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     Volume 7 Issue 31 | August 1, 2008 |

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Special Feature

Bangladesh in the Beijing Olympics

Shara Azad

On land Doli Akhter, with her cropped hair and fit physique, looks more like a fish out of water than anything else. Then again, she has been swimming competitively for over a decade, since 1997 at the wee age of 11. The pool is now almost like a second home for Doli, which is perhaps precisely why she excels in swimming and why she, along with five other athletes -- Md. Rubel Rana, Md. Imam Hossain, Md. Abu Abdullah, Nazmun Nahar Beauty, and Kazi Sharmin Akhter -- has been chosen to represent Bangladesh in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Sharmin Akhter, shooting.
Abu Abdullah, 100 m sprint.

Bangladesh's road to the Olympics has been a rocky one. None of the nation's athletes originally qualified to compete in the Games; however, to promote international participation, the country and six of its athletes were allowed to participate as wildcard entries. Therefore, based on their past performance in competitions, two swimmers, two sprinters, and two shooters, were selected, making up a total Bangladeshi contingent of six with three males and three females.

Among the swimmers, there is Md. Rubel Rana and of course, Doli Akhter, who will be appearing in her third Olympics this year. The two are quite close as they train together at the National Swimming Complex in Mirpur, a lovely facility, under the watchful eye of their coach, Md. Golam Mostafa. While Doli swims the 150-metre-freestyle, Rubel is preparing for the 100-metre-backstroke. For him, swimming in the Olympics is the greatest achievement imaginable, and truly, he has come a long way, going from floating in Kushtia's lakes to competing on the world's largest athletic stage.

Five of the six Olympians pose during a photo session arranged by the Bangladesh Olympic Association.

There are trials and tribulations in racing the most renowned athletes, especially coming from a tiny country like Bangladesh though. In the world championship for swimming a few years ago, Doli was watching one of Rubel's events from the audience, and she noticed that all of the swimmers had finished their laps except Rubel. In fact, Rubel was nowhere to be found. Doli said, “I felt so worried; I couldn't see him anywhere, until finally, fifteen minutes later, he was spotted charging toward the finish line in dead last place.”

A last place finish is often the biting reality for these athletes since Bangladesh's athletic funding just does not and cannot compare with that of other countries such as the United States and China. With minimal funds, a nation cannot pay for extensive training and top of the line facilities for their athletes, which results in loss after loss. Additionally, the limited funds Bangladesh does possess tend to go to more popular sports like cricket, even though some of the nation's athletes in other sports are excelling without the financial backing and could use the money to transcend to the next level of competition. For example, Rubel is technically the number one swimmer in South Asia in the 100-meter-backstroke. However, he states, “While I am number one, no one knows who I am or supports me. On the other hand, the national cricket team is currently ranked fourth in South Asia, behind India and Sri Lanka; people faint in Meena Bazaar upon seeing a cricket player, plus they are soon going to start using our swimming complex for their training.”

Beauty Nahar, 100 m sprint
Doli akhter, 50 m freestyle.

The sprinters also feel the pain of insufficient facilities. Md. Abu Abdullah and Nazmun Nahar Beauty, who both run the 100-metre-dash, have only been training for the Games for the past month, whereas top athletes from other countries usually train day and night for several years in preparation for such a large-scale competition. On the other hand, both runners know that they must keep their expectations low as a result of their degree of inchoateness. Abdullah says, “I am not going for the gold or anything like that. I just want to beat my own time. For me, this is all about competing against myself. Being able to rub shoulders with the best players in the world is just an added bonus.” Beauty agrees, adding that she believes the future of Bangladeshi athletics really depends on the facilities and amount of time the athletes are given. “I feel bad when I fall behind [in a race], but I know it is because I do not practice as much. I will only improve if I am given the ability to practice more,” she claims.

Rubel Rana, 100 m backstroke

As a female athlete, Beauty, alongside Doli and Sharmin, also faces a whole other slew of difficulties since athletics is still a very male-dominated field, particularly in Bangladesh. There apparently used to be athletic teams in the national army and navy exclusively for women, but those were given second priority to male teams and were eventually cut, drastically reducing the number of athletic programmes available for women and thus, the number of female athletes. In addition, the female athletes that do exist have had to overcome several hurdles on their own. Beauty, for instance, is an orphan; she thinks her coach, Rashidul Akhter Nilon, is the closest thing she has to family. Doli likewise was plucked from her home in Rajbhari at a very young age to begin training for national competitions.

After sacrificing so much to pursue a career in their respective sports, all the athletes concur that it is very painful when they receive hardly any support from their fellow Bangladeshis. Furthermore, the reason these athletes are attending the Olympics is to represent Bangladesh at an international level, so it is a bit ironic that what they are representing could care less about their results. Rubel states, “This nation is already very poor, but it feels even poorer when I realise that no one supports what I am doing.”

On the contrary though is Olympic shooter Md. Imam Hossain, who believes Bangladesh is doing all it can to help him. According to him, he cannot expect enormous waves of support when no one knows that he is out there participating in shooting as a professional. “Bangladesh first needs facilities and publicity, and then support will follow,” he claims.

In the meantime, Hossain and Sharmin have set up base at the BKSP shooting complex in Savar to train for their shooting events with a Korean coach. They also have been training for a month, though they seem to possess a fair bit of natural talent, beginning their careers less than five years ago. Still, they are a bit intimidated about what is to come, as endowed as they may be. Hossain's shooting average is 589 out of 600, but at the Olympics there will be several athletes who shoot 600 out of 600. Therefore, like the sprinters, he knows he will not be winning gold, silver, or bronze. However, “just being with such talent is an immense honour,” he says.

So in spite of all the hardships, it seems that all of the Bangladeshi athletes are excited to have the chance to participate the Olympics. It is, after all, the ultimate accolade for a professional athlete to meet success at the Games. Therefore, as unacquainted as the typical Bangladeshi may be with these athletes and their sports, he must try to offer what little support he can come August 8 because prepared or not, these athletes are representing our Shonar Bangla to the rest of the world.

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