November 23, 2001

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The Rediff Interview / Rajeev Bagga

'The game never allowed me to catch up with the books'

Who should be the sportsperson of the century? There will be many contenders and numerous debates over who is the best... and why. However, when it came to select the 'Sportsman of the Century for the Deaf', the vote was unanimous: our own Rajeev Bagga.

Bagga did India proud when he was selected as the 'Deaflympian of the Century' by the Committee International des Sports des Sourds' (CISS), also known as International Deaflympic Committee. Laurels are not new to the genial athlete, who's been at the helm of the Indian badminton scene for over a decade, winning prestigious events individually, as well as helping the country reach greater heights. He is the only deaf player to have won the Indian National Championship twice - in 1992 and '93 respectively.

Rajeev Bagga An Arjuna award winner in 1993, the 34-year-old Mumbaite has been consistency personified when it comes to winning gold medals, having fetched a total of 12 golds in the four Deaf Olympic Games respectively in 1989 (New Zealand), 1993 (Bulgaria), 1997 (Denmark) and recently the 2001 Deaf Games in Italy.

Born deaf, Rajeev was lucky to have a sports-loving family, with almost all his folks having played sport at some level. Also, his father being in the army served well for him, as the virtues of camaraderie, giving a helping hand, fighting spirit and killer instinct, to name a few, have been reflected in his personality during his illustrious career.

"He is dedicated, always focussed on the court and has shown tremendous sportsman’s spirit time and again,” says Brigadier S R Bagga, Rajeev’s father. “Many times, against senior players during national level games, when Rajeev was on the verge of winning matches, and the chair umpire gave a wrong line call, which actually was in Rajeev’s favour, he didn’t get upset, but accepted the umpire’s decision, only to bounce back and win the match.”

That the father has been a major force behind his success can be seen from the fact Bagga Senior is as involved as Rajeev himself.

Curious to know more about how this gifted sportsperson fought off his impairment in his struggle to the top, Nagraj Gollapudi caught up with the great player. Excerpts:

How does it feel to be the Deaflympian of the Century?

Just great! This is an honour for the country and so I feel very proud.

What does this rare honour mean to you and the other impaired sports persons? Also, is there anyone you would like to dedicate this award to?

It gives me great pride to be the sportsman of the century for the Deaf. From the messages being received, I am sure other impaired persons are indeed inspired and sharing the pride for the country. I have no doubt that we will have more participation in the game. I want to dedicate this award to late Shri S.K Sinha, who was the live wire in the All-India Sports Council for the Deaf, and was responsible for inclusion of badminton in the sports for the deaf. I have already written to the general secretary to have my proposal accepted by their managing committee.

How has your family helped you through your struggle to the top?

All my family members have indeed been a source of inspiration. But my mother's contribution stands out the most.

Take us back to the time when you just started hitting the 'bird'?

Bagga in his early days Looking back, I used to play all racket games - table tennis, tennis, badminton and squash. In most of these sports, I started taking part in local tournaments, and slowly raised the level into higher competition. My initial success came in the game of squash when I won the Western India title and the National title, in the sub-junior category in 1981, when I was 13 years old. But I decided to leave squash, to shift to a game where my eyesight would be more effective than hearing. Though I did play tennis at the state level, I finally decided to take up badminton because I used to enjoy the games.

One of the important reasons why I would excel at sport was that it runs in my blood. My father was a fairly good sportsperson; mother a state level player, sister was university champion and brother an all-rounder, who took part at the National level in squash, sailing and karate. He defeated me in the final of a badminton tournament organized for the Rajeev Trophy, instituted by my father in 1981, at the Pune Military Engineering College (CME).

In the beginning, how did you feel while playing against the non-deaf? How difficult is it for an impaired person to compete in the big league?

In India, we do not have exclusive clubs for the hearing impaired. Even the discipline of badminton was included in the sports for the deaf only in 1988. So I played all the games with hearing persons. I got used to playing with normal people, although in the beginning there were some difficulties I faced, like I could not hear the score, or shout of the partner in the double games, or shout of the umpire or the linesman. During the coaching/training camps the lectures and instructions of the coach just went over my shoulders. I learnt more by watching top players or through personal attention by the coach, and a lot while playing in tandem with the country’s top doubles players like Leroy D’Sa, Sanjay Sharma and Uday Pawar. I even partnered the great Prakash Padukone once in Abu Dhabi.

Can you think of any anecdotes or strange happenings on and off the court which happened with you?

For the game of the deaf visual scoring system is a must, and exaggerated signs of the linesman and instructions in sign language are the basic features. Once, during my match (sub-junior state level) it was announced and a walkover given, but I was still present on the court. Over the years, as I graduated to the national level, strange things were still happening with me on court. At a national level match (don’t remember which one), with mental counting of the score, I crossed over to the other side, thinking the game was over, only to be reminded by the surprised umpire that the score was 13 and not 15.

