Isn’t Indian sports on the cusp of a turnaround?
First, it had been hockey which we considered to be our national sport, and thereafter, for decades it has been cricket! We did have world champions in billiards and snooker; and Mary Kom, an Olympic bronze medallist, won the World Amateur Boxing Championship six times. But, the fact remains that we were neither recognised as a sporting powerhouse nor did we have a sporting culture.
Indian sports have for decades been identified by just these two sports – hockey where India won eight Olympic gold medals, and cricket. The irony was that cricket till 2023 was not even recognised as an Olympic discipline, but an entire nation remained glued to this biggest sport of the Indian subcontinent of which it even became the world champion in all its formats – Test, One-day, and T20.
Cricket still dominates the Indian sporting arena and by demolishing all its opposition teams at the league stage in the ongoing Cricket World Cup in the 50-overs format, India has proved that the present Indian cricket team is a league apart.
However, the good news is that India is also rising in other sports now. The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, where India got its first ever individual gold in track and field besides winning 2 silver and 4 bronze medals, appears the turning point for Indian sports. Ever since its debut in the Olympics in 1900, it was only in 2015 that India got its first individual gold medal in any Olympics when Abhinav Bindra won the gold in the 10-metre Air rifle event in Beijing. Tokyo proved to be India’s most successful Olympic Games ever from where it returned with seven medals!
But isn’t it bizarre that for a nation of over a billion people, India in the over a century-old history of modern Olympics could win just 35 medals across 24 Olympic Games – including golds, silvers and bronze?
Things seem to be changing now for good. The silver line is that ever since the Tokyo Olympics, India has consistently shown strong performances in international sports, achieving podium finishes in various events like the recently held Asian Games, and Asian Para Games. India’s international sports performance has improved significantly, respectively securing 4th and 5th place in these two games, amongst sporting giants such as China, Japan, and South Korea.
The Asian Games and the Asian Para Games 2023 have brought together athletes from across the vast continent, and India’s participation has been nothing short of spectacular.
India’s remarkable performance at the fourth Asian Para Games in Hangzhou has catapulted the nation into fifth place on the medal tally, with 29 gold medals. India surpassed its previous best-ever gold medal count from the 2018 Asian Para Games. Overall, India not only clinched an impressive 111 medals, comprising 29 gold, 31 silver, and 51 bronze in the 2023 Asian Para Games but what was equally heartwarming was that 303 athletes participated in these games.
Just before that, at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, India made history by winning 107 medals, surpassing its previous record of 70 medals from the 2018 Jakarta Games. What was even more reassuring to Indian sports was that a total of 655 athletes participated in the Asian Games.
So what makes this turnaround? Explains Sudhanshu Shekhar Roy, who, till recently, served as the executive director of the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, and is at present working as a Sports Consultant to the Government of Bihar, “Significant strides have been made in improving sports infrastructure in our country. The refurbishment of ageing facilities, including our national training institutes, has played a vital role in this transformation”.
India, a nation of dreams and ambitions, is witnessing a stirring transformation in the world of sports as the country aspires to replicate the success stories of its Asian neighbours. The country’s performance in the previous editions of the Asian Games was not very promising. However, the efforts to improve sports infrastructure are showing. For example, in the 2014 Asian Games held in Incheon, South Korea, India grabbed a total of 57 medals. In the Asian Games 2018 hosted by Jakarta, India got a total of 70 medals. Yet, the pinnacle of India’s performance at the Asian Games was achieved in 2023 in Hangzhou, with a medal tally of 107 medals. The country was only behind those countries which have already established themselves as the powerhouse of Asian sports. As was expected, the first three positions at the last Asian Games were claimed respectively by China, Japan, and South Korea.
China’s enduring reign as the overall medal leader in the Asian Games has been built on a meticulous approach to nurturing talented athletes from a young age. Japan and South Korea have strategically embedded sports in their culture. Japan’s approach includes encouraging a love for sports from a young age, while South Korea exempts its athletes from mandatory military service. These countries have invested in sports infrastructure and grassroots development. The result of such an approach is their performance in international sports.
Now, as Roy told Global Bihari, India too is making efforts to break the stranglehold of the Super Three. “Now many of our elite athletes, expected to secure medals, are now training abroad. In the past, they used to compete in international events like the Asian Games and the Olympics, which provided them with invaluable foreign exposure for 2-3 months annually. Now, these athletes predominantly train overseas,” he pointed out.
When it comes to athletic events, Indian athletes are now actively participating in the prestigious Diamond League, which is on par with the World Championship. Competing against the world’s top athletes not only sharpens their skills but also reveals the gap that needs to be bridged in terms of training. As Roy acknowledged, this is a major change, as previously they had limited exposure to foreign competition, often going to the Asian Games or the Olympics without a clear understanding of their international counterparts. Consequently, the experience of competing with foreign athletes has been a tremendous boost to their performance.
Thanks to the support of the Sports Authority and the Government of India through top-tier schemes, many athletes are now individually selected and classified as top athletes. The financial constraints have been removed, allowing them to receive the necessary funding for training abroad. This shift in approach has yielded excellent results, with sports like athletics and shooting contributing significantly to our medal tally in the Asian Games. In the field of athletics, Indian athletes have shone, securing numerous medals. In several athletic events, Indian athletes reached the finals, and in some cases, there were even two Indian finalists. This is a remarkable achievement and a testament to the growth of sports in India.
Even disciplines like bridge and water sports, including canoeing, kayaking, and sailing, have made their mark on the international stage, primarily due to comprehensive training, access to necessary equipment, and exposure to foreign competition. Archery has also seen significant success, with a considerable number of medals earned. Archery, shooting, and athletics have risen to world-class standards, and many of our athletes are now qualifying for the upcoming Paris Olympics.
