Social media went berserk in the last few days after a video of construction worker Srinivasa Gowda running in the Kambala buffalo race went viral. Social media influencers went on the overdrive telling the sports ministry and the Athletics Federation of India that a potential Olympic medallist has been unearthed from a traditional sports meet.
Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju also jumped on the bandwagon, and influenced by the chatter on social media, announced that the 28-year-old has been invited for a trial at Sports Authority of India, Bengaluru at government cost.
Rijiju had taken similar steps when a video of Madhya Pradesh youngster Rameshwar Gurjar completing 100m in under 11 seconds while running barefoot had gone viral not so long ago. Even before that, two children in Kolkata were inducted in SAI training centre after their cartwheel video went viral and was even shared by the legendary Nadia Comaneci.
Gurjar finished last in the trials and has never been heard of again while there is no information of what exactly happened with Jashika Khan and Mohammad Azajuddin, and whether they were finally inducted in the SAI program after the trials and tests.
In an ideal world, one could say the minister was being proactive by creating an opportunity for a potential talent to showcase his skills in front of the experts and arranging for trials.
But it is not so straightforward. It never is where social media is concerned.
Once the videos of these performances began going viral, it was inevitable that those handling the accounts of these influencers or advising them about strategy, saw an opportunity to attract eyeballs and the celebrities were quick to jump on the bandwagon.
It’s quite possible that none of those bothered to pause for a minute to understand the difference between buffalo jockeying and running a race on the track or the fact that there were no electronic timers to ascertain the timing Gowda had run. Similarly in Gurjar’s case, there was no telling whether the distance of 100m was properly mapped and the timing taken was done correctly.
They can argue that it is not their responsibility to go into such nitty-gritty and they were only influenced by the desire to help a potential champion get attention from the authorities and contribute to India’s chances of unearthing a gem.
It may sound like good logic. But when the sports minister of this country starts getting influenced by these viral posts and puts the government machinery into action in no time, one wonders whether this outsourcing of talent hunt to social media is the right way forward.
Gowda, for his part, seemed smart enough to not give into the hype. He spoke about the difference between running a buffalo-assisted race and running on tracks, and said he was not thinking about the trial from SAI, instead focussing on his Kambala career.
“In Kambala race, heels play an important role whereas it is toes in a track race. Not just jockeys, but even Buffaloes have a role to play in Kambala. In track race, this is not the case” Gowda was quoted as saying by The New Indian Express.
Even if the minister does not understand these technicalities, he should have at least given a thought to the fact that Gowda is already 28 and has been running these Kambala races for many years now. His potential would have been noticed by some athletics coach over the years. After all, outliers like Asian Games silver medallist Hima Das were identified by grassroot coaches from random sports meets and then groomed into becoming professionals.
One can argue that by arranging the trials, the sports minister is trying to find a quick mechanism to test whether there is any real potential or kill the buzz around the claims.
But if the sports minister is going to give trial opportunities to every individual whose video goes viral on the appeal of social influencers he is opening a Pandora’s box and it will cost the government dearly. Some of these videos being made viral could even be part of a marketing strategy for the event.
Hypothetically, this could also lead to people making doctored videos and posting them to gain cheap publicity, sending the government machinery on a wild goose chase by these social media posts.
Instead, the sports ministry will do well to invest in talent-hunt mechanisms created through the federations and even their flasgship Khelo India initiatives. If at all any of the experts feel that there is potential in any youngster based on a social media video, they can simply ask the local unit to check the authenticity of such performances and let the local coaches handle the preliminary scouting.
A trial at SAI does not have to be the first step.