From Gold to Plastic - The tale of an orphaned sports hero!

Harsha Raj Gatty and Vineet V.V meet Geetha Bai, an award winning power lifter who has been reduced to selling plastic to make ends meet. Oh! The plight of our sports heroes!

For the second year in a row, International power lifter Geetha Bai has been denied the coveted Karnataka Rajyotsava award. The 42-year old who once represented the Indian power lifting contingent abroad and bagged gold, silver and bronze medals, both at National and State events, is now reduced to selling plastic carry-bags at the Mangalore fish market to make ends meet.

Assurances, promises, felicitation accorded by those in position of power have no meaning, she says as most of the benefits have never reached her. However, Geetha says that she was much pained by the fact that she also lost out on receiving the Karnataka Rajyothsava award, as she had pinned high hopes on it to overcome her financial difficulties. "Late September, a person claiming to be from one of the award committees confirmed that I will be receiving the award this year and even took my name and address. But then there was no news from them. Late October I was told that Sahana Kumari (High Jump) will be feted at the ceremony in Bengaluru," she said.

In a sporting spirit, Geetha says that she has no qualms that Sahana received the award. "I am happy for her and she undoubtedly deserves it. The award committee member later called me and apologized for the gaffe, but the damage was done and all I could do is advice the same official not to play such a cruel joke on anyone else. I had really hoped that the monetary gains from the award would help me provide higher education for my three nephews," she says. Following the death of her brother Harish, Geetha is the sole custodian of Kiran (18), Preetham (17), Preetu (16).

Starting-off early in high school, Geetha candidly admits that she lacked interest in studies, she was more drawn to sports like Kabbadi and Tug-of-War. It was during one such competition that she was spotted by Satish Kumar Kudroli who persuaded her to join weight lifting and later on also became her weightlifting coach. Eventually, Geetha stuck to the sport and till date lays claim to over 200 medals and has created 425 unbeaten records in powerlifting.

However, Geetha says the state government's apathy for the sportspersons is disheartening. Although, several authorities have promised her financial rewards, government jobs, facilities, housing and so on; those have merely remained as promises and nothing so far has materialised. "Other states look after their players well, some of the players whom I know have received government jobs in railways, and the postal department under the sports quota. But here, there is no one I can look-up to for providing mea job," Geetha says.

During the tenure of former Deputy Commissioner Dr K G Jagadish, Geetha was highly optimistic of bagging a government job as a weightlifting coach at Mangala stadium, but her disappointment was palpable when she realised that her appointment was merely on a contract basis for one year. "At this stage I cannot live under uncertainty. If I had agreed to the bond, one year down the line I would have lost the job there and my shop here and end up losing the only source of income I have. How can I let that happen?" she asks.

In fact in 2000, when Geetha represented India's weightlifting contingent at Finland and secured the 4th position, her late parents Panduranga Prabhu and Sumathi Bai had pledged all the family jewellery to raise a sum of Rs. 1.20 lakhs to send her to the event. "The sports authorities had then assured that they will refund the amount, however, their promise was a farce and they never reimbursed the amount, till date the jewellery is in the bank’s possession," she says.

Since then, for the past 16 years, Geetha says although her name has been repeatedly nominated for similar international events, she has turned down all the offers. "Here, once again they ask me to bear the expense first and then they will reimburse. How can they expect me to believe them?" she adds.

On her own, Geetha says, she has not been able to raise funds nor find sponsors, therefore she continues to pursue her passion only at the state level. However, the odds have not deterred Geetha from pursuing her passion for the sport as every morning at daybreak she hurriedly changes three buses from Thokottu to reach Mangala stadium sports complex to practice weightlifting before the crowd steps in. "I workout for my own personal satisfaction, and I will continue undeterred by whether anyone recognizes me or not," she says.

At about 9am, the veteran weightlifter is again seen rushing to her makeshift shop that sells plastic carry-bags at the fish market near the State-bank bus stop. Pegged at a cost of Rs.3 to Rs.15, Geetha who has informally inherited the occupation from her mother says she is able to make roughly about Rs. 300 to Rs.500 per day to feed herself and her nephews. "The amount I make daily is enough for a hand to mouth existence. But what can I offer the children without saving or investment on their higher education? Even they might end-up like me with an uncertain future," she says.

For her present sustenance, Geetha greatly reveres the fisher folks and her customers in the local market who knowing her background try to support her by insisting customers to purchase plastic carry bags only from her shop. Former government employee SS Kamath who is one such customer says, “Geetha's case is a study to understand the height of politicisation and maladministration of sports. By any parameter Geetha is a deserving candidate for kind of government support or scheme. However, despite repeated representation, the government is pretending to act deaf. If not a government job, they can at least give these athletes priority while allotting milk parlours or booths, just so that they can live respectably," he says.

Geetha Bai who has already been feted with Kittur Rani Chennamma award, ‘Veerarani Abbakka Prashasti’ and District Rajyotsava award in the past few years, has recently cleared her Bachelors in Commerce (BCom) with 66 percent from Janardan Rai Nagar Rajasthan Vidyapeeth University, Rajasthan, through a distance education program. "I am determined to get a government job now that I have my graduation under my belt. However, if my institute feels that I can go further, I may also take up higher education," she says. But given a choice, Geetha says she is ready to lift.

Additional inputs by Liza Sinojia and Amal S Babu

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