India must use its network of rivers to encourage water sport

The fact that one is on the way to or from the Melbourne Cricket Ground recedes to the background when one watches dozens of rowers demonstrate their power in their boats on the muddy Yarra river. It is very easy to slip into a reverie as one walks, unhurriedly, along the river in the bustling Australian city.

Is this not possible in India, which has many rivers and canals coursing through different terrains? It would be a wonderful day indeed when one drives along the Yamuna in Delhi and watches rowers in Olympic class boats ply their trade. There are two reasons – not enough boats are available for young athletes across the country and the river is polluted.

Yet, it would be wrong to suggest that it is because there is no legacy of water sport in India. Legend has it that Ravana had a swimming pool in his Ashoka Vatika while the Pandavas and their cousins indulged in some water games in the Ganges. There is greater evidence of a Great Bath in Mohenjodaro while Nalanda University is said to have included swimming in its curriculum.

Come to think of it, swimming is one of the oldest forms of human activity – Plato has been attributed as saying that a man who does not know how to swim and dive is uneducated – but documented history shows that India discovered it as a recreation and competitive sport only about a 100 years ago when the National Swimming Association was established in Calcutta.

With its countless rivers and their tributaries, swimming is a vital ability that many Indian develop naturally. India’s first experience of international swimming competition came in 1934 when it hosted the Western Asiatic Games in Delhi. The swimming events were held in the Maharaja of Patiala’s private pool since Delhi did not have a pool back then.

India has been home to the longest open water swimming competition in the Hoogly river that courses through West Bengal. The 81km race, set in Murshidabad district, starts in Ahiron and ends at Gorabazar in Berhampore city. It draws competitors from overseas and offers them interesting challenges.

The Nehru Boat Race, one of India’s iconic competitions that has run for 66 years, takes place around the Onam festival each year in the Punnamada Lake, part of the vast network of Pamba river and canals that form the Alleppey backwaters. It inspired the Sports Authority of India to set up a regional centre for rowing in Alapuzha.

But long before the Boat Race in Kerala caught the fancy of the nation, a British missionary and educationist Cecil Earle Tyndale-Biscoe had instituted an inter-school rowing regatta in Kashmir in 1909. It was Lord Lansdowne, Viceroy in India, who suggested that the water of the Jhelum River could actually rival that of the Thames.

Tyndale-Biscoe was also responsible for making swimming across the famous Dal Lake popular. He found a simple way to encourage youngsters to learn swimming – he enhanced the school fee for those who were 13 years old and did not know how to swim. More than a century later the Tyndale-Biscoe School conducts swimming competitions across the Dal Lake.

They may not have produced champions but they are reputed to have become life-savers, over a number of years students dived in to haul home at least 400 people who faced the grim prospect of drowning. It is this quality that occurs as a recurring theme along India’s river banks where swimming is not as much a sport as it is a natural physical activity.

There was a time fishing was considered sport as was crocodile hunting on the Ganges (as River Ganga was then known). Angling or fishing is still encouraged in several States but it is just as well that the gory sport of crocodile hunting as a sport is a thing of the past, confined to the sepia-toned pages in books and periodicals.

It would be wrong to associate rivers only with water sport. Many a river bank has helped athletes develop strong legs by training on sand. The legendary middle-distance runner Sriram Singh, who finished seventh in the 800m in the Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976, was among those whose training included sessions on the dunes along the Yamuna River in south Delhi.

Then again, it is not always about what the river can do to sport. It can also be about what sport can do to a river. An article in the reputed Economic and Political Weekly in September 2017 suggested that international rowing league be hosted in India’s rivers to get an impetus for cleaning and maintaining the rivers, something that despite millions of dollars have not been able to achieve.

Surely, it is time that everyone considers this suggestion seriously and ensures that rivers across the country become the home of some memorable swimming, rowing or rafting events. It is our water bodies that have spawned champions and medalists. It is only fair that sport returns some of what it has gained back to the rivers and other water bodies.