“The Khelo India Youth Games and Khelo India University Games have yielded impressive results in a relatively short span of 4-5 years. These programmes have provided proper training and scholarship opportunities to approximately 3,500 selected athletes. It’s noteworthy that many Khelo India athletes clinched medals in the 2023 Asian Games, indicating the effectiveness of these initiatives,” Roy pointed out.
What is even more heartwarming is the rise of tier 2 and tier 3 cities in the sporting arena. The performances of these small-town sportspersons at the Asian Games 2023 too were nothing short of impressive. Olympic and World Champion Neeraj Chopra hailing from Khandra, Panipat, tweeted after winning gold at the Asiad, “Feels great to end 2023 with a season-best throw at the 19th Asian Games!”
For many athletes, the Asian Games served as a stepping stone to the Olympics. Success at the Asian Games not only brings honour and medals but also valuable experience and a pathway to the global stage. Annu Rani, hailing from Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, etched her name in the annals of Asian Games history with a spectacular performance in the women’s javelin throw event. The 31-year-old athlete delivered a season-best throw of 62.92 metres, securing a gold medal and achieving a historic milestone. Annu Rani’s triumph not only marked a personal milestone but also made her the first Indian woman to claim gold in the javelin throw event at the Asian Games.
Similarly, Parul Chaudhary’s electrifying victory in the 5,000-meter race, clinching the gold at Hangzhou, stands as the crowning moment of India’s historic performance at the Asian Games 2023. Parul, who hails from Ikaluta village near Meerut, Uttar Pradesh said, “In our UP [Uttar Pradesh], it takes a gold medal to get you the post of DSP [Deputy Superintendent of Police] . I hope this effort gets me that position”. The path to glory for India’s Olympic sports athletes is a labyrinth, far more arduous and intricate than that of IPL-playing cricketers. Unlike their cricket counterparts, these athletes are not blessed with the allure of lucrative financial deals. For individuals like Parul, an Asian Games or Olympic medal signifies a monumental life-altering turning point, a testament to their relentless pursuit of excellence.
In the Asian Para Games 2023 too, many hailed from small towns. Sachin Sarjerao Khilari, who won gold for India in the men’s F-46 shot put event by breaking the Games Record with a throw of 16.03 metres, was a resident of Karagani village in Sangli, Maharashtra, Sidhartha Babu, who hailed from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, contributed another gold medal by finishing first in the Mixed 50 metre rifle-prone event. India’s 18th gold came from archery, with Sheetal Devi from Jammu and Rakesh Kumar from Katra emerging victorious in the Mixed Team Compound – Open final. Avani Lekhara, hailing from Jaipur, Rajasthan, showcased her prowess by securing gold in the Women’s 10m Air Rifle Standing SH1 category. Similarly, Praveen Kumar from Govindgarh, Uttar Pradesh, added to the gold tally with a remarkable performance in the Men’s High Jump-T64 category, while Deepthi Jeevanji from Telangana sprinted to victory with a gold in the Women’s 400m-T20 event. The dedication and excellence of India’s para-athletes not only made the nation proud but also served as an inspiration to all.
Finally, India’s rise is also giving rise to unhealthy rivalries in the international sporting arena. No one likes a new rival on the horizon. Little surprise, therefore, that at the Hangzhou Asian Games 2023, India’s contingents had their fair share of controversies amid the triumphs. Neeraj Chopra, India’s renowned javelin thrower, began the javelin throw final. However, his impressive first throw went unrecorded due to unusual reasons, as later explained by Neeraj. Kishore Jena who hails from Kothasahi village in Puri, Odisha was yet another Indian javelin thrower who secured the silver, to be wrongly called for a foul on his second attempt. Despite replays clearly showing it was a legitimate attempt. Protests from both Jena and Chopra led to a review that corrected the decision, boosting morale, if not altering the score.
In an interview with Sony Sports Network, Neeraj admitted his morale was low after the initial setback, but it was Jena’s outstanding throw of 87.54 meters that inspired him to throw his season’s best at 88.88 meters, securing the gold.
In a similar turn of events, Jyothi Yarraji hailing from Vishakhapatnam got caught in a controversy during the women’s 110-metre hurdles. The race was temporarily halted due to a false start by China’s Yanni Wu. However, the officials also wrongly flagged Jyothi, who was in a neighbouring lane, as a false starter. She promptly requested the officials to review the replays, which indicated her innocence. Surprisingly, Wu was allowed to continue, and Jyothi, understandably distracted, finished with a bronze medal. Eventually, Wu was rightfully disqualified, and Jyothi’s bronze medal was upgraded to silver. Nevertheless, the interruption in her focus caused by the controversy likely cost Jyothi and India the possibility of winning the gold.
India’s journey at the 2023 Asian Games and Asian Para Games is not just about medals; it’s about the spirit of excellence, unity, and the pursuit of dreams. As the Games came to a close, India stood as a shining example of the heights that can be achieved with determination, dedication, and institutional support. Certain wrong decisions in Hangzhou also tested the grit and determination of Indian sportspersons. Undoubtedly, they came out with flying colours, indicating that the future holds the promise of more victories and aspirations on the global stage.
That apart, the party continues even in the arena of our signature sports such as hockey but this time it was the Indian women’s hockey team that made India proud by dethroning Japan to become the champion with a formidable score of 4-0 at the Asian Champions Trophy finals in Ranchi on November 5, 2023. Not to mention that in the Asian Games in Hangzhou, it was the Indian men’s hockey team that won the crown by defeating the defending champions Japan 5-1 in the finals and securing the Paris 2024 Olympic spot.