It has now been a year since the Rio Olympics, in which India won only two medals – a silver by shuttler PV Sindhu and a bronze by Sakshi Malik in the repechage round. But there were several other positive stories coming out of Rio for Indian sport. One of them was Avtar Singh, the first Indian judoka to qualify for the Olympics in 12 years. What made his journey even more interesting is the fact that he made it to Rio despite lack of finances, federation support and international experience.
The Indian Judo Federation was derecognised by the government, which meant he had no funds to participate in tournaments outside India. His parents had to invest all they had in his career and then had to crowdfund their own trip there to watch him as he reached the Olympic stage overcoming all odds.
Singh lost to Popole Misenga of the Olympics Refugee Team’s in the round of 32 of the men’s 90 kg event. But his experience in Rio has had a huge impact on the 25-year-old, both mentally and on his training and preparation. With the exposure and support received in the aftermath of the Olympics, he is working hard to ensure he wins a medal for India at other multi-sport events in the future.
The Field caught up with Avtar Singh a year after Rio, to find out how his life has changed.
After becoming an Olympian, there have been a lot of positive changes in my life, which is all about this sport [judo]. People’s perspectives about me and the sport is one such thing. Today, everyone is supportive. They say ‘keep it up’ and ‘you’ll go ahead’, and such things, in my opinion, are a big boost.
When my parents go out, they meet people who recognise them and ask them about their son who went to the Olympics. There is no prouder feeling than this for a son. For a middle-class family, this is a huge deal.
India is not very good at judo and earlier nobody even knew much about the sport or me. But today when I go out in my city [Gurdaspur] or where I work [as sub inspector for the Punjab Police] people recognise me. The department is also supporting me more, they used to support me earlier as well, but today they are going out of their way to do it.
Impact Guru helps me with funds right now. Epic Channel, where Virender Sehwag has a show called Umeed India, and the first episode on it was about my career. So I am getting a lot of support through these things and it’s giving me a lot of positive power, as I call it.
The video made about me was shared on social networks and that has helped collect funds. If in the future I get this money, I will use it for my training and other such needs.
JSW Sports has been supporting me as well, but now their support is even greater. They have an excellent new training centre in Bellary. After the Olympics, this is the first time I have seen such a huge and well equipped gym. Everything else – diet, nutrition – is all very good. [Parth] Jindal Sir has told me that, ‘You go and play, we will support you.’ I now have a few sponsors in my city and district as well and they have told me that are backing me as well. Slowly, people are taking a lot more interest in judo. It’s like having a shoulder to lean on.
Setting his sights higher
There is a huge difference in my training since Rio. Earlier the aim was just to qualify for the Olympics. Now, I am training to win an Olympic medal. So, accordingly, I am strengthening my skills.
Imagine there is a wall five-feet tall, there is a 10-feet wall ahead of it and after that there is a lot more. But we will have to cross the five-feet wall first, right? Then we can go for 10 feet. I have crossed the first line, next is the 10-feet wall and then only you can get a medal and I am completely focussed on that.
A year since Rio
Find out what the athletes have been up to
My coach is Yashpal Singh Solanki, an Arjuna awardee in judo, and he has mentored me for six years now and I reached the Olympics only because of him. I am a child in front of him at 25 years, his career itself is 24 years long. Can you imagine his experience? The combination of his experience along with my practice and hard work is what brought us ahead.
I have played some 20-25 tournaments in international halls in my career, but when I entered the Olympic hall… I can’t describe the feeling, you just feel, ‘Oh my god’. The feeling I experienced... you know what it feels like? When our national anthem is played. I can’t explain why, but that’s the feeling. And I want to experience that feeling again. I am very positive now, I will get a medal now, I won’t let it go till I have one
Right now, I am taking it one step at a time. I am preparing very seriously for the Asian Games. I’ll win a medal there and with that medal I will qualify for the Olympics. Before that, I am leaving for the world championships later this month, then there is the Commonwealth Championship in Jaipur in the last week of January and there are a few tournaments after that as well.
With the support of people and the positive power of the country and family, I promise I will give my everything to get a medal the Olympics.
As told to Zenia D’cunha.
Do you prefer your favourite sports stories delivered straight to your inbox every weekday? We have got you covered. Subscribe to The Field’s newsletter.