Winning Gold at Punjab's Kila Raipur

Village sports meet gives Indian athletes an opportunity to prove their mettle and chase their dreams.

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    Participant successfully spears a tent peg at the Kila Raipur sport's festival [T. Thomas Koshy/Al Jazeera]
    Participant successfully spears a tent peg at the Kila Raipur sport's festival [T. Thomas Koshy/Al Jazeera]

    Punjab, India: What started as a small event for villagers to test their mettle is now a closely watched national sports meet. For nearly eighty years some of India's most well known Olympians have competed on this track at Kila Raipur, which on other days is just a grassy field.

    Local feats of strength are a huge draw, particularly for foreign tourists. Thousands of people come to see men pulling small cars with their ears, trying to lift heavy tractor tyres above their heads, and teams racing to unload and load wheat sacks from a wagon. It may be entertainment for visitors, but for locals, this is serious and an important reminder that traditions still matter.

    Organisers were worried that visitor numbers at the 79th Kila Raipur sport's festival, commonly known in India as the "rural olympics", would dip because local authorities banned the popular bullock cart racing event on the eve of the meet.

    Traditionally, winning the event gives the farmer much sought-after bragging rights in the northern Indian state of Punjab. With the crowning event dropped from the rundown, the winner's trophy, a shiny gold statue of a man racing two bullocks bolted to a piece of polished wood, sat strangely on the registration desk.

    But beyond bragging rights for traditional feats of strength, agility and endurance, this event provides the best of India's sporting talent with an opportunity to prove themselves to the people that count.

    National coaches and scouts sit in the stands and pace along the sidelines, watching track and field athletes, as well as hockey and kabaddi (A team contact sport of Indian origin) players go head to head. Today they are playing for the Punjab or Punjabi University but tomorrow some of these players could be part of India's starting lineup at an international meet.

    Women mid-stride in the 400 meter sprint. Women have always participated in track and field events at Kila Raipur [T. Thomas Koshy/Al Jazeera]

    Many talent scouts linger around the sprint warm up area to zero-in on India's next global track champion. And they have good reason to hope: Over the past eight decades, dozens of the country's Olympians have conquered Kila Raipur on their way to national and international acclaim. Even today international athletes continue to turn up and participate, raising the standard of the entire event.

    In many ways the Kila Raipur event is not only a springboard to bigger opportunities, but also a lifeline for athletes who are trying to keep their dream alive while struggling to make ends meet. Most meets in India are amateur events so the ones where cash prizes are offered, like Kila Raipur, attract a lot of hopefuls. The thin envelope of cash that a sprinter receives for a podium finish here could help to sustain those who are serious about training. Many, we are told, spend their winnings on protein supplements, better training, food, equipment and travel.

    It is not the most ideal scenario but most participants need to win to ensure that the can see the season through. In fact, for the female sprinters we met, this race meet is not just about keeping their sporting dreams alive but an important step to reaching their ideal jobs: Becoming police officers.

    In one of the world's most populous countries, there is no shortage of sporting talent. Most of it is either undiscovered or uncultivated. For those who compete here, Kila Raipur is a field of dreams because it makes the impossible seem possible.

    Authorities banned the popular bullock cart race on the eve of the event. This year, the trophy remains unclaimed [T. Thomas Koshy/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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