Indeed, wherever possible, Indian sport can make better use of the vast network of rivers in this wonderful land not only to get better as athletes but also spread awareness about the need to keep them clean. Yes, one dreams of being able to walk along an Indian river and watch sinewy rowers power their boat ahead in their quest of an Asian Games medal, if not an Olympic medal itself.

This piece first appeared in a school magazine, Orbit.

About Rajaraman 453 Articles
Born on March 10, 1961 in Hyderabad, I wanted to be an electronics engineer but my focus on cricket and basketball at school and junior college meant that I missed qualifying from the entrance examination. I led the School and Junior College basketball teams. I then decided he would be sports a journalist like my father, Mr N Ganesan. While I graduated in commerce from the Badruka College of Arts and Commerce, I also spent more time in sports, representing Andhra Pradesh in the National Basketball Championship in 1980 and Osmania University in 1981-82. I joined the 1981-82 batch of Osmania Univeristy's Bachelor in Communication and Journalism. I missed the gold medal by 0.6 per cent and was pursuing the Masters' degree when The Hindu offered me a job as Sub-Editor in Madras. I took up The Hindu assignment on March 17, 1983. Though my job entailed editing functions only, I got to cover the annual Sholavaram motor racing grands prix in 1985 and 1986 and the Himalayan Rally in 1985 when my photographs also found expression in The Sportstar. I left The Hindu in November 1986 to join Press Trust of India as Sports Reporter in Hyderabad. I was called to New Delhi to report on the World Table Tennis Championship in March 1987. I covered a variety of events, including the SAF Games in Calcutta in 1987 and Islamabad in 1989. I ventured to Delhi in July 1992 when I joined The Pioneer as a Senior Reporter/Sub-Editor (Sports). My cricket writing skills came to the fore when I was deputed to write on India's tour of Sri Lanka in July-August 1993. I was rewarded with a promotion as Deputy Sports Editor in 1995. The departure of the Sports Editor in January 1996 saw me hold charge. A good performance during the 1996 World Cup cricket and the Olympic Games in Atlanta - when The Pioneer brought out a four-page supplement every day saw me being confirmed as Sports Editor in August 1996. The Hindustan Times, Delhi's largest newspaper, appointed me as Associate Editor (Sports) in January 1997. I conceived and launched a weekly colour supplement, Sport during the World Cup football finals in 1998. I covered the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok and the 1999 World Cup cricket in England. I left the Hindustan Times on February 23, 2000 to take up position as Editor, on February 26 and can claim with pride that I played no mean role in building a good site that is rated among the best cricket news sites. Besides, a number of TV channels – NDTV, Star News, Doordarshan, CNBC, Zee News – and radio stations like BBC, SABC and ABC have invite me to in-studio discussions on cricket. In 2001, I authored a book, Match-fixing: The Enemy Within (Har Anand Publications). I joined as Senior Editor in June 2001 and worked for two years, helping it transform from a corporate website to a respected sports site and playing a role in driving the hugely popular online fantasy cricket game, Super Selector. I left the website to pursue life as a freelance writer and consultant, editing the Afro-Asian Games Observer in Hyderabad in October-November 2003 and helping the Board of Control for Cricket in India's Communication Committee. I joined the respected weekly magazine Outlook as Senior Special Correspondent in April 2005 and worked there till September 2007, with a story highlighting Sunil Gavaskar's minimal contribution to Indian cricket after his retirement being one of the best in my career. For a year, till Sept 30, 2008, I was Sports Editor, Samay, Sahara India's National news channel. I live in New Delhi with my wife Sudha and daughter Priya and after a short stint with and, I am now consultant with the Organising Committee Commonwealth Games 2010 Delhi (28° 40' 0 N, 77° 13' 0 E) lending my shoulder to the wheel that will make India a hugely popular sports destination.