Express press service
CHENNAI: Like millions of other Indians, Sukumaar Thangaraj grew up in a cricket-loving family in Royapuram. Outside, however, there was a different sport that had captured the neighborhood’s attention. In faded shirts spelling out Messi and Ronaldo, everyone from children to the working class could be seen donning football gear, but Sukumaar remained indifferent. That is, until he became a student at Madras University and recovered from a broken relationship. “At the time, there were only two things that interested me, the folk art department at our university and football. During these 90 minutes of the game, I would have nothing else on my mind. As people say temples are (serene), football was like that for me.
Sometimes I even contemplated suicide. It gave me a second life,” he shares. The game also found its way into his PhD proposal where he discovered the importance of sports in North Chennai and eventually founded the Blacktown Football Club. “Before, I only saw people wearing jerseys but not the subculture it represented, especially among young people. During my studies, I saw what marginalized communities were trying to tell society through football. By sociologically introducing sport into academics, students find themselves more inclined to study. And coaches become part of society; their instructions on discipline and communication are taken seriously by athletes.” he informs. Although he is not a professional, he still sets aside time during the weekend to play quietly with his friends. Sukumaar’s story is that of many athletes and fans, for whose life changed for the better with the introduction of sport. In a country where sport is sometimes nothing more than an extracurricular activity for the average person, the positive impact of it and the many roles he can play still have very obvious.
This is evident in Arti Krishnamoorthy’s newfound independence. A 32-year-old Chennaiite with Down syndrome, she struggled to find an accommodating school years ago when the city was much less tolerant. After initial efforts – and some unfortunate circumstances of bullying and trolling – her mother, Sandhya, brought her to the Down Syndrome Federation of India (DSFI), where Arti had her first swimming experience in a summer camp. “At first she didn’t like it but the coach worked with her patiently and after a year she loved it. At age 9, she was attending the Special Olympics State and National Meet. She never had the opportunity to succeed academically, so we focused on sports and she did well. It made her very independent, improved her alignment, and taught her how to interact and socialize. She saw new faces and toured northern states adapting to new food as well,” Sandhya proudly shared, adding that during the pandemic, it was Arti who kept the house active.
Sport can be the key to independence and a safer lifestyle. The latter is what the GS Boxing Club – formerly the Chennai City Police Boys & Girls Club – in Chintadripet focuses on. In the wee hours of the morning, the ring comes alive here as the students dance and weave, dodging punches and throwing punches as U Govindaraj drags them away. The passion for sport at the club is unavoidable. But boxing isn’t just a sport for these neighborhood kids. Coming from poor families, the students are training for a better future, notes the coach. Thanks to their training, they can obtain academic options thanks to sports quotas and find interesting jobs in the railways or the tax service, for example. Beyond job prospects, the role of boxing is presented in a subtle way: “In a school, if there are 10 friends, we spot the sportsman among them. They do not commit misconduct. If they do, the sport has no value. Boxing is disciplined so a good athlete is too. Also, if another student lands a hit, it doesn’t cause the damage a boxer might. For fear of this as well, they do not engage in any fighting,” Govindaraj explains. Applause follows, it seems, as 16-year-old national player E Loshan – who has been at the club since grade 7 – remarked. ‘The little kids and my teachers look at me with respect and that’s enough for me’ , he says, while sharing his hopes of one day achieving his big victory at the Olympics.
The big picture
For the ordinary person, sport can be a way to realize their dreams, to make them big. It can take you from a normal girl to a superwoman, as G Suganya says. The 37-year-old rose to prominence in handball when she joined university and rose to national level, also securing a place in the national team. Indeed, the love of the game led her to pursue a double post-graduation. “When I was at university, sports were gaining popularity. Back then, I was just a family girl but thanks to sports, everyone knows me now. It gives me pure happiness and a pride that even now, nine years later, when I went back to college for a game, there were people who came and shared that I’m an inspiration to them. I won that name for me through hard work, luck and the chances that came my way,” she recalled.
In recent years, she has had fewer opportunities to play as her time is shared with her family and children. But the influence of sport also seeps into his family life: “Sport taught me to plan. I plan very well and in advance, even in pre-planning. My daughter was impressed with it and she too got used to it. It’s the little things that make a big difference,” Suganya says.
When love comes your way, with it comes the opportunity to do more for your community. Because Madhavi Latha might never have founded the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India without dipping his toes in the pool (literally). When the polio that weakened his spine got worse, he was advised to take hydrotherapy. As she felt the buoyancy and ease of movement underwater, she decided to try her hand at swimming – first alone, then with a trainer. Years later, she is now a three-time National Paralympic Champion and works in the community to encourage others with disabilities. “I have always been a confident person. I had a job and I drove a car. But it was sport that gave me more confidence to support other people with disabilities. It has helped me collaborate with business, government and many other organizations on parasport proposals.
It’s not easy to coordinate a team of wheelchair users (at tournaments, especially out of town), but it allowed me to lose all my apprehensions, my hesitations and get into social life, to interact with different people, to travel alone and much more. It not only gave me confidence and put me in a good mood when I was feeling bored, but also helped me make this positive change in the lives of others,” she explains. She adds that many of her basketball team members hadn’t even left their homes in years, but sports tournaments gave them the opportunity to do so.
Sport has done a lot for us, it seems, but what can we do for sport in return? “It would be nice to have job opportunities for athletes. I played for nine years and earned so many certificates, but what can I do with it now? Zero. As things change and many use the police quota for sports, there needs to be more job opportunities,” Suganya says, adding that family support is important for athletes to thrive on the pitch. Sandhya adds to the conversation with the need for sponsorships and recognition: “The media rarely talks about the achievements of athletes with intellectual disabilities. It is necessary to sensitize the parents so that they know that they can enroll their children without being rejected.
Sukumaar is also campaigning for recognition of the many accomplished athletes in North Chennai and with it the funding to do more, “This year the Football Federation of India has allocated 5 crore for the whole year of ongoing campaigns in India. If an IPL player is bought for around 15-16 crores, can you imagine how one could develop the sport nationwide for just 5 crores with each state having its own leagues? “It also calls for unity between North Chennai clubs and fans to be more active in these discussions. The need for infrastructure is also important at GS Boxing Club. “The provision of bathrooms would be very useful, especially for the girls. In addition, kits are also limited,” exclaims Loshan.
While sport can build careers, break down barriers, boost happiness and shape lives, isn’t it time to give it the credit and attention it deserves?