Ravikiran Siddi is like any other runner. He wants to run faster.
The best personal mark of the 19-year-old in 100 meters is 10.8 seconds. India’s national record is 10.26 seconds, while Usain Bolt’s world record stands at 9.58 seconds.
This year, his short-term goal is to score 10.5 seconds, Ravikiran told Al Jazeera. In the long run, he hopes to win medals at international events.
“If I succeed, the name of Siddis will shine,” he said, referring to the community of African descent to which he belongs.
The community, which is in the pockets of India, is descended from several East African tribal groups, including the Bantu.
According to some accounts, the Sidis (believed to be a variation of the term Sayyidi, an honorific in certain African groups) were brought into slavery by Arab traders around the 7th and 8th centuries, a practice continued by the Portuguese and the British.
Others arrived as merchants, sailors and soldiers.
Some reached positions of power, such as Malik Ambar, who became the military leader in the Deccan India in the 16th century. Last year, Shantaram Siddi became the first in the community to be appointed a member of the state legislature of the state of Karnataka.
Sidis are often seen as outsiders for their curly hair and features despite having lived in India for generations and assimilating into local cultures.
They are known to face various forms of discrimination. According to the news, the siddis have been called “black bears” and have been told that they are “guests” in India and that they should stay within their boundaries.
Ravikiran said that although he has not received insults from anyone, he has noticed that when he travels through India to compete, people look at him as if he were a foreigner, with persistent eyes in his hair and skin tone.
A Siddi athlete told Al Jazeera that there have been cases of people touching the hair of other Siddi athletes out of curiosity.
Nitish Chiniwar, the founder of non-profit Bridges of Sport (BoS), says sports can help improve the situation.
“We firmly believe that sports can change the perception not only of Siddis, but of any community that excels on the field,” Chiniwar told Al Jazeera.
Established in 2016, BoS has worked with children from tribal communities to help foster talent and improve lives.
To date, BoS claims to have introduced football and athletics into the lives of more than 2,000 tribal children, including 250 to 300 siddis, from states such as Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha.
Inspired by Usain Bolt, Ravikiran took the opportunity when BoS coaches visited his village to test, becoming one of the first recruits in 2017.
Now, he trains at BoS facilities in Karnataka, balancing his sporting ambition with online classes to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Chiniwar came up with the idea of BoS when he turned his attention to people who had no chance of transferring his love of sports from a hobby to a career.
He also believed in the power of sports to bring about change after seeing African-American athletes like boxer Mohammed Ali and sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos use the platform to focus on their community.
He started working with tribal groups like the Gond, Baigas and Siddis, who often live far from the main groups in India and do not receive the same breaks.
“No matter where they come from, whatever their background, they should have the same opportunities as other people,” Chiniwar said.
BoS was created in Mundgod, a city in the northern Karnataka region. There were sports facilities, administrative support and, when surveyed, the regional population of Siddi, with about 40,000 inhabitants, showed interest in having a sports organization in the area.
Children aged 14 and over, as well as training staff, including nutritionists, biomechanists and track coaches, live on the site where the hostel becomes a dormitory, gym, school and dining room.
Younger ones are enrolled in a local residential school that is associated with BoS.
Once the team believes a student is prepared in terms of discipline, attitude, and talent, they are given an “athlete contract” before moving to the hostel.
The contract states that BoS will support the child up to college or work students, Chiniwar explained.
Sidis typically account for 50 to 60 percent of BoS intake.
The idea of providing athletes with life skills is an integral part of their mission. The organization states that it helps to develop mental strength, healthy habits and personal skills.
“I was very shy, but now I’m more confident when I talk to people,” Ravikiran said.
As for sports, candidates train with local and international coaches for regional and state competitions and hope to qualify for national and international events.
“Initially, the idea was to involve children with sports, but now we aim to get on the podium at the 2028 Olympics in the 100, 200 and 400 meter events,” Chiniwar said.
It is not the first time a sports program and tribal communities have crossed paths in India.
In 1985-86, the government of India launched the Special Area Games (SAG) plan to find promising athletes from remote regions across the country.
The goal of the program, according to the Sports Authority of India (SAI), was to seek “natural talent for modern competitive sports and games in the inaccessible tribal, rural and coastal areas of the country” and to feed them “scientifically for to achieve sporting excellence ”.
People from all over India, including the Siddis, were chosen for disciplines ranging from archery to athletics and rowing.
“It seems that the state felt like the bodies of the Sidis working on the land, who are close to the land, and particularly people of African descent would generally be inclined to athletics,” Beheroze Shroff said. University of California professor Irvine who has spent years studying Siddi communities in India, told Al Jazeera.
“To some extent, this can be seen as a stereotype of Africans as athletes, even in the United States. Perhaps this has been one of the motivations. The other most important thing was that India has to compete internationally and that the Sidis have the potential to compete in this field. “
The athletes in the program performed well, earning state and national records and even participating in international events.
Archer Limba Ram represented India at the Olympics between 1988 and 1996.
Juje Jackie Siddi was part of the second batch of SAG participants, chosen in 1989 for the athletics program.
Things were going well until the program closed abruptly in 1993, Juje said, adding that the athletes received letters saying they had been withdrawn for failing to achieve maximum performance.
BVP Rao, an India Administrative Services official who was the director of the SAG scheme when it was launched, described the termination as a “very unprofessional decision”.
He said he had moved on to another task when he finished the program and was unaware of the reason for the decision.
Rao said there were attempts to release later versions of the program, but that no “wholehearted attempt” was ever made. ”.
After the finish, Juje said the athletes were left without support. Some returned to their villages, some continued in sports such as judo and weightlifting, and others, such as Juje, hurried to find work.
Athletes can get government jobs in India with a sports quota that provides steady income, pensions and even the ability to continue training and playing semi-professionally.
This is how Juje found work first with the Bengaluru City Police and later with the government-run Employee Provident Fund (EPFO) in Bombay, where he currently works.
Other SAG athletes, such as Kamala Siddi and Louis Vincent Siddi, got jobs with regional railways.
“If there was no sport, I wouldn’t have this job and I couldn’t support my family, I would still live in my village,” Juje said. “Sports are not just about winning medals. It’s also important for social change. “
For Chiniwar, what happened with the SAG scheme is a precautionary story.
“When the program stopped, everything returned to the first place. We want to do something that can be maintained, ”he said.
“If BoS leaves Mundgod in ten years, there should be enough knowledge for training to continue. This can only happen if a system is built in the same environment. “
This system that Chiniwar talked about involves training coaches and having support staff. Nine-year-old Shweta Siddi is part of that system.
Although she joined BoS as a 400-meter runner, Shweta is now learning about sports nutrition as the hostel’s responsible cook and is working to join the coaching team.
“I am happy because I can continue my training, earn a salary and learn to take on responsibilities that will help me grow,” Shweta said.
Ensuring that athletes complete their education has helped gain parental support.
“The way Shweta has grown in sports, educationally and physically, he can face all the challenges in his future,” his mother Shanti said.
Meanwhile, Ravikiran’s father, Francis, also sees great prospects for him.
“If he does it right, his life could be fantastic: respect, fame, work and a stable life. And he could even help another person like him, ”he said.
Doing something for the community is part of Ravikiran’s goals.
“Children see us as role models. If I succeed, Siddis ’name will shine,” he said.
For now, the gold medal for India in the 100 meters remains his priority.