Bangladesh, once again, returned empty-handed from the Olympics this year, retaining its title of the “most populous country of never having won an Olympic medal”. At the beginning of the Rio Olympics, Bangladesh was one of 75 countries with no Olympic medals. Fiji too was one of them until the country squashed its record of Olympics duck when its rugby team won the gold (and first ever Olympic medal) in the inaugural men's rugby sevens competition. Kosovo achieved a similar feat as double world champion Majlinda Kelmendi clinched the gold in the women's 52 kg category of judo and put a recently-independent Kosovo 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.
Funnily 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. Margarita, the gold medallist in women's individual all-around rhythmic gymnastics at Rio, born to a Bangladeshi father and a Russian mother, 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 Margarita 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, skimpy” clothes to never being afforded proper training or basic facilities to practice, Margarita 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 Margarita's achievements, nonetheless made one thing clear: Bangladesh is desperate to claim an Olympic victory. Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves, why are we failing so miserably at providing an environment conducive for producing world-class athletes who will be able to excel in platforms like the Olympics? Our misplaced urge to jump on the glory bandwagon, as a lot of us did when Margarita won, upon a nationalistic whim, and our subsequent refusal to acknowledge why we're wrong in claiming something that is not rightfully ours, is strongly indicative of a lack of trust in our own athletes.
With the better part of our 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 our 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 a non-cricket role model 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 kinds of sports. A general societal attitude that discourages youngsters to pursue their passion (including aspirations of becoming an athlete) and pushes them to pick the “safer” career path such as engineering, medicine, BBA, etc., is killing the hopes of all those who dare to dream. Thankfully, we have a number of non-cricket sporting achievements, albeit rare, to show for, thanks to athletes such as Abdullah Baki (silver medallist in shooting at the 2014 Commonwealth Games) and Asif Hossain Khan (gold medallist in shooting at the 2002 Commonwealth Games). But it is still a far cry from tasting a victory at the Olympics.
The gravity of our underperformance at the Olympics is underpinned by the population factor. Besides being the eighth most populous country in the world, 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, an embarrassment of sorts for Bangladesh to be grouped together in the 'zero Olympic medal' category with countries with a minute fraction of our population (Lesotho: population of 2 million; Swaziland: population of 1.25 million). The population profile of the rest of the countries in this category in its entirety makes our incompetence incomprehensible. How have we not been able to harness our youth potential and produce a single viable contender good enough to make it to the finals in a single sport at the Olympics since our first appearance in 1984?
Reportedly, the contingent of Bangladeshi athletes arrived in Rio without their original coaches. Instead, officials accompanied these athletes, in effect replacing their coaches. Swimmers Mahfizur Rahman Sagor and Sonia Akter Tumpa's coach at Rio was Bangladesh Swimming Federation general secretary Rafizuddin Rafiz who 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 such 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 complete disregard for any sport that is not cricket.
Recently, British journalist Piers Morgan came under heavy fire on social media for tweeting 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 & 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 have been our reaction?
The writer is a freelance contributor.