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Case of karateka Zabir Ansari highlights inequalities in the Indian sporting ecosystem

While Olympic medalists get richly rewarded in India, athletes like Bihar's Zabir toil away without recognition

India won a record 7 medals at the Tokyo Olympics. All the medalists were rewarded with enormous cash prizes. Just one throw by Neeraj Chopra got him crores of rupees overnight.

While Neeraj and the other medalists wholly deserve their financial incentives, there’s a countless athletes in India toiling away with little hope of gain or recognition. Many of them belong to states with little sporting infrastructure and sports which do not get much patronage from the Centre. One such athlete, karate practitioner Mohd. Zabir Ansari of Bihar reached out to FirstSportz to highlight his struggles.

Zabir Ansari’s Story

Bihar is the 3rd largest state in India with a population of more than 10 crores (100 million). It could not qualify a single athlete for the Tokyo Olympics. Zabir has won 2 state-level medals in 2021 including a gold in the Bihar Cup Karate Championships in March. He most recently won silver in the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Karate Championships.

Zabir Ansari with his Bihar Cup Gold

He has won a silver at the South Asian level (2017), 2 medals in the National Championships (2017, 2019). He was the Bihar state champion for 5 consecutive years from 2015-2019. He was ranked 259 in the Male Kumite 75 kg category for the Tokyo Olympics rankings and is at present ranked 440.

Zabir tells us, “Despite being an international medalist and having economic problems I have to manage my own diet, traveling and training. I have received little help from the state government or the karate federation. Due to these factors, we are not able to do well internationally.

He adds that international medalists should be given scholarships by the Bihar government so that their requirements such as traveling and diet are taken care of. Due to the Covid situation, Zabir practices 6 hours daily in his village in Jhajha and also trains local village children. There have been no official competitions in 2020 and 2021. Zabir is presently preparing for the upcoming Nationals.

Zabir with local village kids

Zabir had spoken to FirstSportz back in 2020 and listed out many of the same problems. Since then he received the Bihar Khel Samman Award in 2021 but not much material help has been forthcoming for national or international level preparations.

Zabir with Bihar Khel Samman

This is in stark contrast to states like Haryana and Odisha that have proactively supported sports and sportspersons.

November 2021: More tournament wins

Zabir won the official State Championships after this interview was published.

Zabir continues to win more state-level tournaments. After this interview was published he won the Kumite 75kg gold in the Starfighter State Karate Tournament held in November 2021. Around 150 karatekas had participated in this competition. Earlier in September he had won the official Bihar State Karate Championships as well.

Zabir is currently preparing for the East Zonal Karate Championships to be held in January and maintains he’s had little or no financial help.

Federation woes

The karate federation in India is badly mismanaged. Indian karatekas could not compete in the 2019 South Asian Games. Sports like karate, taekwondo, and judo carry a number of medals from different weight categories in comparison to team sports. India already has a base in sports such as wrestling and boxing.

For Tokyo 2020 there were no Indian participants in taekwondo and karate and just 1 in judo while there were 124 medals available from just these 3 sports. India had not won a single medal from them in the 2018 Asian Games either. Karate will not be a part of Paris 2024 but will be included in the Asian level.

If Indian authorities are serious about reaching the top 10 in Olympic medal standings by 2028, combat sports that carry a number of medals should be targeted. Unfortunately, many of the federations are in the doldrums.

India’s lopsided sports policies

Zabir Ansari’s case shows the double standards and lack of planning in the Indian sporting scene. After every Olympics, Commonwealth, and Asian Games, medalists are showered with gifts and rewards. Following Rio 2016 PV Sindhu earned more cash prizes than the gold Medalist Carolina Marin.

Sindhu and other medalists do deserve what they get for their hard work but a portion of the prize money should be reserved for supporting grassroots talents like Zabir and many others. India’s best-ever Olympic showing was only good enough for 48th place at Tokyo 2020. To improve on this, sports authorities need a serious re-look at their priorities.