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Then came Mirabai Chanu Saikhom. Four feet 11 inches,and focussed. On 30 July, at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, one competitor after another walked onto the platform in the women’s 49kg weightlifting event, and put up some of their finest performances. None even close to Mirabai’s first attempt.

In snatch, she lifted 88 kg, her best at an international competition and 12kg above the nearest rival. In clean and jerk, her best lift was 113 kg, 16 kg more than the closest competitor. In total, she lifted a Games record of 201kg, 29kg – more than half her body weight—higher than silver medalist Roilya Ranaivosova of Mauritius.

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Granted, the competition at the Commonwealth Games had a giant China-sized hole. But it is not everyday that an Indian athlete walks in so rarefied a space. The woman who got India’s record Olympic tally at Tokyo also won India’s first gold medal at the 2022 CWG. 

Athletes like Mirabai are the confident, conquering face of India. The country, celebrating 75 years of independence in 2022, is now an emerging force in sport, whether cricket and hockey, or fencing, gymnastics and boxing. We have flag-bearers in team sports and individual sports, in skill and strength sports, in precision and brain sports. India has won world titles and Grand Slams, produced champions and World No 1s. In Tokyo last year, India notched up its highest tally at the Olympics with seven medals. In a country ready to embrace sport, Indian athletes are getting faster, higher, stronger.

Jayachandran 
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Jayachandran 

On the shoulders of giants

Independent India’s Olympic journey began with the 1948 London Olympics, when the country sent a contingent of 79 (zero women) and won a gold medal in hockey. With stick wizard Dhyan Chand paving the way, hockey was the one sport India dominated in. Starting with Amsterdam 1928, India won 11 Olympic medals in hockey, eight of them gold.From 1928 to 1992 Barcelona, India’s only other Olympic medal came through wrestler KD Jadhav, who won a bronze at the 1952 Helsinki Games. Even today, with a total of 35 Olympic medals (30 post-independence), India has the worst medal per capita count at 0.03. (Source: Statista 2022)

The medals may have been scarce but there were plenty of heroes to keep the fire burning. The country’s first track star was Milkha Singh, who showed the world that Indians can compete as equals on the world stage. At the 1958 CWG in Cardiff, he won the 440 yard-dash to become independent India’s first gold medallist at the Games. Two of India’s greatest athletes, Milkha Singh (Rome 1960) and PT Usha (Los Angeles 1984), finished in those most heartbreaking of places – fourth at the Olympics—but their stellar careers paved the way for generations ahead.

In 1958, Wilson Jones won the World Billiards Championship to become the first world champion from India. The artistry of PrakashPadukone saw him become the first Indian to win the prestigious 1980 All-England Badminton Championships, one of the biggest titles in the sport (badminton was not in the Olympic roster at the time). In tennis, the Krishnans (Ramanathan and son Ramesh) and the Amritrajs (Vijay and Anand) made sure India punched above its weight in a predominantly white sport by reaching the Davis Cup finals thrice.

“The 1982 Asian Games brought some sort of awareness about sport among the middle class; there was live coverage on TV. Otherwise, our only sporting heroes, be it (Sunil) Gavaskar or (Tiger) Pataudi or Bishen Singh Bedi, were cricketers,"recalls former badminton player Vimal Kumar, who was the team coach when India won the Thomas Cup this May.

India winning the cricket World Cup in 1983 changed the sporting landscape. Hockey was already on a decline then, and with very few outlets for sporting pride, India latched on to the sport. 

The Olympic medal trickle resumed in 1996, when Leander Paes, a wildcard entrant, shook the tennis world order to clinch a bronze. Four years later, Karnam Malleswari became India’s first female medallist when she won bronze in women’s 69kg weightlifting. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore proved India’s rising stature in shooting by winning a silver in double trap at Athens 2004.Outside of the Olympics, Anju Bobby George put India on the athletics map when she won the country’s first medal at the World Athletics Championship – a bronze in long jump at Paris 2003.For more than 20 years, Indian tennis’ Big 3 – Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza—kept India in the Grand Slam hunt.

