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The Rural Olympians

26 September 2016

Every year, in a small village in the northwest corner of India, there’s a sporting event so obscure and unusual that it can occasionally appear more myth than reality. But the Kila Raipur Olympics is very real and the competition is fierce

The ‘other’ Olympics

People have heard of the Games in much of India… they’re just not exactly sure when or where it takes place. Thankfully the clouds of intrigue ease every February, and the (very real) Kila Raipur Rural Olympics begins.

The village of Kila Raipur is a gentle bus ride away from the nearest city of Ludhiana. The journey involves an hour spent winding through the Punjab countryside, passing small farms, women working the fields clad in iridescent saris, and old men gathered together holding court in village squares.

Inside the bus there’s a hum of excitement. For many making the journey it’s their first time to the rural Olympics and they’ve travelled, not just from all over India, but from Europe to see the spectacle: the myth of Kila Raipur reaches far and wide.

Now in its 80th year and having survived a world war, military incursions and the violent division of the country’s borders, the event helps maintain and honour the rural traditions of India’s Punjab region.

The Games

Nomadic gypsies called Bazigars flock to Kila Raipur from northern India. Bedecked in their vivid and vital national dress, they make a living performing and entertaining rural audiences with acrobatic skills, circus tricks and incredible feats of strength. It sets down a marker as the Games quickly adopt the feel of a Guinness World Records convention, packed with people lining up to take their moment in the spotlight. As the events begin proper, each contestant attempts to outdo the one gone before, all played out to a rapidly escalating attitude towards danger.

A sweaty mix of chaos and exhilaration, the atmosphere in the stadium is rarely less than involved. It’s a rowdy crowd that cheers the successes, exhales in unison with the failures and collectively winces at the painful displays of bravery – there are many.

A man tows a car with his teeth; another reads a newspaper while sitting sideways on a motorbike that zips around the stadium. One contestant balances a five-metre pole on his chin with a pushbike perched on top. He then sets the bike on fire and rides it. The most fantastically bizarre spectacle of all, however, is left to world record holder Rakesh Kumar, who effortlessly hoists 82kg with his ear. He then goes one better by lifting a 40kg weight with his eye. It’s a good day.

The Controversy

The Games are not without controversy, and while bullock cart racing is an ancient tradition in India – especially favoured in rural communities – Indian courts have recently outlawed the sport as inhumane. It’s an unpopular ruling in Punjab, and a final day protest sees local breeders herd their prize bullocks into the middle of the arena. The crowd, for whom the racing is often the high point, show their solidarity by joining them in their thousands.

As it was, the 2016 Games saw bullocks replaced by horses and, to the outsider at least, offered no less excitement. Riders bolt their horses down the narrow track at incredible speeds as the rickety carts that follow appear permanently on the verge of collapse. The riders, minus any safety equipment, cling on for dear life and there’s zero barrier between spectator and competitor. It’s not a problem though. When a horse and cart occasionally careens straight at the crowd, they simply part and make a path for the speeding madness.

The greyhound racing also has a rather unnerving edge to it, as fierce and desperately howling dogs are released by their owners to tear off after a fake rabbit previously wound by someone with a winch at the other end of the stadium.

Thankfully, not all of the animal displays are so full-paced. The Games also feature remarkable displays of horsemanship, as well as surprisingly graceful camels, decorated in intricately woven fabric and weaving their way through the crowds to the sound of traditional folk drumming.

The Nihang

Some of the most impressive performers are the Nihang, a Sikh order known historically for their courage and bravery on the battlefield. Dressed in electric blue, wearing turbans, bracelets and armed with spears and swords, they take to the arena with the air of timeless warriors. The highlight is their performance of gatka, a centuries old martial art used by Sikhs for combat training. Each participant chooses a weapon and performs a dance that displays strength and formidable skills.

The Nihang are also remarkable horsemen, which is demonstrated by a fearless rider stood astride two horses mid-gallop. Finally, a daring game of skill and precision sees them race their horses and spear at wooden pegs with unnerving accuracy. The performance is a point of pride for the largely Sikh population of Punjab.

The Track

Aside from the more eccentric elements that make the headlines at the rural Olympics, much time and respect is given to typical track and field events, such as the sprint, long and high jumps, shot put, tug of war and even a highly subscribed octogenarian race. India’s most successful national sport at the Summer Games is hockey, with many Punjabi players going on to play for their national team.

Another sport that receives a lot of attention at the Games is kabbadi. A contact sport that originated in India, it takes the form of a group wrestling match between two teams and is derived from a defensive tactic between warring tribes.

The Wait

After the event, the village goes back to its humdrum farming life. It’s hard to imagine hundreds of thousands of people thronging through its streets and fields. at this point. As the excitement of the festivities dies down, there’s a sense that the area is immediately waiting for those three days in February again, where the village once again honours the Olympic spirit. When the international focus arrives, when the sons of the villagers return from busy lives abroad, and when this little village transforms from a dusty hinterland to a destination fit for the international stage.