Looking beyond chess: The sports scenario in Chennai post COVID

Pursuing sports in Chennai comes with its own challenges, made worse by COVID-19. How have sports persons fared during this difficult time?

During the inaugural speech of the 44th FIDE Chess Olympiad in Chennai, Chief Minister Stalin noted that of the 73 Indian grandmasters, 26 were from Tamil Nadu. “That means 36% of Indian grandmasters are from Tamil Nadu. It is a game of intelligence and mathematics and Chennai can be rightly called the chess capital of India,” he said. But while cricket and chess are held in high regard in the state, with the necessary conditions for success, a look at other sports in the city presents a sorry picture.

The impact of COVID-19 and the absence of support has hampered the careers of many budding sports professionals in the city.

Sports in Chennai hit by COVID-19

Chennai is a hub for many sports including football, volleyball, boxing and other individual games. Many sports aspirants from across Tamil Nadu move to Chennai with the aim to make it big in their chosen sport. It was with this aim that Kannan*, a footballer, moved to the city in 2017 to pursue the sport and a postgraduate degree.

Football opened many doors for Kannan. Recalling the first time he kicked a football, he said, “I was around seven years old then. After playing for a few years, I decided to become a professional footballer when I was in Class 11.”

After winning two certificates at national-level tournaments, he secured admission through sports quota for both his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Upon his graduation, he started playing in local matches conducted in and around Chennai.

“My family neither understood my dream nor were they financially stable enough to support me. They were scared that I would not have a future in football and restricted me from pursuing it. As I was at the peak of my game, I was sure I would get a job in a government department through sports quota. I hoped that this would solve issues with my family and help me financially,” said Kannan.

It was at this point that the COVID-19-induced lockdown was announced.

With all the public places shut, no grounds for practice and no tournaments on the radar, Kannan’s career came to a halt. “I had no other option but to get back home and support my family. Even during the lockdown, I used to workout at home. Eventually, I was unable to keep up match fitness. I started helping my parents at their bakery where I had to stand for long hours. The lack of proper practice and rest along with this workload, resulted in a small muscle cramp which then developed into an ACL injury (a tear or sprain of the anterior cruciate ligament),” he said.

Kannan has been undergoing treatment for his injury for nearly two years now. He is also trying to get a job in the private sector to support himself and his family. His footballing hopes are all but over.

football in chennai
Covid-19 has impacted both the physical and mental health of players. Pic: K Ajith Kumar

COVID-19 took a toll on both mental and physical health of sportspersons during the lockdown. Having maintained a consistent track record since school days, K Ajith Kumar from Thirumangalam in Chennai’s Anna Nagar, signed his first professional contract with a city-based club in 2019.

“The lockdown was a shock to all of us. As I was confined to my home, I was unable to maintain my diet. Eventually, I started gaining weight. It took me more than six months to get back in form. I happened to get a lot of injuries too. This took a toll on my confidence and game quality,” he said.

Ajith was then infected with COVID-19 in January 2022. “The fatigue and shortness of breath during practice scared me a lot. However, with work, I have regained my fitness and started playing again,” he said. Despite the hurdles, he hopes to represent the Indian football team in next five years.

Aravind*, an athlete from Chennai, used to be an ace long-jumper until Class 10. With the outbreak of COVID-19, all sporting activities ceased.

“Since there were no events organised, I was unable to get any certificates, which in turn would have helped me get a college admission. Since my focus was on athletics, I did not score good marks in public exams. Though my parents could not afford for my higher education, they managed to borrow some money to pay for my college fee. They have also restricted me from pursuing any sporting activities and have asked me to focus only on studies,” he said.

Prakash*, a boxer, who secured admissions to an undergraduate course through sports quota, faced a similar issue. Since he had no certificates, which is mandatory to pursue a sport as a professional and also for his higher education, he was unable to pursue higher studies or make a career out of boxing.

He now works in a textile shop as a salesperson for Rs 10,000 per month and also doubles as a food delivery agent. He keeps hopes of a boxing career alive by continuing to practice with a local club.

Sandy, a boxing coach, noted that supervision is a must for combat sports like boxing. “During the lockdown, many fighters happened to practice techniques in a wrong manner. When they were back, it was hard to make them unlearn that and relearn the right technique. Though boxing is an individual sport, practising in groups helps keep up the spirit of the fighters. This was affected during the lockdown,” he said. Besides, the weight gain of many individuals resulted in reduced strength and change in their category. “This also became a disadvantage,” he added.

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Support systems very scant for many

A member of a famous football club in Chennai, who did not wish to be named, spoke about the challenges faced by the clubs. “During the first COVID-19 lockdown we were clueless as to how long the lockdown would last. We were unable to plan for any kind of support for the players. However, when the relaxations were made and before the second lockdown came into effect, we helped the players with a diet chart and workout plans and followed up with them regularly. “

Similar support was extended to established professionals in boxing. However, those who were not representing any recognised clubs or associations were left in limbo. Besides, smaller clubs and local clubs not part of any professional league found it hard to keep the clubs running, leaving them little room to support players.

