Photo: Kashmir Ink
Faisal Ali Dar, the trainer of wunderkinds Tajamul Islam and Hashim Mansoor, runs the most celebrated sports academy in Kashmir
In an open ground in Bandipore, a group of young boys and girls line up to kick a punching bag. As their bare hands and feet land hard blows, their 26-year-old trainer applauds and offers words of encouragement. He's Faisal Ali Dar. If that doesn't ring, try this: Ali's Sports Academy produced Tajamul Islam and Hashim Mansoor.
A week after Tajamul did Kashmir proud by winning a gold the World Kickboxing Championship in Italy, Hashim brought home a gold medal from the Asian Youth Karate Championship held in New Delhi late last November. Both were trained by Faisal.
Faisal took up martial arts in 2003, inspired, he says, by the movies of Bruce Lee. “First, I thought it was all about fighting. Then I realised it included a series of sports – taekwondo, karate, kickboxing, gongkwon yusul, judo,” he says.
And wouldn't you know, he excelled at it. In 2005, he got his first gold, in taekwondo in a state championship. He has since won six national kickboxing awards, 5 golds and a silver. In 2008, he obtained his black belt in kickboxing. In 2011 and 2013, he brought home gold and silver from championships in India and Iran, respectively.
It was around the time he won his first medal in 2005 that Faisal set up the academy, initially as a small martial arts training facility, which has since expanded into a full-fledged sports academy. Now, over 4,000 boys and girls are trained in 18 team and individual sports across the academy's centres in seven districts of Kashmir. In all, Faisal's academy has trained nearly 30,000 sportspersons over the past decade or so, many of whom are now instructors at its various centres. Since 2010, his wards have been participating in national and international sports events.
To concerns that his signature sport, martial arts, is dangerous, Faisal replies, “Injuries happen in all sports, including cricket and football. In many sports, players have even died on the field, but never in martial arts.”
It has been quite a journey for Faisal, he says, from being ridiculed for “wasting” his time on playgrounds to being celebrated as a pioneer. As he puts it, “People used to see me more on the field than in classes, and they would taunt me for it. Now they come to take selfies with me.” He may not have been too fond of the classroom, but Faisal managed to get a graduate degree in science.
Faisal has advice for parents who would rather their child never looked away from their books: Let them play. “We send our children outside the valley for studies but when it comes to sports, we are skeptical,” he says, adding that it shouldn't be a binary choice.
He should know. After all, he built, from the ground up no less, an institution that is helping change the Kashmiri society's perception of sports. Increasingly, thanks to the work done by people such as Faisal, a child's interest in sports is no longer seen as a “waste of time” but rather as beneficial, even a serious career choice. And all this, without any help from the government. “It is all thanks to the people, our well-wishers who have been coming forward to help us,” Faisal says. “Nothing has been done by the government.”
He adds, “It is my request to the government and our society to work towards giving our children the facilities so that we won’t lag behind others in the field of sports.”
Faisal has persevered in the face of every difficulty – political, social and economic. During last summer's unrest, when instructors from far could not reach the academy, Faisal and a few fellow trainers from the neighbouring areas kept it going. Faisal himself went to Tajamul’s and Hashim’s parents and persuaded them to let the children go with him so they could continue training for the championships they had applied for. The rest, as they say, is history.