| Doreen Fiedler |
New Delhi (dpa) – The long jump looms and a man scurries across the stadium with a shovel and hacks out a landing pit from the turf with some Olympian speed of his own.
As the hockey teams brace for the opening face-off further downfield, the scene is set for some (almost) traditional high-flying athletics in the Indian village of Kila Raipur.
The first jumper touches the runway and kisses his fingers in search of some added divine propulsion, then hurtles forward the line. Narrowly missing a vendor carrying a bowl of spicy snacks, he launches seven metres through the air to the roar of the crowd.
The annual sports festival in this remote part of the state of Punjab presents a vivid spectacle. It is known in the rest of India as the “Rural Olympics”.
For three days, men and women compete in disciplines like the 100-metre sprint, cycling, volleyball and hockey. But that’s where the similarities end with the Olympics as most of the world knows them.
There is kabaddi, an ancient contact sport where teams try to shove each other out of play; tractor tyre rolling; loading and unloading sacks of corn on a truck; and mule, oxen and dog racing.
Many believe Indian sports are linked to the wars that have swept through South Asia over the centuries.
“We Punjabis are fighters, we fought the Muslim rulers for 200 years,” says Sukhvir Grewal, one of the organisers of the Kila Raipur Games. “Today, we live a little quieter, but we still love our animals, our camels, cows, oxen and horses.”
Despite having ancient roots, the games are a relatively new phenomenon, being first held here in 1933. That was also the year that India demonstrated kabaddi to the wider world at the Berlin Olympics.
“Today it’s all about preserving the old culture,” adds Grewal. “Because when people move to the cities, earn more money and get changed by western culture, they often forget their roots.”
Between events, individual competitors show off their skills, flex their biceps – or their jaw muscles.
A man walking on crutches because of a deformed leg pulls a car with his teeth; another lets a tractor drive over his back.
That’s part of the beauty of the games – if you have something extraordinary to show off, you can.
In a parallel circus show, horses prance to the beat of drummers, while a camel sits on a bed covered with raffia.
Sprinter Pooja Pandit finds the razzmatazz more of a distraction than anything: “I didn’t hear the starting gun for our race,” she says glumly afterwards.
But spectator Ram Kumar thinks nothing of the tumult or the customary delays. “The horse race should have started at 11.30 in the morning, but they only held it at 5pm. All in good time,” he laughs.
Kumar specially flew 2,500 kilometres here from Bangalore, eager to see the annual sporting convention with his own eyes.
“Apart from me it’s mostly just people from the region, so it’s like I’m a foreigner.”
But for all the pandemonium, the evident desire to excel amid fierce competition is something the founder of the International Olympic Committee, Pierre de Fredy, would surely have embraced.
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering, but fighting well.”
How many people came this year remains a mystery, to the organizers too. “We do not count, we do not give out tickets,” says Grewal. “We don’t want to over-organise, so everyone can feel at home here and thinks he is a part of the whole.”
Traders and snack vendors flock here from the surrounding region, fuelling thousands of visitors with fresh beet juice and bowls full of sweet potatoes with papaya and banana.
“These are the true Olympic Games. This is rural India, the real India,” concludes visitor Ritu Singh.