It was the taekwondo flyweight finals at the South Asian Federation (SAF) Games in Islamabad two weeks ago, Nepal vs India. Sangina Baidya was fighting for gold. The crowd supported her, but with an injured right hand and knee, Sangina found herself sizing up a much taller opponent. That's when she switched strategy, using her feared slap kicks aimed at her opponent's face to defend herself. Sangina won. "I was confident I would win," says the 27-year-old champion (pic, right).
How is it that Nepal has become such a powerhouse in martial arts? Sangina replies diplomatically: "Nepalis are very hard working, especially in this sport." Her own training regimen is proof: Sangina practiced up to six hours a day two months before the SAF Games this year.
Karate coach Hira Singh Dangol, who led the team to Pakistan, believes the martial arts appeal to the Nepali psyche. "The biggest thing in karate is discipline: how to respect your elders and behave with peers is taught from the beginning. This is why martial arts gained such a popular following in Nepal."
It is part of Prakash Pradhan's job as deputy director of the National Sports Council to discover what drives athletes to perform better. He says Nepalis perform well consistently in martial arts because they are very self-motivated. As Nepal's first PhD in sports science, Pradhan understands that both nurture and nature play a role. "Martial arts suit Nepalis because a good fighter is determined by courage and coordination. The fighting spirit is something training alone cannot bring, it's hereditary," he says. Then there are the physical attributes. Nepalis aren't very tall, this means they have a lower centre of gravity which is suited to speed and balance. "Biomechanically, we are built for it," says Pradhan.
Brig Gen Chhatra Man Singh Gurung is director of physical training at the Royal Nepali Army and a taekwondo blackbelt. He thinks Nepal's rugged terrain has built us to be physically tough. "Nepali people are fit and their physical structure is good for this type of training, and they are very interested in taekwondo so they have the aptitude as well."
But fourth place at the 9th SAF Games in Islamabad was a disappointment for Nepal, which had come second in the medals tally on home turf last time. The taekwondo team garnered all the major wins: Nirmal Shrestha and Renuka Magar clinched the deal in the men's and women's bantam weight category, Deepak Bista (pic right, red vest) and Rupa Kumari Shyangtan together took men's and women's feather weight titles, and Niranjan Shrestha the lightweight title.
Squabbles over controversial decisions in karate and boxing affected the morale of Nepali athletes, but we still took nine karate medals, including two silvers by Surendra Shrestha (under-80kg) and Kushal Shrestha (under-65kg). Deepak Shrestha was the true karate kid, winning first place in the under-60kg category.
"Karate is what I know best," says Deepak. The 27-year-old started learning the sport since he was 12 and works as assistant coach at the district head dojo in Lalitpur. Despite winning gold this year, he is concerned that his fight has not improved as much as it could have. The karate team held closed camp trainings just a week prior to the games. Deepak thinks it should have started at least six months ago.
"The Nepal Karate Federation just took it for granted that we'd win because we did well in the 8th SAF Games. We plateaued while other nations got better," he explains. "This year, we had such good results only because of our motivation."
Prakash Pradhan admits that martial arts is often neglected: "If they are given priority, I don't see why we can't win golds at the Olympics." And that is exactly what Sangina Baidya is aiming for as she prepares to head off to Athens in August as the first Nepali to qualify for the Olympics.