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Kohima: Nagaland is all set for the much-awaited South Asian Athletic Federation (SAAF) cross country championship and 56th National cross-country athletics championships, scheduled for March 26.

The sporting event will perhaps be the biggest in the history of the state, Abu Metha, Associate vice-president of Athletics Federation of India (AFI), told EastMojo on Tuesday. The championship is expected to witness around 1,000 participants from seven South Asian countries in Kohima.

“Nagaland is looking to welcome the sportspersons. We are prepared and set to host the championships in a grand manner. All arrangements are well into the final stages,” Metha informed.

Different race categories for Under 16 to the senior category will be conducted and the races will range from 2-10 KM, as per the guidelines of world athletics. From the Indira Gandhi stadium in Kohima, where it is set to take off, athletes will run on the streets around the stadium.

Why hosting an international and national sporting event matters to Nagaland?

“It is very important. We have to bring big events here. We have to (level) up our games and in organizing sports events. We have to give opportunities to our youngsters. It is not every day that a national and international event is brought to your backyard,” Metha told EastMojo.

Metha, who is the adviser to the Nagaland chief minister, said to participate at national and international sports events, players from the state will have to cover thousands of miles to participate and even qualify for the events.

“But when you are the host, you get direct entry even though you have not qualified. That experience is priceless. Dozens of our athletes, who otherwise would not have qualified for the events, will get direct entries and wildcard entry,” he quipped.

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While the home ground is another advantage for the local athletes, Metha shared that expectations are not too high as the competition level will witness the best athletes from the country and the region. Although cross country is a new event for the state and the local athletes were not exposed to cross-country championships in the past, he hoped that the experience would be a learning point.

Irrespective of how the athletes perform at the championships, we hope that our youngsters will gain and learn from the experience of having played at international and national level, and even encourage them to reach higher platforms, he said.

Metha goes on to share that Nagaland has dreams to host bigger events, including the North East Olympics and other national games. “And why not! This is the ambition and aspiration of the Naga youth. We have to start somewhere. And I think this is a big step were taking and it will be historic for Nagaland,” he added.

Meanwhile, athletes from the Indian team will also be selected from the championships to represent the country at the commonwealth games and the Asian games. He informed that prominent athletes, including PT Usha and Anju Bobby George, will be attending the championships to motivate the younger athletes.

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The championships was initially scheduled for January 15, but it got delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Addressing a press conference earlier, Metha said the new date was fixed after a clearance to hold the championships was given by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports.

Nagaland will be conducted another state level trial on March 2 to select athletes who will undergo intensive trainings to participate in the championships.

The Nagaland government, according to Metha, is the primary sponsor of the championships and the state is expected to pay the logistics and airfares of international teams, besides extending accommodation and local hospitality to over 1,000 participants. The budget for the championships is roughly estimated to cost around Rs 4-5 crore.

Nagaland Athletics Official team kit launched

During a press conference at the office of the Nagaland Olympic Association in Kohima on Tuesday, the official team kit of the Nagaland Athletics was launched. The kit contains high-quality sports gears and apparels, conceptualised and designed by young creators and innovators from the state.

The official mascot of the SAAF cross-country championships and the 56th national cross-country championships was also unveiled.

The mascot is a joyous happy running hornbill named ‘Akimji’ which is a connotation of the word ‘ambition’ in Sumi Naga language. Metha said that Akimji exemplifies the ambition and aspirations of the Naga youth.

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