If you’re thinking gymnastic in Tripura started and ended with Dipa Karmakar, Think Again!


For those, who have been hailing Dipa Karmakar as the only-known ace gymnast from Tripura all this time, this might come as a shocker. Well, to put it in a more appropriate tune, there might not have been Olympians from the state before Dipa, but there were Titans nonetheless. A bright group of 24 gymnasts from Tripura won 60 national championship medals for 20 years till the 1980s. However, the situation turned bad in the following years. In the national scenario, Gymnastics Federation of India (GFI) remain a faction-ridden body, often found squabbling for peanuts. In Tripura, gymnasts have been using pathetic training conditions including a homemade foam-pit made with discarded scooter-shock absorbers. In such dismal conditions, former gymnasts of the state and the country have spoken up, demanding intervention from the government to save the sport.

Formal practice of gymnastics started in Tripura way back in the sixties with Dalip Singh, who was also the first gold medalist in state and national gymnastics events during his time. Singh, went on to create a niche for the sport in the entire country.

His protégés who were also two of the famed sportstars – Mantu Debnath and Bharat Kishore Deb Barman, were awarded the coveted Arjuna Award in 1975 and the state's first gold medal at the national level respectively.

Dalip Singh was a National Institute of Sports member and an expert in Russian gymnastics. In fact, he did a diploma in Russian gymnastics under coach NI Takaishvilli before he came to Tripura in 1964. The Vivekananda Byamagar, that saw the beginning of baby Dipa as a gymnast enthusiast, used to be Singh's training ground. The gymnasium was built in 1947.

However, in the past 70 years, its infrastructure didn't develop much.

However, there was no death of gymnasts in the state. Olympian Dipa Karmakar's coach and Dronacharya awardee Bisweswar Nandi was a five times national champion himself. Gymnast Kalpana Debnath from Tripura was among top gymnasts of the country too, having won all Gold medals at the Surat Nationl Gymnastics Championship of 1978. Debnath was also acclaimed as the All Round Best Woman Gymnast of India for nine times in a row.

Mantu Debnath, who has promoted so many gymnasts in Tripura in the past several decades, was considered nothing less of magician with his 'vaulting horse' event. He performed the bout at the 1969 Indo-Soviet Cultural Exchange and was subsequently made Captain of the National Gymnastics Team.

And then we had Dipa Karmakar, shooting from a trainee at Vivekakanda Byamagar to being a state champion, national champion, Commonwealth Games medalist and an Olympian. Tripura now has a bright group of budding gymnasts like Ashmita Paul and others. But there is more poverty than talent in this country, and perhaps even more politics.

Dipa, who started her training at Vivekananda Byamagar during her early gymnastics days, moved on to the Dasaratha Dev State Sports Complex, around 5 km away from Agartala city. Inaugurated in 2007, the gymnasium is a large hall, using a homemade foam-pit, which uses scooter-shock absorbers instead of tensile sports-quality absorbers and high quality shock absorbent material.

Due to lack of standard training equipments, Dipa Karmakar is found unable to train at Agartala for most of the year. She moves to Delhi where she trains at the National Indoor Stadium.

Speaking to reporters after return from her Rio Olympics bout last year, Dipa Karmakar had requested the state government to consider providing a foam-pit for budding gymnasts in the state. The demand was earlier placed by a number of other gymnasts in the state.

Tripura's ruling Left Front government, after much persuasion, had finally agreed to fund a foam-pit for trainee gymnasts in the state. The work is very much in progress now.

With such dismal condition of the sport, former gymnasts who have represented India in their time, have raised the demand of 'urgent government intervention to save the sport in the country'.

They want top ex-internationals to be involved with coaching and management of the game.

"If Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble can be involved with cricket administration and coaching, why can't former gymnasts be involved with promoting the game," said Lopamudra Ghosh Chaudhuri, Convenor of the Former Gymnasts Forum (FGF).

The FGF, formed last year, wants the Indian Olympic Association to resolve the issues in the faction-ridden Gymnastics Federation of India (GFI) and get it working to promote gymnastics in India.

"The GFI officials are basking in the glory of Dipa Karmakar's performance in Rio Olympics, for which they deserve no credit," said FGF convenor Lopamudra Ghosh nee Chaudhuri, a top former international.

Chaudhuri says that Dipa's performance is entirely due to her own perseverance and her coach Bisweswar Nandi's determination to brave all odds to reach for the sky.

Like Karmakar, Chaudhuri hails from Tripura and has represented India in the 1970-80s.

"For the last four years, the Gymnastics Federation of India has been wracked by factional feuds. Nothing has worked even after a High Court ruling in August last year, so we want the IOA and the Sports Ministry to intervene," Lopamudra Chaudhuri told TNT.

Even in 2015, Dipa was asked to attend two national championships organized by rival factions. This should stop, she added.

She furnished to TNT details of FGF correspondence with SAI, IOA and Sports Ministry during the last four months.

"There has been no proper national competition for gymnastics for last four years, no national training camp, no judges qualification courses or workshops. The structure for promoting gymnastics has evaporated," Lopamudra Chaudhuri said in her written complaints to IOA and SAI in November last year.

She said after the Rio Olympics, a new three year cycle ( 2017-2020) for gymnastics has started but "our federation is busy promoting their own cronies who have nothing to do with gymnastics".

Chaudhuri has also raised with SAI and IOA the issue of appointing a new Chief coach for Gymnastics and a panel of coaches under him to train prospective gymnasts at all levels.

She said GS Bawa has been the chief coach for a long time but is now too old ( into his 70s) and has 'little to show in mentoring talent' to remain in the position.

"He was never a gymnast and produced no champion . And he is past the seventies, so it is time he is replaced," she said.

Chaudhuri said the FGF has recommended former international Nemai Kanji for India's chief gymnastics coach and many other former internationals like Dipa Karmakar's coach Bisweswar Nandi  to work with him on a national panel.

Nandi has been awarded the Dronacharya after Dipa's performance at Rio.

But he does not want to leave Tripura and stick to mentoring local talent alongside preparing Deepa for future tournaments.

Dipa has been awarded the Padma Shri and Khel Ratna after her Rio performance where she narrowly missed the bronze medal. She had won the Arjuna Award in 2015.

"It is not enough to bask in the glory of Deepa's performance. We have many prospective talents even in my home state Tripura and we need to train them to create a strong Indian team," Lopamudra Chaudhuri said.

"There are many talents now who need nurturing and mentoring. The federation should be looking at not only popularizing the sport in India, since this is a basic Olympic sport , but also create a strong national team rather than bask in Dipa's achievements", she added.

The former ace gymnast lauded the efforts of Ashmita Paul. "Look at this girl Asmita from Tripura. She is as talented as Dipa and her performance on balancing beam is great. She is performing many difficult leaps and flips but she lacks grace. These are the minute details that one needs to correct so that these gymnasts can do well", she said.

Acccording to source, Dipa Karmakar, alongwith 24 other gymnasts of the country were invited in a national training camp at Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium at New Delhi. The camp, aimed at preparing the athletes for a host of upcoming international gymnastics events including the Asian Championship contests expected to be held around May or June in Djakarta and the World Gynmastics Championship context scheduled to be held at Montreal, Canada from October 02-10 this year.

While Swastika Ganguly, Mandira Choudhurry and Sushmita Haldar were called for the national camp from West Bengal, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) invited Dipa Karmakar alone from Tripura.

Debraj Deb

(The writer can be contacted at debrajdeb@outlook.com)