Two years ago at the Rio Olympics, a Bengali-origin rhythmic gymnast named Margarita Mamun created worldwide headlines after clinching gold medal for Russia.
Few years prior to that, Margarita's Bengali father took an unsuccessful attempt to make sure her promising daughter represents Bangladesh instead of Russia, but one of the reasons the effort went in vein was due to the infrastructural limitation in providing regular training opportunities. The crisis is still present, along with the financial limitation, and these factors barred the local young gymnasts from taking part in any international event in the past.
Against all the odds however, a Bangladesh gymnastics youth team will be participating in a foreign tournament for the first time when a four-member U-17 squad participate in the 15th Junior Artistic Gymnastics Asian Championship in Jakarta, Indonesia from April 22-29. Shishir Ahmed, Abu Sayeed Rafi, Mohammad Shafiqul Alam and Shangkheong Khumi will bear the country's flag in the 24-nation event with the target of analysing Bangladesh's standard in the real world of gymnastics.
Despite the absence of any regular venue, as well as insufficient space to set up the available apparatus at the National Sports Council gymnasium, the Bangladesh Gymnastics Federation provided a four-month long camp for the budding gymnasts at two separate venues starting January 10.
The BGF general secretary Ahmedur Rahman Bablu, who travels with the team as the head of delegation, told Dhaka Tribune, "There is always space crisis at the NSC gymnasium where we don't have minimum space to set up our 10 apparatus properly due to its current usage for multi-sport disciplines. We also don't get practice times whenever we want. Thus we had to continue the camp in Savar's BKSP."
The former national gymnast added, "The whole world goes in one direction but we go the other way. You have to complete at least one cycle of four years of non-stop training camp to hope for minimum success. We can only arrange camp when we get the money but we did not get the minimum fund required from the government for 20 years now, and not even from sponsors. For the same reason, we couldn't participate in international tournaments regularly."
Informing that the only pit (gymnastic equipment) the country has in BKSP is not in good condition, team manager and former national gold medalist, Habibur Rahman Jamil said, "This is the first time a youth gymnastics national team will be participating in a foreign tournament. Although we have had only 101 days of preparation, it is our first step towards our plans to provide long-term training facilities to the players, at least for the next four years."
Jamil added, "In gymnastics, it's impossible to keep up the consistency in performance if there is a break in the cycle. It requires sufficient funding but we get only Tk2-3 from the NSC whereas we need Tk10 at least. We have to depend on the sponsors but there is none. This time around, our president is determined as the expenses of the whole tour and the camp will be provided by him, along with two of our vice-presidents.”
"We are far behind in gymnastics," said BHF president Sheikh Bashir Ahmed Mamun to Dhaka Tribune, before talking about the country's present poor condition in gymnastics, their repeatedly failed negotiations with the NSC to get minimum space for training, lack of interest from the sponsors, lack of competition and Bangladesh's potential in the game.
Mamun, also the Bangladesh Olympic Association vice president, continued, "We are not participating at all in international tournaments due to which we are not up-to-date with the standard of our gymnasts. We are giving the highest priority on the youth and trying to keep them under long-term camp. Development is not possible without infrastructure. I also had talks with the Planning Minister (Mustafa Kamal) to get sufficient space for gymnastics."
"As an individual game, Bangladesh has every potential in gymnastics. It is not my word but the ones who understand the game well and we are working on the basis of their suggestions. We can afford at least two-three young gymnasts, and provide them training at home and abroad. We need to pick the best ones."
Due to lack of tournaments and training opportunities, there is rarely any promising gymnast at the senior level, which resulted in no participation in this year's Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. On the last occasion, an US-born Bangladesh expatriate gymnast Syque Caeser represented Bangladesh in Incheon Asian Games 2014, and the 2012 London Olympics. Bangladesh gymnastics team usually play in Central South Asian Games whose fourth edition was held in Dhaka in 2011 after the name of Sultana Kamal. It was the first and last international gymnastics tournament hosted by Bangladesh and since then, no national team with more than one gymnast participated in any international event. Bangladesh's young gymnasts displayed great potential in that tournament.
Among Bangladesh's four-member team, the 14-year-old Rafi and Shafiqul are BKSP students, Shishir is a former BKSP student and currently represents BJMC while 15-year-old Khumi is from Quantum, Bandarban. They will take part in six disciplines of artistic gymnastics. Former national champion Mushfiqur Rahman Rigan will represent the country for the first time as head coach after completing diploma in sports coaching in gymnastics from Patiala's National Institute of Sports last year. The team are scheduled to leave here for Indonesia Saturday night.