THE Northeastern region of India may be termed as a hub of sporting talent. In 1946, the All India Football Federation handed over the responsibility of leading the Indian football team in the London Olympics to none other than Dr. Talimeren Ao, then T Ao, who was doing his medical graduation in Calcutta (now Kolkota). A frontline defender in the Calcutta league, donning the colours of the Mohun Bagan club, T Ao ably led the Indian team in the London Games; and the lanky Naga youth set an example for the youth of this region.
That was the beginning. Since then, this part of the country has produced numerous sportspersons of international repute. But the sportspersons here have to overcome lots of odds before they can achieve their goal in the sporting arena. Like in other fields, the sports infrastructure here is very limited, and even today, youngsters don’t have access to state-of-the-art facilities in honing their skills. Apart from the infrastructure, the youth here have to face some other problems too.
Sporting icons from the region
Undoubtedly iconic boxer M.C. Mary Kom is the best known sporting product of the Northeast who not only won an Olympic medal, but also has five world crowns in her kitty. A natural athlete, she was named Mangte Chungneijang at birth, but chose the name ‘Mary’ as it was easier to pronounce. Mary belonged to a poor family and had to help her parents in running the six-member family. As a child Mary tried her hand at various sports like hockey, football, athletics, etc. But Dingko Singh’s gold medal winning performance in the 1998 Asian Games inspired her to take up boxing seriously.
Due to her passion for the game, she left her school and proceeded to Imphal to train under coach M. Narjit Singh. During that time she had to face harsh criticism from all quarters as boxing was considered to be a masculine sport. But her dedication and thirst for doing something for the country encouraged her to take up boxing seriously, and the rest is history.
Mary’s glorious journey started in 2000 with the State Championship in Manipur. After that she won numerous crowns within a span of 15 years that include an Olympic medal, world titles, Asiad gold, Arjuna Award, Padma Shri, Padma Bhusan, among others. These were not scripted in one night, but were a result of intense hard work and dedication.
Shuttler Dipankar Bhattacharjee is another sporting giant of the Northeast who is a two-time Olympian and three-time national champion in badminton. Hailing from Guwahati, Dipankar, like other sportspersons of this region, had to overcome acute conditions in infrastructure in Assam. But Dipankar was a man of special mettle who practised vigorously under the guidance of his father Iswar Bhattacharjee, who had hardly any technical knowledge about the game of badminton. The old-fashioned Kanaklata Indoor Stadium in Guwahati earned the distinction of producing an international shuttler who became the first Indian to reach pre-quarterfinals in badminton in Olympics during the Barcelona Games.
Bhogeswar Baruah is another person who has been hailed as one of the most charismatic sporting legends of Assam and the Northeast. The gold medallist in the 800-metre event at the 1966 Bangkok Asian Games, Baruah introduced this part of the country to the world with his remarkable show. He also became the first Arjuna Award winner from this region.
Baruah, who used to practise at the bank of Joysagar Pukhuri (tank) at Sivasagar in his early days, went on to join the Indian Army where his talent was spotted. Finally, he became a national hero with that glorious achievement in the Asian Games. But it is believed that if he had been in Assam during his young age, perhaps he could not have attained such a feat as during that period, Assam athletics was underdeveloped and the concept of middle distance running was beyond imagination. Baruah has been able to set an ideal sporting atmosphere in Assam and the entire Northeastern region by becoming the first ever gold medallist in the coveted Asian Games.
Jayanta Talukdar has been the most charismatic athlete Assam has produced so far. Born in 1987 in Guwahati, Jayanta was spotted in the year 2000 during a selection trial for archery. Prior to that, his father Ranjan Taludkdar bought an Indian bow for him and his brother, from Shillong, with which he practised at his residence at Bagharbori in Guwahati. He was invited to attend a trial at the prestigious Tata Archery Academy, Jamshedpur, that very year. Jayanta surprised everybody by finishing first among the 50 boys and girls at the camp who had come from all over the country.
Archery suited Jayanta who has a strong physical stature coupled with endurance and mental toughness. Immediately after joining the Tata Academy he was selected to represent Jharkhand in the Junior National Archery Championship, and in that very year (2003), he was picked by the national selectors to represent the country.
In the year 2005, Jayanta surprised the whole nation when at the age of 18 and almost at the beginning of his career in archery, he toppled the bigwigs at the 25th Senior National Archery Championship held at Ernakulum, and became the new Senior National Champion in the recurve individual event of archery. He retained the title the next year at Kolkata.
He made his international debut with the Asian Championship in the year 2003 held at Yangon, where the Indian team grabbed a silver medal. He played in the Asian Championship 2005 held at New Delhi, where the Indian team again made a podium-finish with a silver medal.
In the Britain Junior World Archery Championship in 2004, the Indian team won a silver medal and Jayanta was the highest scorer among the national team members. It was the nation’s first ever medal at a world championship tournament in archery. Jayanta reached one of the most vital chapters of his career when he was selected for the Indian team for the Sydney Olympic Games in 2004. He finished 11th in the team event and 43rd in the individual category. Further, Jayanta contributed to his team winning a silver medal at the World Championship held at Madrid in Spain the next year. Significantly, Jayanta was adjudged the best Indian performer at the tournament. In that very year he also won a gold medal in the Colombo South Asian Federation (SAF) Games.
A gold medal in the FITA Meteksan Archery World Cup tournament held at Porec, Croatia in 2006 is the highest achievement for Jayanta in his illustrious career. He is the first ever Indian to achieve the feat. In that championship, Jayanta defeated Magnus Petersson of Sweden by 108-105 points in the final round to win the gold medal. He repeated this feat in 2009 at the same venue, and also struck gold in the team event. This performance took him to a career best world ranking of two. He then won a bronze medal in the team event at the Asian Games in Doha in 2006. Along with Rahul Banerjee, Tarundeep Rai and Mangal Champia, he won multiple gold medals in the team event in the Archery World Cups.
He won a bronze medal in the individual event at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010 and later that year, he won the bronze medal in the team event at the Asian Games in China. He qualified for the London Olympics and helped the Indian team qualify for the London Olympics when they finished runners-up at the Olympics qualification tournament in the USA in 2011.
In 2007, Jayanta was honoured with the coveted Arjuna Award by the central government. Thus the Guwahati boy became the third Assamese to win the prestigious award of the Indian sports. Jayanta’s meek and mild attitude always attracts those who come close to him. Despite being a hero of Indian sports, he maintains a low profile.