Guwahati, Feb. 9: After years of preparation, months of tension over an Ulfa-announced ban and an agonising weeklong wait for the skies to clear, everything fell into place today for the 33rd National Games to begin in quite a spectacular fashion.
The packed Indira Gandhi Athletics Stadium at Sarusajai, on the outskirts of the Assam capital, erupted in a riot of colours as schoolchildren, artistes, athletes, players and officials trooped in for the grand opening ceremony. And who better than Bhupen Hazarika to kick off what will be a celebration of human endeavour in sport over the next 10 days'
The lyricist-singer-composer may not have been there in person, but the song he wrote for the ceremony set the tone in more ways than one.
“Bissinotabad aamaar kamyo nohoi…(we do not desire separatism),” sang a group of accomplished singers, led by Khagen Mahanta.
It was as much a message to those who had tried to hijack the National Games as it was a salute to the unifying power of sport.
“These Games send the message of peace, message of unity and message of goodwill. With these few words, I declare the 33rd National Games open,” said Congress president Sonia Gandhi, resplendent in Assamese attire.
Sonia’s presence as the chief guest of the opening ceremony was a departure from tradition. The Indian Olympic Association’s charter mentions that only the Prime Minister and the President are entitled to declare the National Games open.
Sonia, who interacted with women affected by violence at a rally earlier in the day, admitted to have been bowled over by the “impressive” opening ceremony and lauded the state government and everyone else who made it all possible. “These Games could be the stepping stone for bigger things and the players and organisers should make the most of it,” she said.
Although neither she nor the other speakers directly mentioned Ulfa — the outfit retracted its threat to disrupt the event only on Monday — everyone spoke of the “difficulties” that the government had faced in organising the National Games.
Chief minister Tarun Gogoi, whose smile was certainly the widest in the stadium, said Assam deserved every bit of the praise that was coming its way for hosting the “biggest and best ever” Games. “Assam is finally ready to host international events,” he said.
Indian Olympic Association president Suresh Kalmadi was effusive in his praise. He said the sports infrastructure developed by Assam over the past couple of years was “international class”.
The Games Village, he claimed, was better than those set up in some cities that have hosted the Asian Games. He went on to declare that Assam was now a worthy contender for the next edition of the SAF Games.
Kalmadi also revealed that urine samples of participants in the National Games would be sent to Bangkok for dope testing.
Union home minister Shivraj Patil, Assam Governor Ajai Singh and a host of other dignitaries attended the opening ceremony.
Beginning exactly at 4 pm under azure skies, the ceremony lasted all of five hours. Asian Games medallist Bhogeswar Baruah lit the Olympic flame with the symbolic torch, which was relayed by former champion discus thrower Tayabun Nisa, badminton star Dipankar Bhattacharjee and former table tennis national champion Monalisa Barua-Mehta.
The Games mascot, Rongmon the rhino, was everywhere. As dusk set in and the floodlights came on, it was a magical sight. The highlights of the show were the marchpast by the 33 participating teams, dances by schoolchildren, performances by a medley of singers, dazzling fireworks and a laser display.
The success of the opening ceremony and two surprise victories of Northeast teams in the football event — Assam defeated top contenders Maharashtra 4-0 and Meghalaya shocked defending champions Punjab 2-1 — made for the perfect ending to a day that had begun badly.
A bomb exploded on a rail track near Kamakhya station in the city around 9.20 am. Although it did not cause any damage, the incident did put the security establishment in a tizzy. Security forces found 12 kg of RDX on another rail track in Tinsukia district, 491 km from Guwahati.