At the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta, as everyone’s expectations of Team Nepal crumpled, performed as expected, one sports journalist quipped sarcastically, “Nepal’s sports is limited to the media.”
Take any regional sports event, whether the South Asian Games or the Asian Games, every Nepali newspaper runs full page photographs alongside play-by-plays of our athletes competing at the international level. The electronic media gets an opportunity to break the monotony of broadcasting overnight Premier League, La Liga or India-England matches. For the duration of the event in question, Nepali sportspersons replace Lionel Messi, Virat Kohli, LeBron James and Rafael Nadal. If we were to go solely by these few days of sports journalism, we might labour under the impression that Nepali sports is vibrant and going neck-to-neck with any other country. But as the afore-mentioned journalist’s biting comment illustrates, the media paints a rosy picture; the reality is dismal.
The numbers game
In each of the past three Asiads, Nepal has humiliated itself. This time around, at the Jakarta games, it was in spectacular fashion, where an almost 350-member contingent headed home with just one medal—a silver in paragliding. With all due respect to the paragliders—as the sport’s very inclusion as a mainstream event at the international level is in limbo—it would be fair to presume that Nepal returned empty handed from Indonesia.
At the Asiads, Nepal fielded 187 players in 29 sports disciplines, aided by 48 coaches and 23 managers, and 91 officials as hangers-on. It remains a mystery how Nepal is prepared to spend so lavishly on sending representatives to any sporting extravaganza. The size of Team Nepal was as large as teams fielded by those countries that, unlike Nepal, do consistently well on a global scale. The Nepali contingent continues to grow with sporting event that the country participates in, ever since it began participating in the 1951 Asian Games in New Delhi.
The last time Nepal won more than one medal at the Asian Games was during 2006 in Doha where taekwondo legend and Nepal’s most successful individual athlete Deepak Bista claimed a bronze, alongside Manita Shahi and Ayesha Shakya. Since then, Nepal’s medal tally has been singular. Boxer Deepak Maharjan claimed a solitary bronze at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. Karateka Bimala Tamang saved the country’s blushes at the 2014 edition in Incheon, South Korea. And had there been no paragliding this time around, Nepal would have nothing to show for its participation.
It wouldn’t be untoward to say that over the last two decades, Nepal has stopped producing fine athletes, an assumption clearly underlined by its performance at the Asian or South Asian Games. Nepal’s hopes for a medal are always pinned on the martial arts—taekwondo, karate, judo and wushu along with boxing. It seems like long ago that Nepal was expected to become a martial arts powerhouse, given the number of quality players it had begun to produce and the medals it continued to win internationally. For Nepal, taekwondo has been the most successful sports discipline in Asian Games history, with one silver and 12 bronze medals out of 24 podium finishes.
But those successes are a thing of the past. Changing technology and transforming rules and regulations have left Nepal in the dust. The martial arts are now employing more sophisticated technology, the likes of which Nepal is often unaware of and even when it is, unwilling to adapt. In one instance, a wushu player continued to lose points in Jakarta because his coach was unaware of new regulations on gear uniformity. Similarly, middle distance runner Bishwo Rupa Budha was unable to run in the 10,000m race because her manager failed to register her during a manager’s meeting on the eve of the race.
Deepak Bista—perhaps the most revered individual athlete of the country, having won four South Asian Games gold medals and back-to-back Asian Games bronzes—is now the coach of the national taekwondo team. But Bista too was embarrassed when he didn’t seem to understand the advanced sensor technology used in Jakarta despite undergoing training for that very system.
“There are a few coaches who have learned the new martial arts system on their own. But back home, such technologies are not available to us, so we cannot implement them to understand how they work. We had to implement what we learned during the Games itself and the confusion was obvious,” said Bista. “The world is moving at a different pace and it is leaving us behind. The Asian Games comes around in four years so
what we do during this duration is the biggest question for us. Our competition is not just against opponents from other countries; it’s against investment and preparation.”
Missing the mark
As with everything else, politics too has contributed to the downfall of Nepali sports. At the National Sports Council (NSC), the country’s governing sports body, nepotism plays a big part in participation in large sports events. The NSC member secretary, the head of this body, is always under immense political pressure to green signal sports that have little to no chances of fetching the country a medal. Current NSC Member Secretary Keshav Bista, who was appointed by a CPN-UML-led sports ministry, has displayed worrying signs. For instance, in an interview with a leading television channel, Bista claimed that it was necessary for Nepal to field teams in untested new sports disciplines at big sporting events. Hence, Nepal competed in sports like roller sports, kurash, sports climbing and pencak silat at the 2018 Asian Games.
“We talk about providing exposure to our athletes and events like these are a perfect platform for them,” said Bista. Instead of focussing on games where Nepal has a fighting chance, the NSC decided to spread itself too thin, putting in fingers in too many pies. The results were plain to see.
With much training infrastructure still lying in ruins after the 2015 earthquake, the future looks bleak for Nepali sports. Nepal has nothing to lose if it doesn’t send a single athlete to the next two Asiads or Olympics. No amount of positive thinking or confidence in the ability of our players can offset poor planning and the lack of vision. Without a strategy that prioritises where Nepal’s meagre resources should go and a roadmap for the next years to come, results like that of the Jakarta Asiads are bound to repeat.Published: 2018-09-08 08:08:52