The pursuit of any sport has always been a costly affair. More so with some sports that require specialised equipment and conditions for training.

Sam George Sajan C, a professional rifle shooter from Madurai, who broke three State records and won 8 gold medals in State Championship and also took part in four world cups and one world championship, says that rifle shooting is an extremely costly sport.

Pointing out the lack of facilities and support for a pursuit such as shooting in Chennai, he said, “I was trained in Madurai Rifle Club where the weapon and training were available at free of cost. I hardly paid Rs 2,000 per year to be a member of the club. Whereas, in cities like Chennai, it is very hard to even get into one such club. The membership would alone cost lakhs,” he noted.

rilfle shooting in progress
Games like rifle shooting and archery are extremely costly by nature. Pic: Sam George Sajan C

Unlike cricket, which has a good market in India, the attracting feature in other games has become a government job. “Once we graduate from educational institutions, the only scope to pursue the game is through local clubs for which we have to be extremely good at our game. While playing in local matches would give us temporary income, getting placed in a government department would help us meet our family expenses,” said M Manikandan, a volleyball player from Gummidipoondi.

However, due to the high level of competition, many players depend on the prize money from local matches. “If Rs 10,000 is the prize amount, it would be divided between six or seven players in the winning team. This would be the only source of income for many players,” he noted.

Systemic issues in growth of sports in Chennai

Apart from financial constraints, systemic issues also hampered the growth as a result of COVID-19. Schools and colleges play a vital role in identifying children and adolescents who are talented in sports. However, as schools and colleges were shut for an extended period of time, scouting any potential talent at this level became difficult.

Even without the pandemic, it has been increasingly hard to spot talent when sports has always been treated as secondary in schools and colleges. “While every school has a separate teacher for individual subjects, there is only one physical education teacher for the whole school. The dearth of appointment of qualified physical education teachers directly affects the growth of children in the sports sector at the grassroots level” said P Jayachandran, a physical educator who works with both school and college students.

Further, there are many sports which are internationally acclaimed and recognised by the Indian government but have not reached the layperson’s knowledge. “This is because the sport has not been introduced in schools and colleges yet. Firstly, for a sport to become popular, it should reach the target population, the youth. Secondly, the schools do not have an infrastructure to accommodate any new sport into its curriculum. In most of the schools a single playground is used for multi-sport activities,” said Jayachandran.

Speaking on the cause of frequent injuries for players, which sometimes end their career in sports, he said that the primary mistake is that the player comes to know of a healthy diet only after being identified as a sportsperson. “If a child is identified to have skills and talent in any of the sport at an age of 12, they start consuming healthy food only from 12 years old given the family’s financial circumstances. Proper play surface, equipment and training methodology also play a role. Most players grow up with none of these facilities,” he added.

On the issue of gender disparity in sports, it has been found that most girls drop out of sports once they reach adolescence. Even those who continue have restrictions from family. Saranya*, who hails from Kodungaiyur in Chennai, was a basketball player until recently. She pursued the sport since the age of thirteen. The sport provided an opportunity for her to pursue higher studies. Her aim was to turn professional. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 put paid to her dreams. She got married in 2020 and now has a one-year-old child.

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Plugging the gaps in sports in Chennai

While private tournaments help in temporary income and exposure for players, support of the government at a larger level is necessary for all kinds of sports. The government should come forward to conduct more events like the Chess Olympiad.

“We have enough human resources to conduct the events and talented players to play the sport. We lag behind on adequate funding and infrastructure. These needs should be met by the government,” said Jayachandran.

An overall policy decision by the government along with media support would help in bringing many hitherto unknown sports to the mainstream.

Lack of coaches and scouting is also an issue in identifying talent for any sport. The appointment of more physical education teachers and specialised coaches in government schools will help tap a large pool of talent. Creating viable pathways in terms of higher education and job prospects would also encourage more young people to take up various sports.

In this context, an array of announcements made by Chief Minister MK Stalin at the 44th FIDE Chess Olympiad held in Chennai could be a shot in the arm for sports in the city. Among the slew of announcements is the construction of mini-stadiums in all Assembly Constituencies, with national and international coaches training the players. Further, two boxing academies would be established in Chennai, and an arena for Jallikattu would also be constructed.

In order to produce world-class athletes and Olympic medal winners, a programme called ‘Olympic Gold Hunt’ would also be implemented at an estimated cost of Rs 25 crore. The State would also host the ‘Chennai Open’ WTA International Championship and is hoping to host the Asian Beach Games in the city.

COVID-19 had a drastic impact on the career of many upcoming sportspersons. But what the pandemic did was only expose the many gaps that make the pursuit of sport and success in sport a distant dream for any aspirants. Addressing this would help create a culture of excellence across many sports in Chennai.

*names changed on request

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