August 12, 2005

Humpy's sporting excellence gets a novel 'reward'

By H Natarajan

Just back from a highly-educative tour of Europe – a sports pilgrimage of sorts, visiting places like the FIFA and International Olympic Committee HQs, Wimbledon, Roland Garros, Real Madrid, Manchester United, FC Barcelona witnessing world class athletics in London to gory bull-fighting in Madrid and meeting some of the biggest legends in the world of sports. The tour helped me see from close quarters the sports culture prevalent in Europe, the kind of encouragement given at the grass-root level and the manner in which talent is nurtured and money pumped in – especially by the private sector - to make sports truly humungous and worthwhile.

Reminder of the disparity that exists between Europe and India came swiftly on arrival when I learnt about a prodigious, young world-class player left high and dry by her sponsor – Bank of Baroda. Seven years back, the bank showed foresight roping in Koneru Humpy. It enhanced its image as a sports-friendly – as opposed to cricket-friendly - organisation by lending a big helping hand to a girl who showed promise of following in the footsteps of Vishwanathan Anand – unquestionably the greatest-ever Indian sportsperson.

It was a cerebral investment and Bank of Baroda could have taken great pride when Humpy translated her potential and promise into performances on the global stage. In a corporate scenario, she would have been rewarded handsomely with promotions and bonuses. Just when she would have expected her benefactors to reward her for her efforts with a raise in her sponsorship package, Humpy received a bolt from the blue when the Bank of Baroda told her that they are terminating their association with her!

It was unbelievable, but true. Whoever advised Bank of Baroda decision makers to discontinue sponsoring Humpy did the Indian chess prodigy and Indian sport no good, nor it did any good to the image of the bank. What’s galling is that the bank had the money for sponsorship, but for a cricketer. The message was clear: Bank of Baroda was not going to be in sponsorship for social causes. Irrespective of her status in the world, Humpy could not have hoped to match the mileage Rahul Dravid would bring to the bank as its new ambassador.

The multi-crore contract would have make little difference to Richie Rich Dravid’s bank balance, but for Humpy the end of a seven-year support from the bank is a huge financial blow that could have a crippling effect on her performance. The timing of the sponsorship withdrawal could not have come a more inopportune time, for two reasons: Humpy had just won the North Urals Cup Women's Chess Tournament at Krasnoturinsk in Russia. She went undefeated and garnered six out of a possible nine points to finish ahead of former World Women's cup champion Xu Yuhua (China) and Alexandra Kosteniuk (Russia). So strong was the field - almost all the top women players in the world were participating – that reigning World Women champion Antoaneta Stefanova (Bulgaria) tied for the last place! The second reason why the timing of the sponsorship withdrawal so bad is because it comes just ahead of the World Championship.

Humpy, a four time world champion (World U-10, World U-12, World U-14, World Girls' Junior) is the fourth-highest ranked woman on the World Chess Federation (FIDE) rankings, behind Judit Polgar (Hungary), Zsuzsa Polgar (USA) and Jun Xie (China) – all three of whom are much, much older than the 18-year-old Indian. She is the youngest female player in the history of chess – and the first from India - to achieve a male grandmaster title. She achieved that stupendous feat with her final norm at the Elekes Memorial GM tournament at the age of 15 years, one month and 27 days, breaking Judit Polgar's previous record by three months. Even Bobby Fischer, the maverick genius, won his is final GM norm a little older - at 15 years, six months and one day.

Unless talented sportspersons get corporate support, survival and progress are difficult. Dr Vece Paes’s medical practice suffered, as he had to knock door after corporate door trying to convince them of his son Leander’s tennis talent and offer him financial support. Leander made his bucks after he and Mahesh Bhupathi became a formidable doubles combination in the world, winning big tournaments, including Grand Slams. It opened corporate doors for the Paes family, but not when they desperately needed all help. The plight of Humpy’ father is no different than Dr Vece Paes in the years bygone.

I see the message sent out by Bank of Baroda as far more damaging that it may seem on the surface. There are lakhs of Indian parents watching the plight of Humpy and wondering if it will be worthwhile at all to encourage their children take to sport in a big way. If Humpy, after winning everything within sight, struggles for survival, what hope is there for the lesser talented. To make matters worse, even the government has done precious little. I have not read any assurance of help from anywhere, especially the Sports Ministry, for the helpless Humpy.

Will any corporate playing the knight in a shining armour and come to Humpy’s rescue at a time when she finds herself in financial disarray? Surely the Infosys and Wipros have the resources to step in and help a young, world-class player who has brought so much laurels for the country.

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