Then during a television interview at Malmo in Sweden, where I had gone to take part in the Swedish Open, I was asked, 'Why do you play with hearing persons?' I replied, "I am a sportsman and will play with any sportsperson, may he or she be hearing or not."

You played in the big league and were the at the top of Indian badminton in the early nineties. Talk us through your highs and lows, on both the international and national stage?

After squash, I shifted to badminton when I was still 13 years old. From sub-junior through junior to senior and then the national title, it was indeed a great struggle. A few things that come to the mind are: a) Junior Nationals at Kota 1984: On account of the assassination of the then prime minister Smt. Indira Gandhi, the remaining matches were curtailed to one game of 21 and had to be completed in one day. I was taking part in three events; singles, doubles and mixed doubles. My match in one or the other event was being announced every half hour. I was getting tired as I progressed to the quarter-final and semi-final stages. I was advised to give a walkover in doubles and mixed doubles, to concentrate on the singles title. As a sportsman, I refused to sacrifice my partners, (they had come only for the paired events) for the sake of the singles title. This gesture was well-appreciated, but, unfortunately, I lost in all the finals.

b) Badminton versus studies: Just graduating to senior level, I could not cope up with both, playing the competitive game and my studies for the board examinations. After discussing with my family, I decided to leave the books aside for six months, which would enable me to do well at the senior level. And I did! Five consecutive senior state level titles, leading on to an important victory in my life at the Nationals, during 1987. But since then the game never allowed me to catch up with the books.

c) International level: My first outing was in 1985, where as a junior I played against Waranata of Indonesia in the semi-finals. Incidentally, he, with an average of 100 matches per year, reached the top in the world and, I, with not more than five to six outings per year, reached a maximum world ranking of 36 in 1992. Since 1985, I never looked back and was a regular member of the Indian team in all prestigious events - ABC, Thomas Cup, Commonwealth Games or the World Championships. I consider my best match to be the third round qualification tie in the All-England Championships, against the then seasoned Korean Ahen Chang in 1990. I just about managed to scrape through in the third game to become the first deaf player to make the finals in the 80-year history of the championships.

Rajeev with his Idol Without doubt, Prakash Padukone has been my idol. Besides being a great player, he is a good person, modest and generous. I loved to play opposite him because it used to be a game of learning. As for the financial support, I had been lucky because my employer, Hindustan Petroleum Corp. Ltd., which always supported me.

What's been the Badminton Association of India's support to you?

The BAI, with its limitations, did provide me due support and I had been a member of almost all the teams. However, there was some controversy about my participation in the World Deaf Games in Bulgaria in 1993, and the selection for the World Cup, held in India in the same year. At that time the media had said a lot about the issue. It is not proper for me to say anything further. Let me add that the BAI at present is much better geared to look after the players’ needs.

Since your can be called a veteran (we know you are still young ) of Indian badminton, what should be done so that our country can make an impact in the big events, like the Thomas and Uber Cups and the All-England Championships?

India’s inability in the past to make a mark in the big events seems to have been well-analyzed and corrective measures taken. The administrators should provide proper team management, appoint international players as coaches, and even provide personal coaches and physiotherapists in addition to giving more exposure to players, which goes without saying. A player should not be left alone to fend for himself/herself. Other aspects that may be looked into are to gear up the required motivation, psychological needs of individual players and create specialist double combinations.

Since you have been part of many an Indian doubles combination why cannot we perform well in the paired events. Any particular reason?

Where are the fixed paired combinations at the lower level to throw up serious combinations at the senior level? I have played with different partners (Sanjay Sharma, Leroy D’Sa, Uday Pawar, Vinod Kumar) both at national and international level and also mixed doubles with different partners. We used to have partners of convenience. But I understand that remedial actions have been taken. With more incentive and proper motivation, and, of course, proper coaching, we should do well in paired events in the future.

What do you think about the current crop of youngsters on the national badminton scene?

Basically, all the players at the top are good material to go far; of course, given the right motivation, personal coaches and attention to individual psychological aspects, they can do a much better job.

If you are appointed the coach of India how can you bring about a change?

Indeed, a difficult question, and at the same time a bit vague. In India, it is the federation that activates the policies. The coach can do his best within his limits. As mentioned earlier, I would like top players to have personal coaches, and a physiotherapist to marry up with players from the training stage. I feel a top player should aim at practicing one or two aspects in different training games. Each time play the practice game with a specific purpose.

What are your plans for the future?

I have not yet retired from the active game; just finished playing the state championships. But I would like to give back to the game in any capacity possible. I may take part as a veteran as and when time comes. As regards my deaf fraternity, I will keep on playing for them and, at the same time, try and provide a base for deaf players who would ensure India’s hold on the game at the World Games for the Deaf.

What is your advice to the youngsters of Indian badminton, especially the impaired ones?

My advice to all players is to never refuse a game to your junior players; there is always something to learn from weaker players also. Always set a purpose before starting a practice game. For deaf players, we have to provide facilities for their training. However, having said that, they should make use of the facilities at hand. And, of course, try to take part in tournaments, where they can compete with normal players.

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