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Vol. XXIX No. 14, November 1-15, 2019

From Madras to Chennai: The sporting metamorphosis

by Partab Ramchand

Today’s generation of sports fans in Chennai who are used to the sumptuous fare at several international competitions held at regular intervals in the city may not be aware that, for a long time, Madras remained a back bencher when it came to conducting important sports events. Lack of infrastructure and facilities meant that while Bombay, Calcutta and New Delhi got to host major sporting meets, Madras remained nowhere in the picture. Not only that, it meant that Madras was losing out to smaller cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad. All that Madras had was a dilapidated Nehru Stadium in Park Town and a couple of inadequate indoor facilities. Events like the Nehru Gold Cup football tournament, the World Cup hockey tournament, the Masters badminton tournament and the World table tennis championship always bypassed Madras, which had to be content with hosting a leg of the Satellite tennis tournament at the worn-out Egmore stadium, or the National football championship at the archaic Nehru stadium.

A start for the better was made with the conduct of the Nehru Gold Cup football tournament at the newly built Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in January 1993. The new facility, the dream child of the then Tamil Nadu Football Association secretary C.R. Viswanathan, was truly of international standards. A senior journalist colleague of mine, who had covered football all over the world and had even seen the famous Maracana stadium in Brazil, came to Madras to cover the Nehru Cup tournament and was dumbstruck at the stadium facilities. He reckoned that this had to be the best stadium in the country. And over the years, with the successful conduct of international football and athletics competitions, Nehru stadium has retained its status as among the best in the country.
But there is little doubt that it was the conduct of the South Asian Federation Games in Madras in December 1995 that marked a turning point in the sporting ethos of the southern metropolis. The Olympic Games will never be held in the city and there’s very little chance of the Asian Games being organised here; for us Chennai sports lovers, the SAF Games will continue to be the high point of sports organisation in the city, which has a rich sporting tradition.

The impressive Nehru stadium was host to the opening and closing ceremonies and the other stadia built for the SAF Games were no less breathtaking. Through 1994 and 1995, the city acquired several more stadia, all in keeping with the highest international standards. The Egmore stadium underwent a metamorphosis – a new astro turf was laid, bigger stands were built and the venue was fit not only to host the prestigious hockey event of the SAF Games but also the Champions Cup hockey tournament the next year. A new indoor stadium came up close to the Nehru stadium, again conforming to international standards – this is now the venue of various volleyball, basketball, badminton and table tennis events. The Nungambakkam stadium, which hosted the tennis event of the SAF Games, was the regular venue of the only ATP Tour event in South Asia before it was shifted to Pune. The swimming complex at Velacheri is a superb facility and almost any international level aquatic meet can be held there.

It was feared at the conclusion of the SAF Games that the stadia would be white elephants. It was emphasised that the facilities should not only be maintained, but also used on a regular basis if the successful conduct of the games was to have a long term impact on the popularity of sports in the state. Fortunately, important events have been conducted now and then, and that is a good augury. But there is little doubt that more competitions have to be staged if the various stadia are to fulfil their purpose, while proper maintenance of the facilities and equipment updation is also a must. 

LATNEHRUSTADIUM

Today, the city can boast of ready facilities to host almost any international sporting event at short notice. There is little doubt that the smooth organisation of the SAF Games did much to enrich the already firm sporting ethos in the state. And a few years ago, a superb, international-standard squash facility was established, thanks to the initiative taken by N. Ramachandran, a former IOA president and former president of the World Squash Federation. This can only embellish the rich sporting traditions that Madras has always been famous for. Ultimately, of course, the main credit for all the world-class sporting facilities that the city enjoys should go to

J. Jayalalithaa, who was the Chief Minister when the SAF Games were conducted. It was her foresight and dynamism that has transformed Chennai from a sleepy, backward sporting venue into a truly international sporting city.

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