THE FLAG-BEARER of independent India’s first Olympic (London, 1948) contingent was Talimeren Ao. He was also the captain of the Indian football team that went down 2-1 to France in the second match.
In the 1966 Bangkok Asiad, Assamese sprinter Bhogeswar Baruah shaved three seconds off the record that Japan’s Y Marawi had set in the earlier edition of the Games.
Ao, son of a Naga reverend, was perhaps the ideal icon of nationalism that India overlooked at a time when the seeds of separatism were being sown across Naga-inhabited areas. And Baruah, many felt, was no ‘mainstream’ Milkha Singh to be a national celebrity.
Then MC Mary Kom happened, a star enough for Bollywood to make an eponymous biopic.
“The northeast has always produced quality sportspersons. But the spotlight on everything negative about the region made them non-entities. There was also this psychological divide between people on either side of the Chicken’s Neck (narrow strip in West Bengal linking the northeast to the rest of the country). Mary Kom changed that, allaying the feeling of alienation in the region and making others accept we are as Indian as they are despite our looks and cultural differences,” sports organiser Balen Chakraborty said.
Chakraborty organises the annual Abhiruchi Sports Day on September 23 to celebrate Baruah’s birthday.
“Much of the region’s problems are linked to joblessness. Our youth are physically endowed to excel in various sports that ensure employment. This is why sports infrastructure is our priority,” said Mizoram chief minister Lal Thanhawla.
The region has at least 1,200 sportspersons employed in the public sector besides the state police and central armed forces. Besides, some 150 footballers from Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Assam are regulars in India’s top soccer clubs.
“The time for the northeast to be India’s sporting superpower has arrived, and it will change the perception people elsewhere in the country and beyond have about the region,” sports journalist Subodh Malla Barua said.
The region’s sporting strength was clear in the 2010 Guangjhou Asian Games that had 59 athletes besides six coaches and officials from Manipur. And in the recently concluded Glasgow Commonwealth Games, Manipuri athletes won eight medals.
Here is a list of new sporting heroes of the northeast.
Jeje Lalpheklua Fanai, 23: This striker from Mizoram is tipped to be the next big thing in Indian football, and the Indian Super League is expected to showcase his talent
Chekrovolu Swuro, 32: This archer from Nagaland didn’t just win a silver medal in the 2011 World Archery Championships in Turin; the state took pride when she qualified to represent India in the 2012 London Olympics.
Jayanta Talukdar, 28: Seeded No 1 in the 2009 Copenhagen World Cup, this archer from Assam made it to the Indian men’s recurve team in the 2012 Olympics.
Shiva Thapa, 21: Third in the bantamweight category in AIBA Men’s world ranking, this boxer from Assam is the third Indian to win an Asian Games gold and is tipped for greater glory in the 2016 Olympics.
Anshu Jamsenpa, 35: World’s first mother to scale Mt Everest twice in 10 days, this mountaineer from Arunachal Pradesh is often cited as an example of sheer grit and determination.
Yumnam Sanathoi, 27: This Manipuri might have lost her semifinal bout to China’s Zhang Luan in Sanda 52kg category in the ongoing Asian Games, but she is one of the reasons behind wushu’s popularity in India.
Laishram Devendro Singh, 24: One of Manipur’s many international boxers, he won a silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games but lost his semifinal bout at the Incheon Asian Games amid controversy.
Laishram Sarita Devi, 29: Also a victim of controversy at Incheon, this Manipuri boxer is a world champion.
Sanjita Khumukcham, 21: This weightlifter from Manipur won gold in the 48kg category at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
Tarundeep Rai, 30: This archer from Sikkim made his international debut in the Asian Archery Championship 2003 in Myanmar, and went on to become the first Indian to win an individual archery medal (silver) at the Guangzhou Asian Games, 2010.
(A truncated version appeared in the Hindustan Times today)