In the early 1900s, a small, makeshift shop on Lahore’s Mohini Road would sell solely badminton shuttlecocks. Balraj Anand, who sat behind the counter of the unassuming shop, would’ve never imagined that three generations down, his great-grandsons would be making equipment for athletes competing at the Olympics.
When the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent nation states, Anand became part of one of the biggest migrations in human history – moving from what became Pakistan to present-day India.
“My grandfather then carried forward the legacy and expanded the business in Mathura (a city in northern India),” Hetain Anand, the family’s third-generation scion and director of Anand Track & Field Equipment (ATE), told VICE. “We then gradually moved to Meerut because of the availability of skilled labour here.”
Meerut is a city in the western part of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. A sports goods capital of the country since the early 1980s, the city houses almost all major sports equipment suppliers based in India.
ATE equipment has been used by athletes like discus throwers Yaime Pérez of Cuba and India’s Kamalpreet Kaur. Many spectators have placed their biggest bets on Kaur bringing home an Olympic gold this year. In the shot-put category, Tajinderpal Singh Toor has also been using ATE products for years.
Another manufacturer from Meerut, Nelco Sport, also had roots in a city that’s now part of Pakistan. Sialkot, a city in northeastern Pakistan, was once home to skilled workers who helped cement its reputation as a sports manufacturing hub.
“When India was partitioned in 1947, many of Sialkot’s skilled Hindu craftsmen migrated across the border into Punjab, settling in Jalandhar and Meerut, where the Indian sports goods industry is now based,” Amber Anand, director of Nelco Sport, told VICE. Amber Anand is related to the Anands who run ATE though their businesses are entirely separate.
Nelco’s big success came during the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, when the company was selected as the official equipment supplier. Nelco’s equipment was then selected for use at the 1991 World Championships in Athletics in Tokyo.
Nelco and ATE are certified by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for use at major athletic events, including the Olympic Games. Only IAAF-certified equipment can be used at major athletic events, and only records set with this equipment are recognised in the books.
While using ATE’s trademark discus “Indra,” Indian athlete Krishna Poonia won the 2010 Commonwealth Gold medal, setting a world record. Cuban athlete Yaime Pérez bagged the Women’s Gold at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championship using the same discus. When it comes to throwing implements, their Tungsten Hammer “Fuego” made in 2019 has become the go-to hammer for world champions like Finnish hammer thrower Silja Kosonen. Nelco’s equipment has also been used by the current world champion in discus throwing, Sweden’s Daniel Ståhl.
In the Olympics in Tokyo, Indian discus thrower Seema Punia will be using the discus manufactured by Bhalla International – another Meerut-based company and one of India’s biggest sports equipment exporters.
With contemporary athletics’ increased focus on innovation, the expectation to deliver massively on the technological front keeps the heat on.
“It is essential that we keep reinventing our products,” said Nelco’s Anand. “That’s the only way international athletes will buy our products. We can keep harping about our legacy, be emotional about how old and established the Meerut market is, but if we can’t demonstrate cutting edge technology on the ground, no one cares.”
Meerut’s sports goods industry is largely still recovering from the blow the pandemic dealt it. The city is also a hub of cricket bats and balls, but with sporting events cancelled and sports facilities and gyms shut, the industry was badly hit.
Manufacturers also had a hard time importing raw materials, and some suppliers reported a slump of more than 50 percent in their sales. Now, though, with life coming back to normalcy and events like the Olympics helping spread word about this market, things seem to be hopeful.
Is the Meerut market competitive? Not quite. If you ask the ATE and Nelco directors, they’ll say that they all try and deliver the best they can – perhaps some healthy competition but nothing nasty, they insist.
However, the biggest challenge for the sports goods market in India is battling stereotypes associated with the Made-in-India tag.
“As far as the Olympic Games are concerned, athletes or their managers don’t physically come to our shops to buy products or order online,” said Hetain Anand about the process.
“We are first supposed to submit our products to the Olympic organisers. The players are then supposed to vote for the products they need. But often, when they see India associated with any brand – regardless of how technologically sound the product may be – they reject it. But it definitely heartens us that there are still so many players who have been voting for our products and using them quite successfully since 1992.”
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