Olympics: From waterless village to rowing in Rio

OLYMPIC DREAM COME TRUE: In this photograph taken on May 2, Indian rower Dattu Bhokanal takes part in a training session at the College of Military Engineering in Pune. Dattu Bhokanal, a rower from a drought-stricken village in dusty western India where residents don't have enough to drink has achieved an improbable feat — he's qualified for the summer Olympics in Rio. (AFP)
Updated 10 May 2016

Olympics: From waterless village to rowing in Rio

PUNE, India: An Indian rower has achieved an improbable feat by qualifying for the Rio Olympics — despite coming from a drought-plagued village where there is not even enough water to drink.
Dattu Bhokanal, whose father dug wells for a living, said that when he took up rowing after joining the army he was scared, because he had never seen so much water.
But just a few years on, and with his arid ancestral home hit by severe water shortages that have affected more than 330 million, Bhokanal is dreaming of single sculls glory as India’s only Olympic rower in Rio.
“There is a huge water shortage in our village,” said Bhokanal, referring to tiny Talegaon in Nashik district, around 165 kilometers (100 miles) northeast of Mumbai.
“We used to travel long distances to get water and also stand in long queues to get our buckets filled from water tanks,” added the 24-year-old of his childhood.
Earlier this month, the government said a quarter of the India’s population, spread across 10 states, had been hit by drought after two consecutive years of weak monsoons.
Bhokanal’s tale is all the more remarkable as he couldn’t even swim when he first started rowing, and also has the pressure of his mother being seriously ill in hospital.
He joined the army in 2012, needing a way to support his family after his father died from bone cancer the previous year.
Stationed in the much lusher district of Pune, he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw a vast expanse of water where recruits practiced rowing.
At first Bhokanal was intimidated, and wondered why water was being used for sport when so many people in the farming belt were thirsty. But over time he defeated his fears.
“Eventually I got comfortable with the water and there was no looking back,” he told AFP.
Bhokanal quickly showed skill to match his impressive, lean six-foot frame and in 2014 he competed at the Asian Games in South Korea where he finished fifth.
During regional Olympic qualifying races in April in Chungju, also in South Korea, Bhokanal made the grade for the men’s single sculls in Rio de Janeiro in August.
“It feels nice that I am bearing the fruits of my hard work,” he told AFP. “But this instant stardom does not make me any different and I will not lose the focus of my goal.”
“I am still the same person looking to get an Olympic medal,” Bhokanal said, adding that his mother’s plight has only “strengthened (his) resolve.”
He also said the hardships of Indian village life can be a good breeding ground for aspiring athletes, despite the lack of water and other resources.
“I believe that people from villages tend to work harder,” Bhokanal said.
“Farming and housework activities require a lot of physical labor and that makes us tougher. City life is much more relaxed and people tend to just enjoy themselves more,” he added.
India’s chief rowing coach Ismail Baig hailed Bhokanal’s “brilliant” dedication and down-to-earth nature.
“He was new and inexperienced but he was hungry to succeed and he worked extra hard to prove himself,” he told AFP.
“Even though he’s now in the limelight he remains a simple guy who has no airs and graces,” Baig added.

Saudi Women’s Football League launched

Updated 24 February 2020

Saudi Women’s Football League launched

  • The first season of the WFL, a nationwide initiative, will be held in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam
  • League inaugurated by president of Saudi Sports for All Federation

RIYADH/DUBAI: Community sports for female athletes in the Kingdom took another giant step forward after the Saudi Sports for All Federation (SFA) inaugurated on Monday the Women’s Football League (WFL) at a launch event in Riyadh. 

It is the latest initiative led by SFA President Prince Khaled bin Al-Waleed bin Talal to promote grassroots sports activities for budding female and male athletes across Saudi Arabia.

SFA President Prince Khaled bin Al-Waleed bin Talal (L) (AN Photo/Bashir Saleh)

“The development of the WFL came about because we understood there was a need for community-level football for women,” Prince Khaled told Arab News.

“This community league is the first activation of many different community-level sports for women, and it will serve as a great model in terms of league infrastructure and inclusion metrics, contributing to Saudi Vision 2030 and the Quality of Life program.”

Fully funded by the SFA, the WFL is a nationwide community-level league for women aged 17 and above.

In its first season, it will take place in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, with more cities potentially joining in due course. 

With a prize of SR500,000 ($133,285) at stake, the WFL will consist of preliminary rounds taking place across the three cities to establish regional champions.

The winners progress to a knockout competition, the WFL Champions Cup, to determine the national champion, with the date of the final to be announced later in the season. 

Prince Khaled thanked King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, chairman of the General Sports Authority, for their “boundless support.”



The WFL “is one more major leap forward for the future of our country, our health, our youth, and our ambitions to see every athlete be recognized and nurtured to their fullest capability,” said Prince Khaled. 

Women’s football is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports, and the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup raised its profile to unprecedented levels, inspiring greater participation across the globe.

Inspiration for female footballers at the grassroots level has come from closer to home, Prince Khaled said.

“I think a big inspiration for young Saudi women to get involved in community-level football is the Saudi Greens Team,” he said, referring to the all-female team established by the SFA.

“The Saudi Greens placed second in the Global Goals World Cup last year, and this was a huge moment for young female athletes in the Kingdom.”

Prince Khaled sees the WFL as a pivotal initiative of the SFA and a major driver behind the realization of the Vision 2030 reform plan, which strives for a healthier and more active society.

SFA Managing Director Shaima Saleh Al-Husseini believes that the WFL will significantly improve the visibility of women in sports and prioritize their fitness, health and wellness.

Some of the women at the launch event. (AN Photo/Bashir Saleh)

“Empowering women comes through positive and proactive programs like the WFL that have been conceptualized to continue to have a lasting impact on health, fitness and wellbeing,” she said.

“The SFA, committed to putting women at the forefront of our mission to grow Saudi Arabia’s healthy and active community, continues to engage public and private sector stakeholders to realize this aim together.”

She said this is a qualitative shift in women’s sports in the Kingdom. Spearheaded by Sara Al-Jawini, the SFA’s director of sports development, the federation “studied all aspects of the new league, conducting continuous workshops to ensure the wider WFL infrastructure and lasting impact metrics,” Al-Husseini added. 

Some of the women at the launch event. (AN Photo/Bashir Saleh)

The SFA has ensured that the football pitches are ready for the start of the WFL in March, with all-female organizational and technical teams in place to manage the various committees working toward delivering the league.

The WFL infrastructure teams will address and complete administrative requirements, refereeing, and technical and medical issues. 

Coaching and refereeing courses are planned to further develop the country’s infrastructure for women in sports.

The SFA’s investment in the WFL includes both women’s coaching and women’s refereeing training to fully flesh out the program’s potential and maintenance. 

At a later stage, the SFA and WFL will be communicating details on additional leagues and football events, as well as festivals targeting girls aged 16 and below.

These competitions, under the banner “Beyond Football,” will focus on building a strong base for future participation at the community level, beginning with girls aged 5.