He fights for the country, but his struggles are his own

Though the profile of sports is rising in all parts of the country and athletes who bring home medals for the country are being feted, their success does not mean the end of financial problems. A case in point is that of Akshay Bhooshnam, karate champion

MOMENT OF TRIUMPH: Akshay Bhooshnam after winning the silver and bronze medals at CWG 2022

One would think that any athlete who brings glory to the country is praised and lavished with love. The truth, however, is not so rosy. Many different sports and sportsmen have achieved remarkable strides while serving our country but have not received the honours or respect that they deserve from authorities and audiences.

Akshay Mahara Bhooshnam, originally from Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, is one such story. At the age of 21, he represented India in karate at the recently concluded Commonwealth Games and brought home a bronze medal in the group category and silver medal in the individual category.

Even after winning a medal for India at the Commonwealth Karate Championship, Akshay was not greeted with flowers or showered with offers and grants, like other athletes. But that has not been the case.

For the last two years, Akshay’s father Mahara Bhooshnam, a man in his late fifties, has been working hard to acquire sponsorship for his son’s travel expenses. However, he has not been successful and had to dip into his own wallet, at times even having to apply for loans to ensure that his son’s dream might take flight.

The young athlete is not only competing in important karate competitions, he is also pursuing an MBA at Delhi University’s Shri Ram College of Commerce. Akshay shares his experiences – good, bad and ugly – with Patriot.

Instant attraction

At first glance, karate seems an unusual choice at a time when cricket and football are the rage. Asked about this, he replies, “The fact that I loved the sport more than anything else helped me a lot in my journey. I was an average student who had no liking for any other sport, but when I started playing karate, I felt alive. I knew this is the field that I belong to that drive and passion for the game remained unmatched to any other feeling in my life.”

“It all started 12 years ago when I used to train on the playgrounds of my neighbourhood for roughly four years. I trained there before moving to Shihan Bharat Sharma’s Karate Academy.”

Despite his dogged perseverance, he lost most of his matches at first, but never gave up because he wanted to achieve great things in this sport and believed that if he worked hard enough, he would triumph one day.

He was self-confessedly too young and very poor at karate when he first started. “Even though I loved the sport, I was terrible at it, and losing consecutive matches at such a young age should have made it easy for me to give up,” he says ruefully. “But somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that I had to keep trying and somehow, I made it to the state-level championship. It was there that I realised that no matter what I was doing, it just wasn’t enough. I was defeated in the very first round, but that competition can be credited for the wins that came my way in the future.”

Isn’t it disheartening that his father still needs to hunt for funds after he brought home a medal for his country? “It seems extremely horrible, particularly after witnessing my parents work so hard,” is his honest answer. “Whatever success I’ve had is due to their encouragement and the fact that I’ve won every tournament in our nation.”

He adds, “I’m going to represent the country, and sometimes there’s no money, so it hurts a lot. In Asian nations, a tournament normally costs approximately Rs 1.5 lakh. When travelling to European nations, the expenses rise, and generating that amount of money for every competition in a middle-class household becomes difficult – although I’m grateful for the assistance that the government does provide.”

There’s more to financial stringency than meets the eye. “There’s an additional pressure that if I don’t win, all the money that my parents have spent will be lost. There have been instances where I had to tell my parents that I lost, but didn’t have the courage to do so.”

Akshay also acknowledges the fact that it’s not possible to win every match or competition as an athlete, but his parents are literally paying for every competition.

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Managing injuries

Then there are the medical expenses. Because karate is a rough sport, there are a lot of injuries, and it’s a regular aspect of the game, but thankfully there are hospitals dedicated to sports injuries, which is a huge help. To compete at the world level, you need sophisticated healthcare facilities, which is costly.

So what kind of injuries has he suffered? During his travels, he admits, “I’ve had my fair share of injuries. I’ve had a ligament tear in my ankle, fractures in my hand, and a couple of broken backs here and there, but the most difficult part is rehabilitation. You need a physiotherapist, and physiotherapy is something that my parents and I have to consider seriously about approaching.” A trainer and a dietician are also required, which isn’t possible most of the time.

Since he is at present pursuing a Master’s degree, the young athlete, like others of his tribe, needs to get up at 5 am for training. After that, he has to go to college, and juggling all the pressures is taxing. The attendance criteria must be met in order to sit for exams, and there are always some extra-curricular activities or assignments that take up the majority of his time, while training lags behind.

However, the thing that creates a lot of problems is the injuries that he suffers. “They require me to rest accordingly, which is something that I don’t have the liberty of doing.”

GRAND STAND: Medal ceremony of the Senior 84 kg Kumite category

Neglected sport

However, this raises the question of whether the popularity of a few games, such as cricket and football is overshadowing many other sports. It is well known that the cricket board receives large sums of money and privileges while other athletes are denied even a proper sendoff or stay, as was the case in 2011. India’s women’s kabaddi team, who won the World Cup in 2011, had to take auto-rickshaws from the airport to their home.

However, karate does tend to have a huge following and a large potential. According to Bhooshnam, who has been part of major championships, “There are a lot of karate players who are making our country proud and talking about the popularity of the sport.” He tells Patriot that karate has a large following as a sport, especially among youngsters, but there is a certain lack of opportunity as well that has resulted in the game’s not being a household sport.

Akshay concludes the conversation by stating that he and his team-mates are performing vigorously in the hope that one day they will achieve a feat big enough to get worldwide recognition for the sport. Akshay continued to smile throughout the interview and his never-say-die attitude was visible through his words.

Akshay will now be participating in WKF Karate1 Series A in Jakarta, Indonesia and the 6th Cadet Junior, U21, and Senior South Asian Karate Championship at Colombo, Sri Lanka in November.

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