India’s international sporting stars flex their muscles on family farms

Poonam Rani Malik, 28, has played over 200 international matches for the Indian hockey team; she was the forward of choice at the Rio Olympics. Like most of her teammates—in fact, like most elite athletes in India—Malik comes from a farming family. Yet, Malik, who was born and raised in a village called Umra in Hisar, Haryana, had never been a part her family’s most anticipated task—the harvesting—till now. This time, because of the lockdown, Malik finds herself at home in Umra for the harvest season. Add to that an acute shortage of farm labour, and Malik is spending hours every day with a sickle in her hand, going through golden wheat fields with her brother and her parents.

“This is the first time I have contributed in harvesting,” Malik said. “I have grown up in the village but because of sports commitments I was never here during the harvesting season. Farmers in most of villages have avoided calling unknown farm labour and most of the known ones have gone back to their respective states. So, to make up for the absence of farm labour, I joined the harvest.” Malik had captained Haryana to the gold after a gap of seven years in the national championship in February, just before the lockdown hit.

Many other Olympians find themselves in the same situation. The world’s No.1 flyweight boxer, Amit Panghal, is putting his explosive strength to good use, helping load trucks with the wheat produced in his family’s farm—a bit of a light break from his frenzied daily workouts (check those out on his twitter feed!).

Boxer Amit Panghal while staking wheat in the gunny sacks

Two-time Olympian boxer Manoj Kumar, 33, and Rio Para Olympian Rinku Hooda are down at the fields as well.

Though the Malik family hired a combine harvester, they could only finish harvesting half of their two acres of wheat before rain felled the standing stalks. The machine could not be used any more, and out went Malik and her family to do the rest by hand.

Working in two sessions, morning and evening, it took four days for the four members of the Malik family to harvest wheat in one acre of land.

“In those four days I got good experience of how to handle a sickle,” said Malik.

After harvesting, the next step will be threshing (separating the heads from the stalks) and then winnowing (separating the grain from the chaff).

This is only the second time since 1999, when he became a part of the national team, that boxer Manoj Kumar is at his village Rajound in Kaithal, Haryana, during the harvest season.

“I have been watching the elders doing harvesting since I was a child,” Kumar said. “Back then, I used to accompany my father and uncle to the farms just for fun. This time, I am actually cutting the crop.”

Boxer Manoj Kumar harvesting

Boxer Manoj Kumar harvesting

In Haryana, farming and sports go hand in hand. There is a widespread belief that there is a strong connection between toiling in the fields and sporting prowess. The 24-year-old Panghal, who became the first Indian male boxer to win a silver at the world championships in 2019, seems to be the living embodiment of that belief. His family owns an acre and a half of land in the village of Mayna in Rohtak, Haryana.

“I always support my family in whichever way I can,” Panghal said. “Due to my boxing commitments I am usually out of station during harvesting time. But because of lockdown I am in the village this time so I got a chance to join the family in harvesting and packing the wheat for the grain market. Being a farmer’s son, it gives me immense satisfaction.”

Panghal is seen as one of India’s brightest prospects for an Olympic medal.

Para-athlete Rinku Hooda, 20, who was the youngest Indian para-athlete in the 2016 Rio Games and won bronze in javelin at the 2018 Para-Asian Games, is also a part of the harvest this season at his village in Dhamar in Rohtak, Haryana.

“My duty is with the combine harvesting machine,” Hooda said. “We have nine acres of land and have already done mechanized harvesting in half of our land. We will be doing the other half starting tomorrow, and hope there is no rain. Once the harvesting is over, I will also help in stocking the wheat in gunny sacks. There is hardly any farm labour in our village.”

Hooda lost his left arm in an accident when he was a young boy—at the 2017 world para championships in London, he finished fourth.

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