Despite the fact that athletics in Bangladesh has a storied past, the only time athletes are seen in the spotlight these days is when the National Athletics Championships roll around each year. Although there are numerous athletes in Bangladesh contesting various disciplines throughout the year, the standards of athletics in the country is languishing well below those set by neighbouring countries. With the National Summer Athletics Championships having dominated headlines until its recent conclusion, the athletes will now go back to their reality of being largely ignored for another year. Rafiq Ullah Aktar Milon has been involved in athletics for the past 42 years, of which he has spent 31 years as a grassroots level coach. He has groomed illustrious athletes such as SA Games gold-winning hudrler Mahfizur Rahman Mithu, silver-winning hurdler Sumita Rani, Bangladesh’s fastest man Shamsuddin, two of Bangladesh’s fastest women Nazmunnahar Beauty and Shamsunnar Chumki and national record-holding shot-putter Mohammad Ibrahim. The level-1 coach, who is a physical teacher of a college in Noakhali, also worked as the country’s national coach. The 59-year-old spoke to The Daily Star’s Anisur Rahman after the conclusion of the Summer National Athletic Championships, shedding light on the current state of athletics in the country and how the situation came to where it is now.
The Daily Star (TDS): How was the recent National Summer Athletic Championships?
Rafiq Ulllah Aktar Milon (RUAM): The arrangements were really good this time because of the involvement of the Bangladesh Army. Everyone was punctual.
However, there were fewer events for women when compared to men’s events. In India, the junior women athletes participate in events which our senior women do not get a chance to participate in, even in senior competitions. The timeframe of the championships was also only two days, which put a big load on the athletes looking to compete in more than one event. That happened due to a lack of sponsors.
To be honest, there were hardly any signs of using modern technology. We used rifles instead of pistols to signal the start of events, the electronic timers are not good and the track is not in a position to be used. Our neighbours India are using every piece of modern technology, even at the junior meets, with the Indian prime minister patronising promising players.
We want medals at international level but are just holding the national championships in a traditional manner and giving no benefits to athletes.
TDS: Have you seen athletes who have good prospects in the near future?
RUAM: I focused on two male athletes who I think have a good future. One of them, Mahfuzur Rahman, made a national record in high jump while the other, Jahir Raihan, bagged gold in the 400m race. However, Jahir could not even match the time he produced in the junior international meet.
In other events, our athletes, especially sprinters, are well behind their counterparts from other Asian nations even though we were once very close to them in timing. Our women athletes are even lagging behind athletes from West Bengal. If Bengal athletes can go forward, then why can’t we?
TDS: Bangladesh’s athletics has been trending downwards for more than the past decade. What do you think are the reasons behind that downward spiral?
RUAM: We cannot carry out our respective duties properly from our respective positions. The Youth and Sports Ministry is the supreme body of sports. Then come the National Sports Council (NSC), Bangladesh Olympic Association (BOA), National Sports Federations, and District and Divisional Sports Associations (DSAs).
But none of the bodies show sincerity towards athletics. We are all reluctant. There is no hope or future in athletics, so new athletes are not coming to athletics. If we had been more sincere, then athletics would have moved forward.
I think the NSC must monitor the DFAs’ activities because they are providing money to the DFAs. In the age of digital Bangladesh, all organisations affiliated with the NSC must have a database of their sports activities that anyone can see from any part of the country.
TDS: Once the teams from districts, divisions and universities shone in athletics championships at national level. This time around, they could not win a single medal. Why?
RUAM: Most of the districts do not hold athletics events and there is no training for athletes at the district level. Once, Noakhali finished among the top six in the medals table [in the national championships] but this time we had to return empty-handed.
The boys and girls don’t have much interest in sports. We once found athletes from schools, which are considered breeding grounds of sports all over the world. But nowadays, students are burdened by studies so they don’t get time to play sports. Some schools don’t even have sports activities despite having instructors for physical education.
TDS: You once groomed many prominent athletes but have not been able to replicate that in the recent past. Why is that so?
RUAM: Actually, my students are roped in by service teams before they come into the limelight. I had 30 to 35 athletes grow under my guidance but they are now representing various teams. Three of them are working as trainers.
Besides, most of the athletes are now much more interested in cricket and football, so I can’t motivate them to come into athletics in my district. But I am still working on finding athletes and training them under the banner of the Noakhali Athletics Club.
TDS: Bangladesh once produced the fastest man in the South Asian (SA) Games but are now far from even winning a gold medal in any of the SA Games’ events. Why do you think that is?
RUAM: The athletes of other participating nations have gone well ahead but we are stuck and can’t go further. They are committed and have long-term plans, but we don’t.
I’m really surprised by the successes of the Indian athletes, who won 17 medals in the Asian Athletics Championships in Doha. I think the standard of India’s B-category athletes is better than our top athletes.
TDS: Do you see any possibility of Bangladesh winning a medal in the upcoming SA Games in Nepal?
RUAM: I do not see many possibilities. However, if Mahfuzur and Jahir stay in good condition physically and show immense commitment to improving their performances, then we can expect something from them in the SA Games. If Mahfuzur can clear 2.20 meters and Jahir can finish the 400m race within 45 seconds, then we can hope for medals from them.
In other events, there is no chance. Our male sprinters clock in at above 10.60 seconds in 100m races while the females clock in at above 12 seconds. India’s male sprinters clock in at between 10.30 to 10.40 seconds and female sprinters take a little over 11 seconds. So how can we expect medals in sprint events?
TDS: The Bangladesh Athletics Federation (BAF) is confined to only three meets a year. What should they do to take athletics forward?
RUAM: While it is true that the BAF has been playing a role only in competitions, they are dependent on the BOA or NSC to send athletes abroad.
The BAF doesn’t have any funds to run long-term training programmes for athletics round the year. The federation doesn’t have any targets either, whereas athletes from India and Sri Lanka have now surpassed Asian and Commonwealth levels and are competing and winning silver and bronze medals on the world stage.
The federation should also appoint some paid coaches to train athletes, like India are doing.
The number of athletic turf (facilities) also need to increase. We have only one astroturf. The government should install athletic turf at all divisional level (facilities). It is not possible to improve athletes on grass; the athletes should be comfortable with athletic turf.
TDS: Who is responsible for the downward spiral of athletics?
RUAM: Overall, we all lost our inspiration.
I thought a lot of spectators would turn up to the stadium when Noakhali hosted some football matches of the Bangladesh Premier League, but it was empty.
We could not spread the motto of the Olympics. We have still to make people understand what athletics is. Once the sport was a medium of entertainment and some athletes took it as a profession. But politics is a big profession and business.
To be honest, we can’t unearth athletes at district level because boys get financial incentives if they follow political leaders. They can’t get anything from the ground. A student leader has big bucks, but what does an athlete have at the end of day?
TDS: Is it possible to bring Bangladesh’s athletics back to past glories?
RUAM: I don’t see a possibility of returning athletics to its glorious past.
If I leave out athletics at district level, what is BKSP doing despite having modern technology, a new athletic turf, medical science department, proper nutrition and quality training?
But despite having such good facilities, BKSP has not been able to produce a good sprinter since Bimal Chandra Tarafder won the 100m gold medal in 1991 SA Games in Dhaka.
I can’t find any explanation for that. The more important thing is that there is nothing to do if the athletes are not committed and cooperative.
Nowadays, our athletes are more committed to social media and other engagements but I learned from an article that Indian Olympic silver medallist shuttler PV Sindhu refrained from using a mobile phone five to six months before the Olympic Games. If you implement the same thing in Bangladesh, our athletes will die without mobile devices.