It’s rare to find genuine camaraderie among the country’s top two stars in any sport like the way Sharath Kamal and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, India’s most prominent paddlers, have. “We are generations apart. He still calls me anna, never Sharath. We both respect each other,” Sharath, the 37-year-old veteran, said.
That respect, as much off the table as on it, is playing a key role in helping the country’s table tennis community in these crisis times. And, in quick time.
Chennai lads Sharath and Sathiyan, along with 2008 Beijing Olympian Neha Aggarwal from Delhi, have joined forces to raise R10 lakh to financially support 100 people whose daily bread solely depends on table tennis. With the sport halted since the nationwide lockdown in March to contain the Covid-19 pandemic and with no return in sight any time soon, a number of table tennis players, coaches, support staff and umpires have had their income stalled. The initiative by the three paddlers, called ‘Our Chance to Serve’, aims to chip in for 100 such people with a direct one-time payment of R10,000 each.
To their surprise and delight, the drive has managed to raise around R6.5 lakh till Friday within just four days of its launch. The target was to raise the funds by July 25.
“We didn’t expect things to go so fast,” Sharath said from Chennai. “We have managed to raise this amount so far with no major donors; just players, ex-players and a few sports lovers coming together. People from the Indian community in the US, Dubai and other places have chipped in. Former players who are several years senior to me have come forward, while Sathiyan’s face has got in his generation of players.”
The beneficiaries, spread across the country, have been identified through the players’ trusted intermediaries, while GoSports Foundation helps with the back-end work. “We got in touch with coaches in different cities and others associated with our sport. For example in Madhya Pradesh, the association secretary himself helped us with the names, while in Kolkata we asked Soumyadeep Roy (former India player). We want to ensure we reach out to those people who are most in distress financially,” Sharath said.
It’s not the first time that Sharath and Sathiyan have lent a helping hand to fellow paddlers during the pandemic. Last month, the duo helped raise R75,000 for 10 player-turned-coaches in Tamil Nadu. Last week, when former India hockey captain Viren Rasquinha launched the ‘Lets Stick Together’ initiative to aid those in grassroots hockey, Aggarwal reached out to Sharath with the idea of doing the same for table tennis pan India. They then got the 27-year-old Sathiyan—India’s highest ranked player for quite a while before Sharath again occupied the spot in April—on board.
“In table tennis in India, having a face is important because we don’t have big corporates involved,” Sathiyan said. “So Sharath and I directly getting involved in this makes a difference, although it takes a lot of time from us. But we were ready to give that time now.”
Over the last four days, Sathiyan has spent more hours on his mobile phone than usual, getting in touch with fellow players, friends, family to not only request for help but also identify those in maximum need.
“With table tennis on the rise in India currently, we don’t want it to lose momentum just because of the crisis. If a family is run by a coach earning R30-40K per month, it would be sad to see him leave the sport due to this situation. And now that we’re in a position to help someone with their livelihood, we thought this is the time to rally for our community. The individual amount isn’t that big, but it makes them feel that they’re not fighting this alone,” Sathiyan said.