India’s Siddis and the Olympic Dream

India has won only 33 Olympic medals since 1900 — none in track and field. Now, new local sports programs are working with Siddi athletes to produce Olympic glory.

Bhavya Dore

August 5, 2021

India’s Siddis and the Olympic Dream
Ravikiran Siddi trains as a part of a sports program in Karnataka (Bridges of Sports)

Slim and smiling, with “Don’t Stop” emblazoned across his black t-shirt, Ravikiran Siddi wants just one thing: to be fast. Very fast. World-record holder Usain Bolt kind of fast. Ravikiran, age 19, is currently training in Mundgod in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, where he is part of a program for talented youngsters from rural areas.

“When I run, I feel weightless,” he said. “If I go to the Olympics, our community will progress. I want to inspire others that you can also do this.”

Ravikiran’s parents are farmers and, as his last name suggests, are from the small Siddi community — descendants of soldiers, travelers, merchants, and slaves who came to India from Africa starting in the 1100s. Siddis in India also became commanders, courtiers, and kings. Now scattered across mainly rural pockets of Karnataka, Gujarat, and Telangana, this population of at least 20,000 has been recognized in some districts as members of socioeconomically vulnerable communities.

Though they speak the local languages, Siddis have historically faced derision and discrimination and unwarranted questions about their “Indianness.” By forging a career through sport, Ravikiran hopes to change that.

Now, two programs in Karnataka are working with promising Siddi athletes, both to support the community as well as to produce Indian champions. Non-profit Bridges of Sports Foundation is behind Ravikiran’s training program, while the Karnataka government is launching a larger-scale initiative, through its Centre for Sports Science, a partnership with a private company.

Bridges of Sports Foundation has been working with rural or tribal communities in sports since 2016, reaching more than 2,000 children. “It was to support children coming from difficult backgrounds and who have the talent, but not the access to facilities and expertise to develop it,” said founder Nitish Chiniwar. “We wanted to ensure sports in India grows in an equitable manner, otherwise only city-based athletes are able to get access.”

In 2018, Bridges of Sports decided to focus on track and field, hoping to increase India’s Olympics tally. “We found [Siddi athletes] have a natural ability compared to others,” Chiniwar said. But speed wasn’t enough. “You need a good coach and team to ensure the talent is nurtured and given the right exposure at the right age.”

The eight-member team has been working with coaches and scientists from around the world to develop training routines and diets. Ravikiran had even planned to travel to Jamaica last year, the ground zero of Olympic champions and home to Usain Bolt, but COVID-19 scotched those plans. Training instead continued online with Altis, a U.S. academy.