India’s campaign at the recently concluded Commonwealth Games (CWG) started in controversy, with needles being found in the rooms of some athletes and badminton star Saina Nehwal protesting about the treatment meted out to her father. But it ended in jubilation.
A rich harvest of medals at the Games offers hope of a turnaround in Indian sport. After a sparkling start, there was a lull, raising doubts about whether India had flattered to deceive. But a torrent of medals in the last couple of days made for a heady climax.
The most memorable events towards the end were, of course, M.C. Mary Kom winning her first Commonwealth gold and the play-off for gold between Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu. Nehwal was at her bristling, sizzling best to overcome her younger and higher-ranked opponent.
Gold and silver in this event, a silver for Kidambi Srikkanth, and medals in the doubles and team events too showcased India’s rise to eminence in this sport, and also brought into the spotlight, once more, coach P. Gopichand’s stellar contribution.
Indeed, barring hockey, where both the men’s and women’s teams disappointed in not taking a place on the podium, there was success in several disciplines, some of them totally unexpected.
Sixteen-year-old Manu Bhaker was a revelation in shooting, in many ways making amends for favourites Jitu Rai and Gagan Narang failing in their pet events. Shooting is a discipline where India have been strong, and Bhaker’s performance is proof of the talent that abounds.
No less impressive was the performance of 22-year-old Manika Batra, who won four medals in table tennis, helping India win an unprecedented team gold by beating the world No.4, and then winning the singles gold, the first time that a non-Chinese has done this.
Perhaps the most compelling performance came from 20-year-old Neeraj Chopra, who won the javelin gold. In fact, Chopra’s medal-winning throw would have won him a bronze at the Rio Olympics. Remarkable, given India’s poor record in track and field at the international level.
The final tally of 66 medals at CWG18 is only two more than at Glasgow (2014), three less than Manchester (2002), and considerably lower than the 101 at Delhi in 2008, so some might ask what the hullabaloo is about.
But a simplistic interpretation of these tallies would be misleading.
A more interrogative study highlights that progress has been robust and substantial. In fact, the performance in Gold Coast emerges as possibly the best ever in the Commonwealth Games where winning gold medals is concerned.
An interesting analysis by Nachiket Guha (@brandnachiket), which cropped up on my Twitter timeline, puts India’s efforts at CWG18 in perspective. It’s a longish thread by Guha, but a couple of tweets should suffice to make the point.
"15 of the 30 Golds at #Manchester2002 came from shooting pairs (8); weightlifting snatch (3) and weightlifting clean and jerk (3), events currently discontinued. Without them we had 15 Gold medals in Manchester.’’
"Similarly 15 of the 38 Golds at #Delhi2010 came from Shooting Pairs (7), Archery (3), Greco-Roman Wrestling (4) and Tennis (1). Accounting for them before comparing it with #GC2018 gives us an updated figure of 23 Gold medals from Delhi.’’
Guha goes on to argue that if, hypothetically, the discontinued events had been permitted at CWG18, the gold medal tally would have been 44, way ahead of Manchester and Delhi. There are obviously ifs and buts involved in such a projection, but the point is well made.
The number of gold medals won is significant, particularly in the context of a country like India. These reflect growth in the ambition of athletes as well as improvement in facilities and processes that enable excellence, through training, nutrition and diet and sports medicine, as well as awards and rewards to prop up the motivation levels and self-respect of athletes.
But sporting excellence is always work in progress, so while there is a justifiable reason for India’s medal winners at CWG18 and the various sports federations to be delighted, the challenge that lies ahead cannot be obscured.
A dispassionate study will show that despite the commendable performances in Gold Coast, India are still a long way behind benchmarks and standards in most disciplines—not just at the Olympics, but also Asian levels.
This gap has to be bridged to confirm that the Commonwealth Games achievements are not a mirage—and that growth in Indian sport is indeed on an upward spiral.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.