Sikkim's love affair with sports stays strong despite pandemic

Sikkim's love affair with sports stays strong despite pandemic

In the last few years, people may have noticed something other than Sikkim's lush landscape while on a trip to the state. It's not odd to see people carrying equipment for water sports or groups of people huddled together in fields as one crosses the main check posts. There are some who will have sports balls and bats hanging off their back as they cling to the tail end of a local service jeep, which is albeit dangerous but not an uncommon sight.

The size of the state has never mattered when it came to pushing forward for all kinds of sports - scholarships are given on a regular basis, tournaments are hosted quite often and new recruits are always being looked for.

It is no wonder that Sikkim has produced national and international level athletes like Bhaichung Bhutia, a former Indian football team captain, who has represented India in various international platforms, including the Asia cup, Passang Lepcha, the state’s first MMA fighter who won the 7th MMA Championship at age 23 and Tarundeep Rai, the veteran Olympic archer who won a Padma Shree, India's fourth-highest civilian award in 2020. 

Even the Union Sports Ministry has sanctioned a budget of Rs 67.32 crore as financial support to six Khelo India State Centres of Excellence for a period of four years, as per an IPR report, to identify and groom Olympic level talent.

Sikkim’s Paljor Stadium located in Gangtok is one of the six KISCEs, whereby Rs 7.91 crore has been sanctioned for utilization by the state. Each KISCE will be extended with sports-specific support in 14 Olympic sports, out of which one state or UT will be given support for a maximum of three sports.

From upgrading infrastructure, setting up sports science centres, quality HR including coaches, physiotherapists and medical experts, high-quality equipment and a manager to maintain the performance of the players, these centres will become the places where a sports fanatic’s dream of winning an Olympic medal will come true.

But since every place has a majoritarian preference, Sikkim seems torn on three major sports - cricket, football and MMA, these being the most funded sports facilities and players. This does not mean that other associations are overlooked but it is certain that the public has chosen to focus on guiding children to go for these games more than others.

Cricket

As much as nature is worshipped in Sikkim, so are sports. The public of Sikkim are sports enthusiasts and events like the Independence Day Football Cup and Mahatma Gandhi Cup are among the local tournaments that citizens look forward to, many keeping proper time apart for it prior to its commencement. Likewise, the Governor’s Football Gold Cup, Sikkim League, and the Khangchendzonga Shield are state tournaments that budding and seasoned players gear up to play for. 

The success of these events can be credited to the existence of associations like Sikkim Football Association (SFA), Sikkim Cricket Association (SICA) for the ever-growing love for sports in the state. The associations and the state sports department are constantly pushing young sports aspirants, training them under professional coaches and are groomed for representing the state and nation for the future.

Sonam Palden Bhutia, a senior coach for SICA feels that the infrastructure provided to the players and aspirants is a remarkable one. “For instance, the net facility is one of the important basics for the players so that they can adapt themselves to the pitch and perform well. It is very generous of the SICA and BCCI to give such facilities to the young aspirants, the youth should participate and take advantage of the available facilities.”

Palzor Tamang a cricketer, who has captained the Sikkim team at the Ranji Trophy, a national tournament shares his experience with gratitude. “I was happy and obliged when I was selected in the state squad, I was selected as a team leader which comes with a huge chunk of responsibility, for that, I would like to thank the Sikkim cricket association for having trust in me.”

“Sports in Sikkim has taken its hype especially cricket, which such good infrastructure provided, we now don’t have to travel outside for camps, so it’s of great achievement, with highly skilled coaches and infrastructure all over the state, sports in Sikkim will surely progress” he added 

He also encouraged the youth in participating in sports for individual fitness, he added “The youths should often get themselves involved in sports, as now the scope in it is on a very high level.”

Similarly, Mandup Bhutia, a seasoned cricketer who has 16 years of experience in the sport and who had his senior breakthrough in the year 2018 when he was called for Sikkim team to play for the precious Ranji trophy. Following the same season, he also played in the Vijay Hazare Trophy match where he became the highest wicket-taker from the Sikkim team, with five wickets in seven matches.

Bhutia says, “Cricket is all about hard work and dedication, it’s a game of mind one has to develop its skill to be able to achieve its goal. Currently the young sports aspirants have a very good platform with professional-level coaches and infrastructure, young should step up and develop their skills and make good use of the platforms” he added 

But it is no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed several scheduled cricket matches. However, with the resumption of domestic cup matches and national tournaments like the Indian Premier League, the sports fraternity hopes that it may finally find its track and get back to normal soon.

Football

In football, the state has its academy popularly known as SAI Academy, where young athletes are recruited, nurtured and are trained to play professionally.

There are many state-level independent clubs like the Aakraman Club, Himalayan sporting club, Sikkim united and many more 

The Aakraman football club has garnered much attention in Sikkim, emerging as one of the top football clubs. The club which was founded in 2010 by a group of friends from Tashi Namgyal Academy. 

For the founders and players, the club hadn’t taken a professional turn then but after playing for 3 seasons under Division-3 Sikkim League, they got promoted to Division-2 by 2016. Soon after, the Aakraman Football Club became the champions of the Division-1 Sikkim League. Once their career as a professional club began, they carried on and represented the state in various national tournaments like Governor’s Gold Cup and the Independence Day Cup.

Zigmee Singee, the club president and a former player said, “Back when we started, football stadiums were just a place where our old school mates could have a great time together, but as time passed, we grew as a professional club.”

“In 2018 when we were invited to play at independence cup at Kalimpong, West Bengal we reached the finals but were defeated by a Nigerian club. However, it was a proud moment for the club and Sikkim state cause after a gap of 34 years we were only the club from Sikkim to reach the finals there.”

Apart from football events, they also voluntarily organize events such as cleaning drives and blood donation camps. Zigmee states that the youth of Sikkim today is mostly engaged in social media and the digital world, so they prefer to play indoor sports games and don’t venture into the field as often. 

“Kids should go out and take part in sports, improve their skills and try to escape the bubble created by the technology”, he asserts. 

Mixed Martial Arts

Apart from team sports, there is a particular kind of sports that Sikkim loves to watch and participate in - combat/hand-to-hand sports. The love for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is on a rise.

Recently Passang Lepcha, a Sikkimese combat athlete won the 7th MMA Championship held at Delhi. Currently, he manages a gym at Gangtok and also trains around 80 kids under 14 years at his village. Due to the pandemic, only about 50 kids show up for practice but he ensures that those who attend the classes are given vigorous training. 

“My journey was not an easy one, I had to face a lot of ups and downs, but I never gave up. I began my carrier as a Muay Thai fighter but finally ended up with  Mix Martial Arts. 

“MMA is a new and growing sport not only in Sikkim but as well as India and the scope of the sport is growing, so to promote MMA in our state, in the coming days we will organize a state-level tournament as well as a North East MMA championship", says Lepcha. “Kids are the future for tomorrow and by grooming them today they can achieve peaks in sports". 

By Sherab Palden Bhutia. The author is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at paldenborges015@gmail.com.

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