Why is the country failing so miserably at providing an environment conducive to producing world-class athletes, a Dhaka-based journalist asks.
Bangladesh, once again, returned empty-handed from the Olympics this year, retaining its title of the ‘most populous country to have never won an Olympic medal’. At the start of the Rio Olympics, Bangladesh was one of 75 countries with no Olympic medals. Fiji, another such country, squashed its record of Olympics duck when its rugby team won the gold and the country’s first ever medal at the Olympic Games in the inaugural men’s rugby sevens competition. Kosovo achieved a similar feat when double world champion Majlinda Kelmendi clinched the gold in the women’s jude 52 kg category, putting the recently-independent country 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.
Oddly 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. Mamun, born to a Bangladeshi father and a Russian mother and the gold medallist in the women’s individual all-around rhythmic gymnastics at Rio, 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 Mamun 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 and skimpy” clothes to never being afforded proper training or basic facilities to practice, Mamun 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 her 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 to producing world-class athletes able to excel in platforms like the Olympics? Our misplaced urge to jump on the glory bandwagon, as a lot of us did when Mamun 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 sports. A general societal attitude that discourages youngsters from pursuing their passion (including aspirations of becoming an athlete) and pushes them to pick the “safer” career path, such as engineering, medicine and law, 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 medals’ category with countries with a minute fraction of our population; for instance, Lesotho’s population is 2 million, while that of Swaziland is 1.25 million. The population profile of the other 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 Bangladeshi athletes’ contingent arrived in Rio without their original coaches. Instead, officials accompanied the athletes, in effect replacing their coaches. Bangladesh Swimming Federation general secretary Rafizuddin Rafiz served as the coach in Rio to swimmers Mahfizur Rahman Sagor and Sonia Akter Tumpa. Rafiz 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 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 the ‘hyper nationalist’ in us, unable to flaunt the cricket card, have to say then?
Nahela Nowshin is a freelance writer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.