"Zero tolerance for corruption and irregularities." That was the policy that newly appointed State Minister for Youth and Sports Zahid Ahsan Russel vowed to uphold on Tuesday, his first day as chairman of the National Sports Council (NSC).
It may sound like something we have heard before as promises are often big and ambitious when embarking on a new assignment. But the promise is hope. Cynics may consider the promise a mere string of words without much substance but coming from someone like Russel, who served 10 years as the chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on youth and sports, this bold statement carries some weight.
His long association with sports has definitely provided the new state minister for youth and sports enough experience to identify what he would need to do for the betterment of sports in the country and his words during the first day's conversation with reporters did not appear out of the blue.
He rightly thanked the NSC for its great contribution in creating sports structures across the country as the body manages a number of cricket stadiums, football stadiums, 64 district stadiums, swimming pools, indoor stadiums, indoor practice stadiums, hockey stadiums, gymnasiums and the women's sports complexes.
The Ministry of Youth and Sports is also implementing a project to construct a Sheikh Russel Upazila Mini Stadium at all upazilas of the country; refreshingly these stadiums will have no galleries, but there will be a number of benches allowing people to comfortably watch and hopefully be inspired to participate.
And here we must also calculate the maintenance cost of all those huge structures.
One cannot deny the importance and necessity of infrastructure and modern sports facilities to improve the state of sports in a country, especially if the desire is to compete at the international level. But what is the value of concrete structures if proper utilisation is lacking? In reality most of the stadiums are unused for long periods as there is hardly any sporting activity at the grassroots levels and many just host a few national programmes in a year, and the rest of the time they resemble bodies without souls.
Hence, the new sports boss must take a close look into sports activities at the grassroots levels to ensure the huge expenditures for structures are justified and not a drain on resources. With sporting activity outside the capital and even in other divisional cities starting to fade, many are of the opinion that the authorities are more interested in creating concrete structures than rousing the passion and enthusiasm for sport among the youth.
Many traditional tournaments across the country like Surya Kanta Shield and the Lila Devi Shield -- the two annual football tournaments with the former for men and the latter for boys simultaneously introduced way back in 1914 in Mymensingh, 21 years after the IFA Shield and 26 years after the Durand Cup were launched -- have now turned into things of the past due to negligence by local authorities.
Dhaka-centric sports activities and focus on only one sport -- cricket -- cannot be the reflection of a healthy state of sporting affairs indeed. The new state minister must ask the local sports organisers what they are doing in their territories and what they need from him to be able to do their jobs better.
The new sports boss was also very correct in his observation when he said: “There is no alternative to training if we want to achieve something. There is no meaning of having talented players if there is no continuation of training programmes because without training, those talented athletes will disappear.”
And he definitely knows better than anybody the gulf between spending money on structures and spending on training.
Yes, winning medals at international level is important but the overall purpose of sport cannot be linked only to international success. It has a social component and involving youth in healthy activities that advance their physical as well as mental acuity has wider social benefits, which is why getting young people to participate in sports all over the country will be the main challenge, and if aced arguably the most rewarding outcome, for the new man at the helm.
Only time will tell whether things remain the same or improve, but at this moment we can wish him all the success on his mission to keep sport clean from any irregularities.