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The struggle for Olympic glory

  • Published at 12:01 am September 1st, 2016
The struggle for Olympic glory

Bangladesh, once again, returned empty-handed from the Olympics this year, retaining its title of the “most populous country to have never won an Olympic medal.” At the start of the Rio Olympics, Bangladesh was one of 75 countries with no Olympic medals.

Fiji, another such country, squashed its record of Olympics duck when its rugby team won the gold and the country’s first ever medal at the Olympic Games in the inaugural men’s rugby competition.

Kosovo achieved a similar feat when double world champion Majlinda Kelmendi clinched the gold in the women’s judo 52 kg category, putting the recently-independent country on the medal table for the first time.

But Bangladesh, along with the likes of war-ravaged Congo and Rwanda, failed to secure any medals at Rio, prompting very little curiosity or concern from Bangladeshis worldwide, who seem to only have high expectations when it comes to the national cricket team.

Oddly enough, Bangladesh’s poor performance at Rio or at the Olympics in general wasn’t a talking point until the Margarita Mamun saga came into focus. Mamun, born to a Bangladeshi father and a Russian mother, and the gold medalist in the women’s individual all-around rhythmic gymnastics at Rio, called her win a “victory for two countries.”

When the war of words played out on social media between those who took her statement at face value and those who asserted that Bangladesh had no role to play in her success, it was clear that the majority, like myself, conceded that Mamun would have never had the opportunities to become the star gymnast she is today had she built a life in Bangladesh.

There is no question that her dreams of being a world champion rhythmic gymnast wouldn’t have seen the light of day; from being ridiculed and shamed for wearing “tight and skimpy” clothes to never being afforded proper training or basic facilities to practice, Mamun would have never stood a chance in her paternal homeland.

This tug-of-war between the two camps debating the contribution of Bangladesh, or a lack thereof, to her achievements nonetheless made one thing clear: Bangladesh is desperate to claim an Olympic victory.

So why is Bangladesh failing to provide an environment conducive to producing world-class athletes able to excel in platforms like the Olympics?

For many Bangladeshis, the misplaced urge to jump on the glory bandwagon (which is what happened when Mamun won) upon a nationalistic whim and a subsequent refusal to acknowledge why it’s wrong to claim something that is not rightfully theirs, is strongly indicative of the people’s lack of trust in the country’s own athletes.

Although athletes have repeatedly voiced their opinions on the integral role that a coach plays during big competitive events, bureaucracy and nepotism often trump the demands and needs of athletes

With the better part of the nation’s focus and investment expended on cricket -- a colonial legacy and a powerful expression of cultural nationalism for not only Bangladesh but also for South Asia as a whole -- it is little wonder that other types of sports are widely neglected.

The lack of sports infrastructure, facilities, opportunities, and incentives available to youngsters to professionally take up a career in sports (other than cricket) is a major obstacle to Bangladesh’s ability to venture past the likes of cricket and football.

With the exception of trailblazers like mountaineer-activist Wasfia Nazreen, young men and women hardly have non-cricket role models to look up to.

Even a rudimentary Google search will show you the glaring paucity of Bangladeshi athletes competing at the international level in various sports.

A general societal attitude that discourages youngsters from pursuing their passion (including aspirations of becoming an athlete) and pushes them to pick the “safer” career path, such as engineering, medicine, and law, is killing the hopes of all those who dare to dream.

Although Bangladesh boasts a few non-cricket sporting achievements thanks to athletes such as Abdullah Baki (silver medalist in shooting at the 2014 Commonwealth Games) and Asif Hossain Khan (gold medalist in shooting at the 2002 Commonwealth Games) a taste of victory at the Olympics remains a far cry.

The gravity of Bangladesh’s under-performance at the Olympics is underpinned by the population factor. Besides being the eighth most populous country in the world with a population of 160 million, Bangladesh is undergoing a demographic transition thanks to its increasing growth rate in the working age population in the last decade.

An overwhelming portion of the present population is below 25 years of age. It is, therefore, a cause for concern for Bangladesh to be grouped together in the “zero Olympic medals” category with countries with a minute fraction of its population; for instance, Lesotho’s population is 2 million, while that of Swaziland is 1.25 million.

The population profile of the other countries in this category in its entirety makes Bangladesh’s incompetence incomprehensible. How has it not been able to harness its youth’s potential and produce a single viable contender good enough to make it to the finals in any category of sports at the Olympics since its first appearance in 1984?

Reportedly, the Bangladeshi athletes’ contingent arrived in Rio without their original coaches. Instead, officials accompanied the athletes, in effect replacing their coaches. Bangladesh Swimming Federation General Secretary Rafizuddin Rafiz served as the coach in Rio to swimmers Mahfizur Rahman Sagor and Sonia Akter Tumpa. Rafiz has no coaching background.

Moreover, Bangladesh Athletics Federation’s Senior Vice-President Shah Alam was nominated to be the coach for sprinters Mezbahuddin Ahmed and Shirin Akter despite the fact that Alam left his coaching career more than a decade ago.

Although athletes have repeatedly voiced their opinions on the integral role that a coach plays during big competitive events, bureaucracy and nepotism often trump the demands and needs of athletes.

These malpractices are a manifestation of a broader culture of nonchalance and institutional corruption, and a widespread disregard for any sport that is not cricket.

Recently, Piers Morgan came under heavy fire on Twitter because he had to say this about India: “1,200,000,000 people and not a single Gold medal at the Olympics?

Come on India, this is shameful.

Put the bunting away and get training.” India won two medals at Rio, none of which were gold, and Morgan simply didn’t understand the cause for so much celebration.

Many Indians didn’t take his words lightly and reacted with some fiery comebacks. It now makes me wonder, if Morgan had hurled criticism at Bangladesh for being the most populous country with an Olympic duck, what would the people of my country have to say then?

Nahela Nowshin is a writer, feminist, and an independent thinker. This article was previously published in the Huffington Post.