The death of George Floyd in the city of Minneapolis, USA, led to a wave of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in the country last month. The protests ignited a response from the sporting world as well with many big names including LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, etc lending support to the anti-racism movement. ‘Black Lives Matter’ slogan was featured on jerseys of Premier League footballers, and star players such as Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City) and Marcus Rashford (Manchester United) signalled support by bending the knee during their respective games.
India’s national record holder in high jump Tejaswin Shankar, who is pursuing accounting and finance at the Kansas State University, USA, on an athletics scholarship, witnessed first hand the protests that have rocked the country.
While the demonstrations in Kansas city were not as large-scale as in some other parts of the USA, Shankar says that the protests have led to many think and speak about the issue of racism, and realise the importance of the issue. He also thinks that the athletes, and other prominent members of the society who have a say, should speak about the issues they feel strongly about.
Q) You have been in Kansas amid the Covid-19 crisis. How did you keep yourself motivated and positive amid the crisis, away from family?
The one thing that has always kept me motivated here is the fact that I was able to train. If I wasn’t able to train then none of these things would’ve mattered. The lockdown here was not as strict as in India so I was able to carry on with the training. Though I wasn’t able to high jump because I didn’t have access to the training field but I was able to lift, modify my training. I was able to get out of my house that was the most important part for me and every day I was just looking forward to the training the next day.
My semester got done in May and after that, I have some time off and now summer classes have started up again, so I think that is also another thing we underestimate the studies and education, even if we don’t look at it as something that helps it can be seen as a distraction. This way academics has also helped me distract myself from all the things that are happening around and just get into a routine.
Generally, the problem we face is when we are out of the routine, things become easy for you. Quarantine has completely changed my routine but then the new routine I found is a lot easier for me and I am able to carry myself and be motivated.
Q) How has your training been going?
In terms of preparation I mean there’s a lot of uncertainty about everything in sports. Generally, when your training has a plan like a general prep phase where you work on physicality and improve your endurance strength and then you do special prep where you work on the technical aspect. You start running around in circles, curve runs, and so on for the high jumps. When you are in the actual competition phase, you do jump practice and at this point, there is no phase as you don’t know when there will be a competition and that’s how you base your training off.
So it is hard at certain points for me to find the motivation to train but at the same time if ill stop training now then it will become harder to come back in shape that is why I am still training. It is really a tough phase. We are also uncertain about the Olympics even though it is confirmed that it will happen in July 2021 but I have my eyes set on what is coming up next and training to be prepared.
Q) As you mentioned, it is a period of uncertainty, but with the Olympics postponed, what are your plans on Tokyo qualification?
Yes, the postponement didn’t affect me because I was not qualified in the games and by the time I will be one year older and probably more mature. I will have more time to train under my belt. I should be more ready ideally and I think I will be a lot more ready than I was this year.
I was really confident this year if the Olympic had happened I would’ve really jumped higher but then this coronavirus outbreak brought everything on halt. I do not hope about anything at this point but I know one thing that I have to be flexible and keep training and prepare myself and not to worry about the outcome and be confident enough.
Q) In the past few weeks there has been a lot of unrest in the USA, with Black Lives Matter protests and racism. Tell us some of the things that you have seen happening around you and how is the current atmosphere in Kansas?
After the George Floyd incident, that was the tip of the iceberg, there has been a lot of unrest. The whole country united and then everybody stood up against racism and all these practices that are going on for so long. There were some other protests as well that were going around in Manhattan, Kansas, and maybe not big, I mean those protests didn’t turn violent. Denver and other places had violent protests, buses were set on fire. It wasn’t that bad here.
The cause is really very important that is why those protests really mattered cause we are talking about human rights here. I feel these things should be just dialed into everybody because it is basic human rights but the fact that we are having to talk about these things and about the community that their lives matters is just ridiculous because of course everybody’s life matters and if this is what we have come down to then I really don’t know what progress we are talking about in the 21st century.
Q) As an Indian living in the USA – do you think racism exists? Have you personally experienced some instances of racial jibes, comments, or bias?
Honestly, to be fair I have never faced any of these comments or jibes but at the same time, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand up for someone else who is facing all those things. For me, it has always been important to stand up for others who are going through such torture.
I think such matters are real or else people would’ve not been protesting or sleeping on the roads and not eating. It is a legitimate movement and as an Indian, I think we just overlook the fact and feel it is a black or white thing but at the same time, we don’t realise that racism has different faces.
Q) A lot of sports stars have also come out talking about racism in sports. Do you feel there is a need to talk about racism in sports circles?
I think it is important, I don’t say an athlete should come out and talk about everything that they don’t know about. An athlete is asked about everything in society, politics, science.
I think an athlete should definitely come up and talk on serious issues and one that affects them. Before being an athlete, they are normal human beings, and especially this is a matter of civil rights. If someone is discriminating against you based on the fact that you are black, they should talk about it. Even Lebron James is talking about it because it is affecting him personally so it doesn’t make any difference whether he is an athlete or not.
Well- known figures and athletes who are capable of making difference should definitely stand out other than doing endorsements. I see Rani Rampal, Vinesh Phogat, they are taking a stand on some issues which they think are incorrect. I think more athletes like them should come out and talk about these things and contribute positivity to society.
Q) How can we change perceptions and mindset of people and educate people on this?
I think the one thing we should be doing is stop disrespecting the other person and start believing that they deserve the same respect. As we respect every individual we will eventually stop worrying about their ethnicity. I think that would be the driving force that could change everything for good.