“There has been a sea change in Indian gymnastics, from circus to IGL”

The inaugural Indian Gymnastics League, held in Mumbai, began with this sentiment from Sushmita Joshi, a former gymnast who is now working with the District Sports Office.

Despite the administrative issues over the last four years, a lot has changed for Indian gymnastics since the girl from Tripura missed the Olympics podium by a whisker. In a way, the IGL is the result of Dipa Karmakar’s effort before and during, and the country’s response after the 2016 Rio Olympics. But only in a way.

Because the idea of league-based gymnastics competition has long been a dream for Harish Parab, who has been involved with gymnastics for the last 20 years.

“I always felt that we needed a national league for gymnastics. When I saw Pro Kabaddi League and Indian Premier League, I noticed that local talent, players who have not been seen by people before got a chance to showcase their skill. In a cricket team for example, we see only the top eleven players at a time. We cannot see the performance of the rest of the talented players. But they got their chance in IPL.

“In the same way in gymnastics, there are many athletes who do very well at the national level. But when the Indian team goes out for international tournaments, only four kids can be selected. This doesn’t mean that the person who came fifth isn’t good, it’s just that on that day their performance wasn’t up to the mark. They should also get a chance, people should be able to see these gymnasts in action as well,” Parab, the chief organizer of the IGL, said.

In that regard, the three days of the inaugural gymnastics league showcased the wide range of talent in the country. Organised within two months and with limited access to national gymnasts, the first-ever Indian Gymnastics League was a step in the positive direction. The equipment, all imported and costing around 40 to 50 lakh, was top quality with a one-of-a-kind tumble track in the city. The panel of judges included the best in the business. The participants were as enthusiastic as the organisers and overall the first edition was a promising one.

Indian Gymnastics League
Indian Gymnastics League

Building an Indian team

Joshi, in her inaugural speech, had spoken about how much the Indian mindset towards the “mother of all sports” has changed in the last four decades she has been involved in the sport. May be it was Dipa Karmakar at the Olympics, or maybe it is the gymnastics training facility at Prabodhankar Thackeray Krida Sankul (PTKS), but there were numerous young children and their parents at the event. The students of PTKS even performed at the start of the program, and the children in the audience were in awe when the daring acts on various apparatus were performed a few feet from them.

The four teams – Paramita Twisters, Orbit Swingers, Urban Bouncers and Joshile Jumpers – saw 32 of the top gymnasts from Maharashtra, Navy and West Bengal participate in still rings, high bars, balancing beam, uneven bars, tumble tracks and vaulting tables. But not as individuals, as a team, a rarity in Indian gymnastics where all the attention is on individual players who qualify for international events.

“We thought we were missing the team factor somewhere in Indian gymnastics. Everyone is thinking about the individual player who will reach Olympics but no one is thinking that an Indian team should go for the Olympics. We have the talent that an entire team can qualify. This is also the reason that IGL was organised as a team event, where everyone’s performance is depended on the others,” Vandita Raval, former international and now coach, told The Field.

The winners of the first edition. Indian Gymnastics League
The winners of the first edition. Indian Gymnastics League

“We have distributed everyone across team, based on age-group, state and even coach. This way, gymnasts are helping each other out, coaches are working with different players and juniors are also getting a chance to play with and learn from seniors – it’s something we didn’t have,” Raval, who has just finished her FIG level one coaching course from Hong Kong, added.

The coaches, all top names on the Indian circuit, have also shown great enthusiasm for the initiative. “Parab has given a new lease of life for gymnastics, with this platform to show their skill to the world,” said Ajit Jarande, a former gymnast turned international coach.

Players to watch out for

The four teams and coaches were boisterous and energetic throughout the competition, making it a very lively event. They even helped children wanting to try out the apparatus after watching the performances. Rohit Jaiswal, who has won silver as a junior at the Asian Gymnastic Championship and bronze at the Commonwealth Youth Games, was on hand for commentary and technical analysis of the event.

Rakesh Patra was the standout performer throughout the league. The ‘Master of Rings’ from Odisha showed off his immense potential not just on the rings, but the high bar as well.

“You cannot compare him with anyone else here,” Sanjivani Purnapatre, an international judge for the 25 years, told The Field. “He has reached the final of international tournaments in rings and is among the very best in the country.”

Swastika Ganguly in action. Indian Gymnastics League
Swastika Ganguly in action. Indian Gymnastics League

The FIG judge also picked out the other players who impressed her.

“Swastika Ganguly, from Bengal, is playing her first year in seniors and has a very good chance. In India, there is a problem with getting proper apparatus. She has trained without very good equipment or facilities. She trains under local coaches but they are determined to push her further with whatever they have. Results always come from those who are doing something extraordinary like that,” Purnapatre said.

Maharshtra’s Abhijit Kumar has the honour of being the first Indian to be selected for Youth Olympics back in 2014. “It is not an easy selection process, one has to be the best in the country, then Asia and get a certain degree of marks. But he has done very well,” she added.

Another Maharashtra gymnast to keep an eye on is Omkar Shinde. Brother of Abhijeet Shinde, who has represented India twice at World Championships, Omkar is the junior national champion and trains at the gymnastics centre that his parents have built for them.

Bidisha Gayen, the national medallist, has participated in World School Games and already has good international exposure. “She is very light and she is a good tumbler, she has that kinesthetic awareness so she can move around in the air very well,” Purnapatre explained.

Some of the other impressive gymnasts were Shravani Raut, Shraddha Talekar, twins Riddhi and Siddhi Hattekar, Govinda Kalbande, Arik Dey.

Parab said that he hoped that Indian gymnasts would one day receive the same support that Sachin Tendulkar does. While that may be a bar too high to reach, the inaugural IGL has showed that India does have the talent to attempt a big leap.