Can our athlete bring home gold?
Bangladesh is the world’s most populous country not to have won any medal in the Olympics yet. Most regard this an embarrassment. But they should not. For it is in international sport that disparity of wealth and opportunity manifests most graphically.
Of course, there are notable exceptions. Since the 1960s, countries of East Africa have been able to consistently produce Olympic champions in middle and long distance running despite impoverishment. But this is because they have been able to take advantage, through training and dedication, of specific physiological attributes possessed by their people.
In the end, success in international sports depends upon investment and planning. Bangladesh has never had either. Even wealthy nations, with rich sporting traditions, have struggled when their focus has gone awry.
In the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Great Britain won only one gold medal, and came 36th in the table. But by concentrating in the past 20 years on sports where it had tradition and prospect, Great Britain has not only recovered past glories, but has surpassed them, topping all other European countries in Tokyo.
Bangladesh is no longer the country that it was 40, 30, or even 20 years ago. Despite the odds, we have developed. Bangladesh is now among the 40 largest economies in the world. On key socio-economic development indices, such as longevity, infant mortality, primary health care, and access to potable water, we have surpassed India and Pakistan.
Our government is much more resourceful now than it was even 10 years ago. A burgeoning consumer economy has brought with it the prospect of significant corporate sponsorship for sports. The Bangladesh Cricket Board is now among the richer ones. It is time we take advantage.
By focusing investment and planning on sports where we have realistic prospects, we may have a Bangladeshi athlete on an Olympic podium in 20 years. Indeed, this can take the form of a mission statement, either on the part of the Ministry of Youth and Sports or a consortium of corporate sponsors. “Going for Gold” or “Mission 2040” has a nice ring to it. But we have to choose wisely in picking the sports in which to concentrate.
Bangladesh should plan and invest in disciplines where, in terms of physique, our athletes shall not be at a disadvantage. We should pick sports where we have significant popular participation. Sports where mental concentration, reflex, and agility -- as opposed to height and strength -- are the determinative factor.
Sports which, at least for effective participation at grassroots levels, do not require major infrastructure, but rather planning and organization. Sports where athletes from Asia dominate, and where we have a clear path, in terms of regular regional and continental competition, to climb the ladder. We should pick, for example, badminton and table tennis, which have a total of 27 medals on offer.
Badminton and table tennis do not require massive infrastructure or space. They have significant popular interest and participation in Bangladesh. India and East Asian countries have enjoyed considerable success in these sports. Regular competitions are held at the South Asian and Asian levels. The East Asian countries are in a position to provide technical and coaching support. One can also consider archery and shooting, in addition to sports with weight divisions, such as boxing, judo, taekwondo, wrestling, and weightlifting, though these require investment and infrastructure, and are also not popular in terms of participation.
After choosing the sports in which to concentrate, we should organize competitions at the upazila, district, divisional, and national levels. Competitions should be held at school, college, and university levels. Private universities can be encouraged to have sporting conferences a la North America. Corporate leagues can be held. In cities bereft of playgrounds, table tennis can be organized in the common spaces of apartment buildings. Vacant lots can be used for badminton courts. The “moholla” or “parar club” culture of yore can be revived by municipal authorities.
Indeed, mass participation of young people can be effective in dealing with many social ills. Most importantly, the federations should have an integrated calendar for all these events to ensure percolation of talent, so that the best can be identified, patronized and set apart for full time training. If this is done consistently, it will only be a matter of time before a nation of 160 million and counting produces a champion.
Sporting success can have a transformational effect on a nation, giving its people pride in identity and achievement. West Germany’s unexpected success in the 1954 World Cup heralded its emergence from the ignominy of World War II. Successful hosting of the 1964 Tokyo and 1988 Seoul Olympics saw Japan and South Korea secure their position as leaders of the industrial world. An Olympic champion for Bangladesh can inspire a generation to achieve new heights.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the winters of my youth were spent watching club cricket at the Dhanmondi Cricket Stadium, while my ears were glued to the transistor listening to the tests in Australia and India. If someone told me then that within 20 years, there would be a dashing youngster from Chittagong scoring a 100 at better than a run a ball for Bangladesh in a test at Lord’s or that we would have the best all-rounder in the world, I would have reacted with a rude expletive.
Yet, Tamim Iqbal and Shakib Al Hasan have happened. If we get our act together, we may well see, in our lifetimes, a tear rolling down the cheek of a Bangladeshi girl standing proudly in the middle of the podium on the greatest stage in the world, as the red and green is hoisted to the strains of the most beautiful national anthem of them all.
Mustafizur Rahman Khan is a freelance contributor.