The historical success stories of Bangladesh swimming and, by extrapolation, of Bangladesh sports, will remain incomplete without Mosharraf Hossain Khan, who is thecountry's lone sportsman to grab five gold (100m butterfly, 200m butterfly, 200m breast-stroke and two relay events) medals in a single edition of SAF Games [now SA Games] held in Dhaka in 1985. Rafiqul Islam added another gold medal (400m freestyle) as hosts Bangladesh won an impressive six gold, six silver and seven bronze medals in that edition.
The successes of Mosharraf and Rafiqul inspired the likes of Abdus Salam, Bazlur Rahman, Mokhlesur Rahman, Mizanur Rahman, Rubel Rana, Shahjahan Ali Rony and Mahfuza Khatun Shila, who went on to win several gold medals in the regional sports extravaganza. Bangladesh has so far won a grand total of 17 gold medals from swimming in SA Games, the second-best discipline for the country after shooting. Mokhlesur was another celebrated performer, who grabbed three gold medals in three separate editions in 1989, 1991 and 1993 while Mizanur picked up the baton to win two gold medals in 1993 and 1995.
Golam Mostafa, former national swimmer-turned coach, has seen both the highs and lows of Bangladesh swimming; the 61-year-old had once swum along with superstar Mosharraf, successful swimmers Rafiqul, Abdus Salam, Bazlur Rahman and many more recognised swimmers before entering coaching profession, following a diploma from Patiala, India, sometime post-1987. It is interesting to note that Bangladesh has produced coaches with diploma from India but there is not a single FINA certified level-1, 2 or 3 coach.
"For far too long, we have been dwelling on the misconception of developing swimmers in rivers and ponds but the evolution of young swimmers cannot be triggered without equipped pools as a coach cannot properly monitor the performances in such places," is Mostafa's simple observation behind the development, or the lack of it, of Bangladesh swimming.
The traditional process sees budding swimmers first get trained under rural coaches, mostly uncertified, in ponds or rivers for three to four years before performing at national level. BKSP, country's lone sports institute, then recruits promising swimmers from age-group championships and develops them in systematic process before the services teams offer those graduates, coming out either from BKSP or clubs, permanent or contractual jobs and field them at national and international level later.
"I first swam at Mahananda River and some ponds in Chapainawabganj before availing pool facility at Rajshahi University for a few weeks ahead of national age-group championships. After winning the individual medley twice in 1995 and 1996, I got admitted at BKSP and gradually improved to win gold medal at 2006 SA Games in Colombo," swimmer Shahjahan Ali Rony fondly recalled.
Though nearly all 64 districts and more than 50 clubs usually take part in national age-group and senior championships, the swimmers are almost invariably hatched into some familiar 10 to 12 districts, which includes Kishoreganj, Kushtia, Rajshahi, Bagura, Chapainawabganj, Pabna, Jhenaidah and Jashore. Among the notable breeding grounds, Nikli of Kishoreganj and Amla of Kushtia are from where a lot of swimmers, including SA Games gold medallist Karar Mizanur Rahman and Rubel Rana, came out; though the notion remains that most of current swimmers are still in swimming due to their jobs in services teams, especially in Bangladesh Navy, Bangladesh Army, Bangladesh Ansar & VDP and Bangladesh Air Force.
"Karar Mizan inspired us and we influenced others to follow suit. At present, some 20 swimmers from Nikli are doing jobs in different services teams who also motivate others to aim for government jobs through good performance at the pool," said Karar Samedul Islam, a former national swimmer, who conducts a swimming academy with nearly 100 swimmers in Nikli alongside another academy run by veteran coach Abul Hashem.
Rony further recollected that he and his contemporaries engaged in swimming for the sheer love of the game but most of the current swimmers mainly focus on landing a government job. "You cannot deliver gold medals at international level if you are satisfied with a job and cannot dream beyond the limitations, so we must bring radical changes in the process of developing swimmers by using sports science in every aspect," opined Mostafa.
"The physical limitation is a big barrier for the development of Bangladeshi swimmers and we must hunt swimmers at grassroots, projecting their possible heights by studying genome of their parents, since a donkey cannot be expected to perform like a horse," he added.
"If the federation picks tall swimmers and give training in a scientific way, then swimming can re-establish its glory in regional competitions and beyond the subcontinent," said Mostafa, who however, suggests on prioritising financial benefits for both swimmers and coaches.
"Unfortunately the organisers are more focused on grabbing positions at the federation instead of taking swimming forward. Only two national championships are not enough to develop swimmers, who need equipped pools at rural environment which will provide pure oxygen instead of Dhaka's filthy oxygen, for instance," said Mostafa.
Though both national and junior championships used to be held regularly, in the last six years the events have been held irregularly as the path of frequent display of performance and growth has come to a halt.
"Most participating districts, uninterested on aiding the growth of swimmers, hire swimmers from clubs just to ensure their councillorships. Clubs have all but lost their interest in producing swimmers at grassroots level following a set-time rule that allows only time-achieving swimmers to get transport and daily allowance from federation," said Aminul Islam, general secretary of Solaiman Swimming Club. "The federation is saving money by the set-time rule but is killing off the dreams of many budding swimmers," he said.
BSF general secretary BM Saif said that they could not hold age-group and national championships twice each year due to the training camp of 'Search for Best Swimmers' and that money was not the primary reason.
"We have a plan to hold a long-distance competition this month and stage national championships in March next year. In the upcoming meeting, we will also discuss about resumption of the national camp and the training camp of 'Search for Best Swimmer'," he said.
Earlier, physical punishment applied on juvenile swimmers at the training camp and allegation of misconduct with female swimmers hit the headlines, while the corona-induced break added heavily to the misery with no indication of resumption of sporting events yet, apparently.
Standing in 2020, the gold-hauls ushered by Mosharrof, Mokhlesur and Mizan seem like a distant past and it remains to be seen whether we can afford to continue our traditional ways or have to resort to swimming against the tide to revive the glory days.