Challenge lies between Games
The reply will probably be in the negative if the casual Bangladesh sports fan is asked whether he or she is satisfied with the efforts of the 521-member contingent in the just-concluded 12th South Asian Games in India. Dig a little deeper however, and the story that emerges is one of meagre facilities that have shackled the individual athletes' admirable dedication and determination to make the country proud beyond the border.
Individual brilliance from weightlifter Mabia Akter Simanta, swimmer Mahfuza Khatun Shila and shooter Shakil Ahmed during the 12th edition of the regional sports carnival saved Bangladesh from a campaign devoid of gold, but it also provided the officials of different national sports federations as well as the Bangladesh Olympic Association (BOA) an excuse to beat the proverbial drum about their contributions and efforts in winning four gold, 15 silver and 56 bronze medals.
The officials will also certainly prepare an assessment report on the athletes' performance with some bold recommendations saying what 'we will have to do to produce better results in the future', just like they have done after the completion of each edition of the South Asian Games, but to be frank nothing regarding their recommendations had appeared until the next Games were already knocking at the door.
The mediocre results cannot be blamed on the athletes. It is often said that athletes of a calibre that can genuinely challenge their South Asian rivals are not coming through. The fact remains however that some athletes in the current batch beat their previous best in the Games but had to return empty-handed, because of the improvement of foreign athletes, who are virtually going beyond reach with their modern training facilities as well as getting the 'financial security' that encourages them to continue in their disciplines. It is believed that our athletes are capable of matching that pace of improvement only if the facilities they get match those of their more successful foreign opponents.
There was a time when Bangladesh produced the fastest man more than once in track and field. The country produced six gold medals from the swimming pool in a single edition in 1985 in Dhaka; it had even bagged seven gold medals from the shooting range in the 1993 Dhaka SA Games. Such highs now are distant dreams, thanks to a lack of proper planning and execution to defend those gold medals.
Bangladesh produced some exciting results in the 2010 Dhaka SA Games to win 18 gold medals. It is expected that such success will be followed by a greater tally of medals in the following edition, but the reality is that the athletes were not able to defend a single gold in the 12th SA Games (only 11 were up for defence as seven of the gold medal-earning events were not held in the latter edition), thanks again to the limited training facilities for athletes and the failure to hold regular national meets of different disciplines.
The South Asian Games is considered a lowly event in the Olympic movement, conducted by the South Asian Olympic Committee. From the Bangladeshi perspective it is the highest stage where the athletes can realistically compete against some world-class athletes, especially from India, in disciplines such as shooting, archery, weightlifting, wrestling, boxing, etc. and gain some valuable experience to progress further.
At the Games, the athletes also learn to cope with the challenges of winning international medals, and if they fail they return with the determination to fulfil that dream in the following edition. That verve and momentum is often lost when they return home.
The National Sports Council of Bangladesh spends hundreds of crores of taka every fiscal year; most of that is spent behind the construction, renovation and maintenance works of buildings and remuneration of the gigantic NSC staff, but there is hardly any allocation for training of athletes who hoist the red and green and create occasions for the national anthem to be played in foreign stadiums.
The real challenge begins now; it is not just about winning medals, but more importantly about how the different sports federations and the BOA capitalise on the momentum the athletes have painstakingly created and to draw up a proper plan for the 2018 edition.