s other districts, and even from other states.

I visited Gurdaspur to better understand how it became a national hub for judo. The small town lies in northern Punjab’s Gurdaspur district, which abuts the India-Pakistan border. From Amritsar, I took a two-hour bus ride north-east on the Amritsar-Pathankot highway, passing fields of wheat, sugarcane and mustard.

In Gurdaspur district, however, agricultural prospects are not as ripe as they are elsewhere in Punjab, in part because the district lies between the Beas and Ravi rivers, making it prone to flooding. It also has very few factories or industrial warehouses, limiting the employment opportunities available to working-class men.

Amarjit Shastri, the founder of the centre, said that this dearth of opportunities actually plays a major role in encouraging young people to play judo. “As this is a border district, private-sector employment opportunities are almost nonexistent,” he said. “So the youth of the district traditionally look to the armed forces, the Punjab Police and government as their only employment option. Winning medals in judo helped them secure coveted jobs through the sports quota.” Over 100 pupils of the centre, he told me, have been selected to the armed forces and the Punjab Police.

According to Shastri, who is 57 years old, the prevalent cultural beliefs in Gurdaspur also helped judo prosper. “In this part of Punjab, being weak economically was considered acceptable, but physical weakness was frowned upon,” he told me in his office—a cramped room at one end of the centre, which also serves as a makeshift kitchen and transit room for judokas who travel to the centre from far-off villages.

Shastri began learning judo in 1982 from a coach at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Secondary School, where he taught Sanskrit. He started coaching students about two years after that, and founded the centre in 1986. Back then, he told me, there was hardly any awareness of the sport in the district.

In the early days of judo in Gurdaspur, Shastri said, “I would often take mattresses to different schools and colleges in villages to demonstrate judo techniques, as mats were unavailable.” Varinder Singh Sandhu, a former national-level judo player, who is now a police superintendent in Hoshiarpur, was one of the centre’s early pupils. In those days, “there were only two judo kits and 12 mats and we would have to share them among ourselves,” he said. By the time a kit “reached the sixth or seventh person, it would be soaked with the sweat of all the players before him.”

The 1980s in Punjab were also a time of the Khalistan movement, which demanded a separate state for Sikhs. “Bullets would fly outside while we practised inside,” Shastri, who is not a Sikh, told me. “Militants would come to our school and order us to stop classes from time to time. I had to wear a turban when I would accompany children outside so militants wouldn’t be able to identify me.” He said that judo training even proved “a way of weaning people away from the insurgency” because it offered a pathway to government employment.

By 1989, the centre had over 30 students, and had produced several national-level judokas. Over the years, as judokas from the district secured coveted government jobs, other young people flocked to the sport.

While Shastri’s centre only trains boys, there is a female judo training centre in Batala, about 30 kilometres away, where around 40 young women currently train. Several of these young women, Shastri said, have played at the national level, and one is currently a constable in the Punjab Police.

Shastri’s centre has lacked a stable home base for most of its life, getting moved between different schools. In 1990, he said, the centre moved to the Government Model Senior Secondary School (Boys), and was almost constantly shifted between different unused classrooms. Only in 2010 did the school give the centre its own space, in the hall where I visited them.

Even now, funding is a major challenge for the judokas. The centre only charges students R50 per month, and those from poor families are exempt from the fee. In most months, the centre’s expenses exceed what it can raise through these payments. This lack of funds reveals itself in the centre’s rusting gym machines, as well as its makeshift “ice bath”: a Sintex water tank that has been cut in half.

According to Naveen Salhotra, a trainer at the centre, “An international standard judo kit alone costs Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000. You need a lot of expenditure to compete at an elite level in any sport, and students from rich families largely do not come to this centre or to judo as a game.” Nisha Saini, the mother of Jasleen Singh Saini, also told me about the steep cost of raising a competitive judoka. The monthly expenditure on a player’s diet alone, she said, can be around R10,000—to say nothing of the costs of protein supplements and travelling to tournaments.

Gurdaspur’s judo community also suffers from a lack of government support. There are no coaches at the centre who have been approved by the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports Patiala or the Sports Authority of India. There are only two active coaches at the centre—far too few to give enough attention to all the judokas. In addition to this, in 2015, the union government stopped providing grants to the Judo Federation of India, the sport’s national administrative body. Dev Singh Dhaliwal, the general secretary of the Punjab Judo Association, told me over the phone, from Bhatinda, that the PJA has an annual budget of only R2 lakh. He said that although crores of rupees had been spent on athletics initiatives such as Khelo India, “the benefits to the players are very minimal.” This means, he said, “it is pointless to compare ourselves with China or Russia, which have huge budgets.”

Many of the people I spoke to said that such factors mean that India will need to devote many more resources to judo if it hopes to perform well at the Olympics. Satish Kumar, one of the coaches currently working at the centre, made no effort to hide his irritation when I asked about this. “Every four years there is a lot of hype about India not winning medals at the Olympics,” he said. “But if we have to compete internationally, we need scientific support, assistance and nutrition throughout the four years. We need a sports doctor who can understand athletes’ needs. Holding a camp just before the Olympics is of little use.”

But above all, Ravi Kumar, a junior coach at the centre, cautioned that the government needs to think about judokas’ financial security. “There is no point winning medals,” he said, “if the player has to then struggle for employment afterwards.”