Both synthetic athletic tracks in the capital, one at Bangabandhu National Stadium in old Paltan and the other at Army Stadium in Banani, are out of date
Bangladesh athletics, once a powerhouse in the sub-continent, is observing a free-fall in the performance graph over the last few years.
Once renowned athletic teams gradually becoming defunct, negligence shown towards the country’s prime synthetic turf year after year, scarce of modern equipment and a lack of events and trainers at grass-root level are among key reasons for this debacle.
Mohammad Shah Alam became the fastest man of the region twice during the 1985 and 1987 South Asian Games, then known as SAF Games.
Bimal Chandra Tarafder carried out the legacy in 1993 but since then no more gold medal came from the most prestigious 100m sprint.
It is also athletics that earned Bangladesh its first two gold medals at SAG in Kathmandu, Nepal in 1984.
Saidur Rahman Dawn, Majibur Rahman Mallik, Shah Alam and Aftab Molla bagged the first gold in 4x100m relay following another Mallik triumph in triple jump.
Mahbub Alam, gold-medalist in the 200m sprint in 1995, was the last Bangladesh athlete to notch a medal in the 100m sprint in the shape of bronze in 1999.
Since then the game, regarded as the mother of all sports, continued its demise in the country.
Some pride was left in the hurdles events after the turn of the century with Mahfuzur Rahman Mithu winning Bangladesh’s last gold in the 110m hurdles in 2006, followed by Sumita Rani’s silver in the 100m hurdles in Dhaka 2010.
Expired tracks, useless timer and no gym
Both synthetic athletic tracks in the capital, one at Bangabandhu National Stadium in old Paltan and the other at Army Stadium in Banani, are out of date.
Two new tracks were set up near the city in the last two years, one at Savar’s BKSP, the country’s sole sports institution, and the other at Ansar and VDP academy in Shafipur, Gazipur, but none of them are for public use.
Current BNS track was installed in late 2006 for a total expense of Tk9 crores and 96 lakhs, but it got expired in less than eight years due to overuse and holes being uncovered from time to time.
Following 49-lakh taka renovation work in 2006, the situation hardly improved as the edges of patchworks were lifted up from surface soon after.
The synthetic track at Army Stadium is also in unsuitable condition for athletes and as a consequence to avoid risks of injury, the athletics federation did not have much option but to hold the last national championship on grass in Chittagong after more than a decade.
Good news is that BNS is set for a mega renovation with a budget of Tk98 crores and 36 lakhs, which includes installing a new synthetic turf, but the development project is still a long way away and unlikely to finish before the next Bangladesh Games.
It is yet to appoint a project director and aims to get the whole job done by December, 2022.
Abdul Rakib Mantu, general secretary of Bangladesh Athletics Federation, talked with Dhaka Tribune over phone from USA regarding the poor status of the equipment as well.
He said, “The equipment we have are not of international standard and many of them are unsuitable for use.”
The electronic photo-finish timer is mandatory in modern athletics to know about the actual timing of the athletes, but the current one at the federation has been useless for some eight years, and most of the national meets rely on hand timing.
“This photo-finish timer was bought before 2010 SAG at the expense of around Tk1 crore and 10 lakhs but it was left unused from 2012 to 2017 and thus got damaged. An attempt was made to repair it in 2018 but in vain eventually,” said Mohammad Talha, a federation official.
Abdullah Hel Kafi, the country’s top certified athletics coach recognized by IAAF, said, “Electronic timer should always be running. It’s a big problem for athletes if they don’t know their proper timing. Hand-timing is backdated and it is difficult to judge a player without e-timing.
“There is also no good gym. Athletes must need a good quality gym where some 100-150 players can train and maintain fitness. If we don’t get the modern equipment and facility, we will only fall behind.” added the BKSP coach.
Obsolete teams of BJMC, Customs
People from the 1980-90s would have heard about the athletics team of Bangladesh Customs.
Jobs were available in athletes’ quota and customs regularly used to send an athletic team for the national competitions.
SM Sharafat Hossain joined customs as athlete in 1989 and won national gold in high jump the next year.
He is currently serving the Customs as assistant manager of VAT section.
“Top officials of Customs gave directions to form athletics team in the 1980s. Some 100 athletes from across the country enrolled their names into customs athletic team. It continued until middle of 1990s, after that, it stopped participating in national meet,” Sharafat told Dhaka Tribune.
Recently, the miserable situation of jobless BJMC athletes during the Covid-19 pandemic came to light on several occasions in the last few months.
Some 248 athletes in 11 sports lost their jobs last December as part of cutbacks following losses incurred by state-run corporation and discipline wise, athletics has the most number of players at BJMC totaling around 100.
Abdul Quddus, the co-coordinator official of BJMC who joined as player and later became cycling coach, mentioned a list of athletes from Mallick, Shah Alam to Sumita and many more BJMC stars who not only ruled national tracks, but also in south Asia.
BJMC, known for grooming and feeding numerous national athletes, offered an opportunity for students to play, study and support family with the little income, but after it closed doors for temporary workers, many athletes started struggling to earn even their daily bread, let alone concentrating on the game.
Lack of events, coaches outside capital
Athletes coming from different districts and universities outside the service teams have lost their interest in the game and enrolled their names in national athletics only for the purpose of participation.
Lack of dedication and inspiration are evident in their performances in those events year after year because of not only less job opportunity than before, but also for lack of events and qualified coaches to nurture the hidden talents.
Approximately a year ago, national athletics was held comprising a total of 36 events, and five service teams – Bangladesh Navy, Army, Jail, Ansar and VDP, Air Force – and BJMC bagged all 106 medals except one mere bronze by Kurigram District Sports Association.
The medal distribution is not much different in two national meets held in the earlier years.
Lack of competition among the athletes is also apparent when one finds out Shirin Akter becoming the fastest woman of the country for nine consecutive times and Mesbah Ahmed for seven times without improving their timing.
“Why would athletes come when the number of teams is not sufficient? It’s not enough holding only national events and relying on four-five service teams. It’s difficult for those who come from different districts and not win a gold, their interest also declined. Many of them come to Dhaka for hanging around,” said Kafi, the fastest man in 1999, whose career ran from 1994 to 2006.
“Inter-district and inter-divisional competitions can be arranged to get them more involved. They will get more interest when they earn a medal and it will also inspire the athletes in grass-root level,” he added, proposing club-based athletics team for further development of the game.
He said there were more university students before his time who honed their skills in athletics and marked their names in the top level but their participation also decreased over time.
It’s been only three-four years that BKSP introduced quota for some universities like University of Dhaka, Jahangirnagar University, Rajshahi University, Jagannath University, Islamic University, Kushtia and Jashore University of Science and Technology.
Kafi, who completed several coaching courses in India, Germany, and Hungary before becoming the only Level-3 coach (hurdles and sprint) in the country, informed about a plan of India to educate 10,000 qualified coaches by 2021 and stretched on the necessity of developing coaches in Bangladesh.
The recommendations are easier said than done.
And the problem of athletics in the country looks almost insurmountable as they are piled up year after year and no apparent remedy is seen in the horizon.
In the turn of the new millennium, Bangladesh Athletics had a firm footing in south Asian level and was dreaming to go further beyond in Asia and world level.
But, after two decades it has reached the abyss and sheer darkness with no hope whatsoever.