Just two days before 16-year-old Mubssina Mohammed was supposed to set sail to Kerala, her coach Ahmed Jawad Hassan received a worried call. Her mother Dubina Bhanu was apprehensive about sending her child because of the uncertainty in their travel plan. But a confident Hassan said, “You have to fight your anxieties and send her because she is going to win big.”
On 18 September 2022, Mubssina Mohammed won the long jump gold at the National Youth Championships, bagging Lakshadweep’s first ever national-level athletics gold medal.
“Bhayngra, bhayngra (very, very) happy,” said an overwhelmed Bhanu.
The achievement was no mean feat, as Mubssina’s victory has shed light on how the union territory doesn’t have a 400 m track, synthetic surface, cricket pitch, swimming pool, coaches, or infrastructure.
The Quint spoke to several sportspersons and coaches in Lakshadweep to understand the indifferent attitude of the administration to the field of sports.
Tracks for Workout & Training, High-End Gyms Are a Distant Dream
Hailing from a small family, the prodigy displayed stellar talent in athletics from the age of six and won in every competition she participated.
“Everyone blacklisted us for encouraging our daughter to pursue sports. But we told her to fiercely follow her passion. It has been very difficult as her father doesn’t have a stable job and I am a housewife,” Bhanu told The Quint.
The talented youngster has now qualified for the Asian Youth Championships, which will be held in Kuwait next month.
It all began when Lakshadweep Youth and Sports Affairs official and coach Hassan discovered Mubssina at a sports festival on the Minicoy islands and “bet on her brilliance right away.” Hassan is the secretary of the Lakshadweep athletics organization and the only athletics coach in the union territory.
Despite the steely resolve, training was a hassle as the 10 inhabited islands don’t have a single 400 m or synthetic track. Mubssina and the others had to make do with mud tracks for their workout and training. High-end gymnasiums and other recovery facilities were a distant dream.
“We would wait till 7 pm for all the football, volleyball, and cricket players to vacate the ground so that we can train on this small patch of land. Due to the flood lights, we train till late night. So many hurdles to cross over to even train with hurdles. I also take care of coaching, paperwork, organising events and even manage the funds as we get money from the administration only after the competitions. By the time I finish my day’s work, it is 2 am. I am up by 7 am to start training again,” he added.
If infrastructure inadequacy wasn’t a hurdle big enough, the territory also lacks personnel power.
Swim Training Not in Pools, but in the Ocean
In June 2022, Mohammed Anees rose to the limelight as the only swimmer in Lakshadweep's tiny contingent at the Khelo India Youth Games. He had recalled that there were no swimming pools in Lakshadweep and so he spent hours on the rough seas, practicing.
When The Quint called one of the senior-most swim coaches, he said, “I am right now sitting in a mini-boat training young kids. For over 30 years, I have seen many come to learn the strokes but don't want to compete professionally because there is no infrastructure. If this is not taking them anywhere then what's the point of pursuing it?”
Hassan who was a university-level middle-distance runner also shared his ordeal of participating in swimming contests.
“The first time I traveled to Kerala and swam in a pool, I almost drowned. I didn’t know how I to swim because this was nothing like the Arabian Sea.”Ahmed Jawad Hassan, Lakshadweep Youth and Sports Affairs official
Abdullah* (name changed), a national-level swimmer, who is presently working with the Kerala sports authority said, “Before every match, we would book a pool in Kerala and practice for at least five days. Obviously the density is vastly different because of the salinity of the ocean.” And most often, the coach bears the additional costs for facilitating these extra days of training.
However, he said that it was a matter of pride that despite this disadvantage they have managed to win several accolades.
“Everyone asked us what our diet plan was and what was the special facilities we had in our pool, that helped us ace the competition. We laughed saying we don't have any of that. The secret of our success is that we have young people competing. However, this is fleeting and we aren't able to keep up that peak of achievement,” he added.
Just 2 Weekly Ships to Reach Mainland for Competitions
Apart from funding and lack of encouragement, the biggest obstacle for athletes from the region is travelling to competition venues. The weekly ship from Kavaratti, the capital of the union territory, is the only viable option to travel to the mainland.
Earlier, there were seven ships plying between Kavaratti and the mainland and since the past two years, only two have been operating. There is no fixed schedule and the ship arrival dates are announced only two or three days in advance.
For every aspiring athlete in Lakshadweep, just making it to a national competition is in itself an enormous accomplishment.
“We get the ship schedule only two days before and it is nerve-racking to figure out accommodation and travel. It costs us a minimum of Rs 1.5 lakh to cover food, lodging and playing kits for 10-15 days. But in the present situation we are hardly getting the full settlement," Hassan told The Quint.
Battle for Women to Convince Their Parents to Pursue Sports as a Career
Several parents told The Quint that many hesitate to let their wards pursue sports as a career, especially when there is no infrastructure in place. For women, it is a battle to convince their parents as sports is “seen as a distraction or a futile career path,” said Hassan.
More than 93 percent of the population in Lakshadweep is Muslim and indigenous. The literacy rate of Lakshadweep is over 92 percent against the national average of 74 percent, according to Census 2011.
Mubssina echoed his sentiments saying, “We believe that if we get more support and help from administration, then we can create so many Mubsinnas. I am sure it will change the outlook of people.”
Coaches Blame 'Indifferent' Attitude of the Administrator
While Mubssina and her coach were showered with praise from islanders, they told The Quint that there has been no word of appreciation from the current administrator Praful Patel.
“We just had a monumental achievement but none of the authorities seem to care. The previous administrator urged students to play professionally and ensured that funds are disbursed before one travels for a tournament. But Patel just doesn't care and the recent changes he made to our lifestyle is causing us anxiety and agony,” said a senior cricket coach.
When questioned if Lakshadweep actually has the space and if it is feasible to build adequate grounds for all sports, all coaches and players concurred that “it is very much possible.”
“There is ample space and if our administration prioritises sports, Lakshadweep can mark its place. We got the drive, the talent, the power, the mentors. All we need is an administration that believes in us and lends support," said the cricket coach.
“The smart city plan for Lakshadweep included construction of a swimming pool but looks like I will be long gone before this becomes a reality,” said a senior swim coach.
The Quint has reached out to the Lakshadweep administration. for a comment and the article will be updated once we receive a response.