For the past few days, Bangladesh Athletic Federation (BAF) has been in a festive mood. No, no one from Bangladesh has won a medal. A new track will be laid at the Bangabandhu National Stadium in a couple of months, but that’s not the reason behind their excitement. The possibility of hosting the SAFF Junior Athletics is also not stirring them.

They are all excited because for the time in the history of Bangladesh, an initiative has been taken to search for young talents from 500 upazilas, 64 districts and eight divisions of the country to unearth the Bangladesh’s next generation of athletes.

Bangladesh hasn’t won a gold medal in athletics at the SAFF Games in the last 16 years.

On last Thursday, the athletics federation held a press conference at the third floor of the Bangabandhu Stadium where every federation official had a broad smile on their face. Every one of them looked inspired and motivated. They all had dreams of a bright future in their eyes. In their hearts, they hoped to bring back the golden days of athletics in the country.

The federation’s president Tofazzel Hossain Miah, who is the principal secretary of the prime minister, has seemingly waved a magic wand and woke up the country’s athletics from its slumber.

“Sheikh Kamal Inter-school and Madrasah Athletics sports” began on Saturday. The country’s athletics is in dire need of an initiative like this because everyone has seemingly forgotten that athletics is the ‘mother of all games’.

There is a lot of money in cricket and football. Kids now are choosing those sports. In comparison, there really isn’t anything in athletics. That’s why children are not getting into athletics.
Sufia Khatun, former fastest woman in Bangladesh

Athletics competitions are no longer held in villages. Athletics is absent from schools, colleges and universities. There is no sponsorship at the grassroots, the lack of facilities and dearth of grounds goes without saying. Till now, there are no athletic tracks in Bangladesh outside of Dhaka!

Athletics suffered the most after many organisations retracted their sponsorship. Organisations like BTMC, BJMC, railways, whose sponsorship made athletics exciting in the post-independence era, have disappeared from athletics.

BJMC sports team, which was a big shelter for athletes, was defunct three years back. That was the latest seismic jolt for the country’s athletics.

Nazmun Nahar, who was crowned the fastest woman in Bangladesh for a record 17 times, singled out BJMC’s disappearance as a big reason behind the fall of athletics in the country.

“BJMC and BTMC used to bring out athletes from the grassroots and give them jobs. When we were athletes, BJMC used to do a lot for us. After they backed out from athletics, the path for new athletes to emerge has almost shut down completely.”

As a result, Bangladesh hasn’t won a gold medal in athletics at the SAFF Games in the last 16 years. Bangladesh’s Shah Alam emerging as the fastest man in SAFF Games in consecutive editions now seem like a tall tale. The wait for another sprinter like Mahbub Alam, who won gold in the 200-metre category, only adds to the frustration.

Bangladesh had a legacy in athletics. Athletes from here have won gold in Pakistan Olympic Games before independence. The success of female athletes in those times would symbolise women’s progress.

Hamida Begum, a star athlete of the 60s’ who passed away last March, had told this correspondent. “In our days, so many people used to turn up at the ground to watch athletics that guards would have to escort us while entering the venue. Now it’s (the gallery) all empty. This hurts me a lot.”

Bangladesh Athletics Federation is searching for new athletes
File photo

Hamida Begum also felt hurt seeing the lack of competition in every event at national level competitions.

Heats are no longer necessary for many events. At the women’s 100m event in last month’s national athletics at the Army Stadium in Banani, forget a heat, not even all lanes of the track needed to be used. Due to the lack of competition, many win with ease. Some athletes dominate an event for year after year.

Shirin Akter has been the country’s fastest women for nine years. She has won the 100m race in the national summer athletics for a total of 14 times. 12 of those wins were on the trot.

If an athlete can win consistently, she definitely deserves a lot of credit. But that also shows the sorry picture of no new athlete emerging. ‘What’s the point of becoming an athlete’, ‘There is no future in athletics’– such belief has already been established at the grassroots. To be fair- the belief is not baseless.

In this age of technology, teenagers and youths are addicted to their devices and lack interest to play on the field. Those who are interested, mainly choose cricket and football.

The country’s former fastest woman Sufia Khatun said in this regard, “There is a lot of money in cricket and football. Kids now are choosing those sports. In comparison, there really isn’t anything in athletics. That’s why children are not getting into athletics. However, in our days, lot of young boys and girls would come into athletics.”

From the 60s till the 90s, athletes were a topic that would come up during leisurely discussions. There would be a buzz around the Dhaka Stadium during national athletics. The gallery used to be packed with fans. Sports journalists would often write the names of athletes.

“I have lost count of how many times I was promoted on the front page of newspapers. My photo appeared on front pages of newspapers many times. That was a huge inspiration for us. It would double our desire to do better,” said Mosharraf Hossain Shamim, who was the fastest man in Bangladesh for seven straight years in the 70s.

Athletes are no longer in the limelight. Fame no longer colours their lives and livelihoods. Today’s athletes’ main goal is to somehow bag a job at an oganisation and then hold onto it for the rest of their lives.

With hopes of changing the status quo, the athletics federation has entered the field bolstered by a fund of Tk 70 million with Walton Group as their sponsor. This new initiative from the federation definitely deserves a lot of praise. But question still remains, will the stagnant athletics burst into new life? There is no harm in hoping so.

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ashfaq-Ul-Alam Niloy