Manipur, the beautiful north eastern state with undulating hills and verdant valleys, is mostly in the news for wrong reasons.
Insurgency; AIDS; 100-day blockades. The bad news seems endless.
So much so that leading sportspersons have had to appeal to the Prime Minister a day ahead of his visit to Imphal to intervene.
But is Manipur all about bad news? Not really.
Think of these names: Mary Kom. Kunjarani Devi. Thoiba Singh. Sanamacha.
Names that may not ring an instant bell but in the sporting arena they are legends in their own right.
Mary Kom is a top notch woman boxer. Sanamacha Chanu and Kunjarani Devi have been leading international women weightlifters. Thoiba Singh was an important member of the Indian Olympic hockey team.
What makes it more commendable is all of them have honed their sporting skills in a distant, insurgency-ridden north eastern state of Manipur.
I remember a stormy July day almost a decade ago in Imphal when the Chanu household sat glued to the telly, praying silently for one simple thing—that there should be no power cuts for the next couple of hours in the day. The electricity did not trip that day, and they could watch their daughter Sanamacha win three weightlifting golds in the 53 kg category at the recent Manchester Commonwealth Games.
Twenty-four hours earlier, another family in the neighbourhood was partying, for a similar feat. N. Kunjarani Devi had once again found her magical touch to pick up three golds in the 48 kg category.
But Manipur’s contribution to India’s unprecedented success at recent Commonwealth Games in the past decade did not stop with these two. India’s women’s hockey team, which showed uncharacteristic grit to take the podium with a golden goal in Manchester, was led by a Manipuri, W. Surjalata Devi. Three others in the team—goalkeeper Ksh. Tingonleima, Pakpi Devi and M. Sangai Ibehmal Chanu—all belonged to the state.
Even in the October 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games Manipur’s contribution to India’s medal haul was significant.
So what makes a tiny state with a small population of 23 lakh a sports powerhouse—producing more than 150 international and over 500 national players in the past 20 years?
Theories abound on this trend. L. Ibomcha Singh, a former armyman-turned-Sports Authority of India (SAI)-trained boxing coach: “Since ancient times we Manipuris have been good at sports. Earlier we played indigenous games, now we excel in contact sports.” A leading journalist says sports helps Manipuris escape the drudgery and poverty in the state. “Excelling in sports gives Manipuris a chance to move higher up in life.”
This theory is borne out by the fact that all the gold medal-winning Manipuris have jobs outside the state. While Kunjarani and Sanamacha are employed by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), all the women hockey players serve in the Indian Railways.
At least half-a-dozen footballers play in cash-rich clubs like Dempo, Salgaocar and Churchill Brothers, in Goa earning a substantial salary.
Even Thoiba Singh and Olympian Neelkamal Singh have been employed with the Food Corporation of India and Indian Airlines respectively.
There are however no jobs at the state level. State sports associations are perpetually short of funds.
And yet, Manipur churns out champions in as varied sports as football and archery.
Says a football player: “We are naturally gifted to do well in sports. Look at our footballers. We don’t have proper facilities or sponsorship, but we are still among the top 4-5 teams in the country. If all our players who have migrated to other states are allowed to play in the Manipur team, we are good enough to beat the best.”
A visit to the Khuman Lampak Sports complex reveals over 800 boys and girls practicing and honing their skills in as many as 19 disciplines—from hockey to fencing and cycling to sepak teraw, a popular southeast Asian ballgame. The skills and dedication of coaches, players and officials is exemplary.
Indeed, one significant contribution to the state’s rise as a sports powerhouse comes from the local clubs and community network. That and the fierce sense of pride in everything they do makes Manipur’s gritty sportspeople a power to reckon with in India’s fickle sporting world.