With India’s rowers storming into as many as nine finals in Hangzhou, RFI secretary general MV Sriram reveals how the sport is thriving despite facing challenges
The supremely-driven Indian rowers (in front) participate at the Asian Games in Hangzhou on Wednesday. Pic/SAI Media
There’s something about Chinese waters and Indian rowers. After their best-ever show at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games (one gold, three silvers and a bronze), the supermen with their oars are set for an encore and more, having stormed into nine finals as the continental showpiece event returns to the Chinese mainland.
It’s obvious then why Rowing Federation of India’s secretary general MV Sriram won’t stop smiling as mid-day catches up with him here. “Our army athletes have always been strong, but this time, we have some navy rowers in the team, who are very competitive. And it is this army versus navy competition that is bringing the best out of us internationally,” Sriram, 66, says.
He is keen to underplay expectations though. “We must realise that this is not like a boxing or wrestling final, where a medal is assured. There will be around six lanes [finalists] in each category, so it will take a lot of effort to finish on the podium,” he adds.
RFI secretary general MV Sriram in Hangzhou on Saturday. Pic/Ashwin Ferro
The Indian rowing story is an interesting one, and who better than Sriram, who is in his third term as secretary general, to explain it.
Lack of water bodies in India
“For a sport like rowing, you need at least a two-kilometer stretch of waterway, which is a rarity in our country unlike a place like China where there are water bodies in almost every city. Then, you need infrastructure in the form of a clubhouse plus catamarans to accompany the rowers, physiotherapists, masseurs, and of course extremely expensive equipment. This is why the sport is not easily accessible to the common man, and only army sportspersons can take it up. We have absolutely no corporate or private sponsorship. Yet, rowing is growing thanks to the government [sports ministry] who have been providing constant support with funds [the ACTC or annual cost of training and competition for rowing is R6-7 crore] that have ensured increased foreign exposure which is the reason our rowers have fared well in the last few years. Rowers like Bajrang Lal Takhar [gold medallist at 2010 Guangzhou Asiad], Swarn Singh and Dattu Bhokanal [both gold medallists at 2018 Jakarta Asian Games] among others became household names through sheer hard work and determination despite being in a sport that is not very popular back home,” Sriram explains.
Indian rowing has also had its share of controversy with Bhokanal alleged to have tanked a race at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games. Sriram insists that issue was personal rather than professional. “In Jakarta, Dattu was clearly in the lead and then suddenly stopped rowing. He was undergoing a lot of personal problems in his marriage and that combined with the intense media pressure after he excelled at the 2016 Rio Olympics [he finished in 13th, the best-ever by an Indian rower at the Olympics] led to his downfall,” he says.
A new financial hurdle however, is threatening to sink the sport. “Rowing has been clubbed into the luxury boating and yachts category due to which we incur a very high 28 per cent GST [Goods and Services Tax]. All our boats are imported with each costing anything upward of Rs 10 lakh. The high GST makes things unaffordable. We have urged the government to bring it down to five per cent and are hopeful that will happen soon,” says Sriram.
Three medals expected
Coming back to the medal prediction for the upcoming nine finals, Sriram chooses to be conservative. “Our lightweight men’s double sculls pair and men’s quad teams are good enough to win gold. I think we should win at least three medals, but you never know. These Services boys thrive in adversity and if they can give it their all, we could win more,” he signs off.