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He Lives by the Sword

Akaash Maharaj may be a political animal, but he's also sharp at a rarefied, risky sport


Peter Cheney
17 February 2007

The Globe and Mail

TORONTO - If you're reeling off the names of Canada's sporting pantheon, Wayne Gretzky, Rocket Richard and Barbara Ann Scott may spring from your lips. But what about Toronto's Akaash Maharaj, tent pegging champion?

At 36, Mr. Maharaj has made it to the top tier of one of the world's most obscure and challenging sports.

Although it sounds like a camping competition, tent pegging is actually based on the ancient military skill of skewering opponents (both elephants and humans) with a sword or lance while riding a warhorse at high speed.

"I don't meet many fellow Canadians who have heard of it," says Mr. Maharaj, who is preparing to represent Canada next month at the world tent-pegging championship in Oman, on the Persian Gulf.

Although the development of technologies such as the rifle, the smart bomb and the cruise missile have pushed tent pegging down the list of military tactics, aficionados like Mr. Maharaj have maintained the art, just in case a modern general has need of a horseman who can pick out an enemy's eye or bring down an elephant with a ride-by lancing.

"It's a lot harder than it looks," laughed Mr. Maharaj this week, as he practised in sub-zero temperatures at a stable north of Toronto.

Leaning over the side of his muscled Percheron, Mr. Maharaj stabbed a series of foam targets set on the ground, then ran his sword through a ring hanging from a pole.

Tent pegging is just one part of Mr. Maharaj's complex life. He teaches at the University of Toronto, serves as the CEO of Concordis (a not-for-profit organization involved in international peace and conflict-resolution initiatives) and is the president of the New Liberalism Ginger Group, a national forum of small-l liberals. He regularly offers political commentary on CBC Newsworld and on Michael Coren's talk show.

In 2000, Mr. Maharaj was part of a seven-member team who wrote the Liberal Party's Red Book platform (he was national policy chair of the party from 1998 to 2003). Politically, Mr. Maharaj is like a little rocket, waiting to be set upon a constituency launch pad: He's bright, fluently bilingual, and he's a visible minority member with an up-by-the-bootstraps story that parallels U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's.

Mr. Maharaj is of Indian descent, but some of his ancestors were exiled to Trinidad as indentured servants while India was under British colonial rule. Mr. Maharaj was born in Toronto after his parents emigrated, and was raised by his grandparents.

Although his grandparents were poor (they worked at menial jobs, including hotel maid and factory worker), Mr. Maharaj's intellectual gifts gave him an out: After graduating from Humberside Collegiate at the top of his class, he won a scholarship to Oxford University.

In 1993, he became president of the Oxford Student Union, making history as the first-ever member of a visible minority to hold the position. It was particularly symbolic for Mr. Maharaj, since past presidents had included a British lord who served as Viceroy of India in the 19th century, overseeing the forced emigration of Indians as indentured servants.

"When I became president, it showed me how much the world had changed," Mr. Maharaj says.

He is coy about his political aspirations, but allows that he would like to run for the Liberals when the right opportunity presents itself: "I believe in public service," he says. "I would like to participate in the democratic process."

Yet he always fits tent pegging into his busy schedule. The ancient sport has gripped Mr. Maharaj particularly hard. He describes it as "ideally suited to those whose antiquated notions of gallantry, valour and martial honour would be thought absurd even by Don Quixote. Needless to say, it was inevitable that I should fall under its thrall."

Many believe tent pegging was invented in the ancient Indian Empire, where war elephants ruled the battlefield. Cavalry officers came up with a bold tactic to neutralize the elephants: By stabbing them in their sensitive feet, the officers could make the elephants fall, or rear up on their hind legs, spilling off the humans from their backs.

How the art of precision stabbing became known as "tent pegging" is a matter of debate. Some believe it's because Indian cavaliers rode into enemy encampments at night and collapsed the opposing army's tents by slashing the support ropes.

Tent pegging has been practised at least since the fourth century BC, but became a competitive international sport only in the 20th century. Tent peggers compete on an 800-metre course, and must smite a series of targets. There are three elements: Ground Target, Suspended Target and Quintain Charging, where competitors attack a bobbing mannequin. In Suspended Target, riders must skewer rings hanging at approximately the height of a man's eye. In Ground Target, they stab small foam bull's-eyes set on the earth.

There are serious risks, as you might expect with a sport that consists of riding a horse while carrying deadly cutting instruments. The swords and lances are razor-sharp: "They're designed to inflict wounds that will not heal," Mr. Maharaj notes. Many competitors have suffered serious injuries after falling from their horses. "You can literally fall on your sword," Mr. Maharaj says.

The lance event presents its own fiendish challenge. Stabbing a ground target with a pointed steel rod nearly three metres long calls for perfect control -- the slightest bounce or miscalculation can result in the lance jabbing into the earth and stopping the rider dead as the horse gallops on, in a catastrophe that looks like pole-vaulting from horseback.

This has happened to Mr. Maharaj several times. He recalls the thought that went through his head as he careened through the air on the first occasion: "This has to be the stupidest way to die there is."

India is the world's reigning superpower of tent pegging, with a cadre of professional riders who dominate the international scene. The Indian pros that Mr. Maharaj will face next month in Oman enjoy benefits that a Canadian tent pegger can only dream of: They practise the sport full time, as members of elite Indian Army cavalry regiments. They also get corporate sponsorship -- many ride with the logos of firms such as Rolex on banners attached to their saddles.

Mr. Maharaj pays for his own equipment and horses. Instead of sponsorships, he has given the side of his horse over to UNICEF, and serves as a spokesman in the agency's fight against child labour.

Mr. Maharaj's championship effort will include one deluxe touch. His equerry, or horse assistant, will be Hal Jackman, former lieutenant governor of Ontario. Although they occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum (Mr. Jackman is a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative), the two became friends after meeting at the University of Toronto.

Aside from his high-priced equerry, Mr. Maharaj's team will be decidedly plebeian compared to the Indian team, but he is undeterred: "I don't have as many resources," he says. "But that doesn't mean I can't do well. I'm going to give it my very best."

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