Worth it’s wait in gold

On 11 August, 2008, Abhinav Bindra shot down the last of the barriers as he clinched India’s first individual gold medal in Olympics. An intense man, Bindra was a picture of stillness as he scored a near-perfect 10.8 on his last shot to win the 10m air rifle event. “Abhinav won the gold and it created that hope that we can do it," says Deepthi Boppaiah of Go Sports Foundation, a non-profit organisation established in the same year. Bindra was not the only winner at Beijing. Vijender Singh won a bronze, the country’s first medal in boxing, and Sushil Kumar a bronze in wrestling to take the tally to three medals. 

Having taken 61 years to win the first individual gold medal, it took another 13 to win its second. A fired-up Neeraj Chopra hurled the javelin to 87.58m on his second attempt to win the gold at the deferred Tokyo Games last year.

Adille Sumariwalla, the Athletics Federation of India head and a star sprinter in the 1970s and 80s, believes it was, “the best thing to happen to Indian athletics".“His success has also proved that the system and process we put in place in the last 15 years has worked," Sumariwalla adds. “Whether you look at Hima Das or Neeraj, they are all products of inter-district junior and sub-junior programme (which has now grown in scope to include more than 500 districts). Proper planning and strategywill get you the results."

Be it governance, resources, opportunity, expertise or attitude, every variable in the last 15 years has shown a marked improvement. Indian athletes no longer carry a baggage of disappointment. Now when you interview athletes they talk less of cricket cannibalising other sports, and more of their own goals.

Vimal Kumar, an experienced coach who has groomed talent at the Prakash Padukone badminton academy, believes apart from having icons in multiple sports, Indian athletes now get the necessary exposure at the right age.“Athletes are travelling abroad at 14-15, they are competing, living away from home, those things help a lot in giving self-confidence," he said.

“If you compare it to the time I was competing, Indian sport is as different as night and day," says Malleswari. “We didn’t have great facilities, we used to practice barefoot. Only once we went to the national camp, we would get those white canvas shoes. We used to wear the kits used by male wrestlers. If you have a sports injury, there was zero support or expertise."

International competitions were few and far between. Sumariwalla would train on mud or grass tracks, but had to run on synthetic tracks in internationals. Apart from multi-sport events, he had to fund his own travel and training abroad.“At one time, we used to have one track coach, he coached from 100m to 5000m. We had one coach for high jump, triple jump and long jump, pole vault and then one throws coach," he adds. 

Nowadays, through the Sports Authority of India, government initiatives like TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme, established in 2014), federations and private foundations, athletes are taken care of round the year. 

While cricket still remains a priority for the corporate sector, money has been diverted to other sports as well through Corporate Social Responsibility, which was made mandatory in April 2014.“CSR is only two per cent of the entire amount that comes into sport, but at least it’s coming and I’m sure in the next decade it can become 10-15 per cent," says Boppaiah.

According to a June 2022 study, the sports industry is likely to hit the $100 billion mark by 2027. The Indian sports budget was increased toRs 3062.60 crore in 2022, a non-Olympic year. While once even Olympics TV coverage was erratic, the recently concluded 2022 CWG was telecast on multiple platforms with live streams for almost every sport, including lawn bowls.

Paradigm shift

One of the biggest victories for Indian sport has been the success of women and para-athletes.They have had to fight very different battles, on many fronts, but have rarely backed down.

Malleswari broke the Olympic barrier at the turn of the century, and at the last three Games, India’s female athletes have helped swell the medal tally. In Rio, in 2016, India’s only two medals were won by women – a silver by PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik’s bronze.

“Look at the sports the women are doing well in–boxing, weightlifting, wrestling," says Boppaiah. “They have broken every stereotype we had about women and strength and sport, of how they should look. They have played a huge role in building a narrative of what a young girl can do today. No matter where you come from, if you are talented, and given an opportunity, you can scale any height you want."

A similar paradigm shift has occurred in para sports in the last five years. If the four-medal haul at the Rio Games helped raise awareness, India came of age in Tokyo. They won 19 medals, including five golds, which was seven more than the cumulative of all the previous editions. Javelin star DevendraJhajharia won his third medal (two golds and a silver) to become the most decorated athlete in Olympics or Paralympics from India.

“There was a time when if a disabled person entered a playground, people would ask, ‘Why are you here? What will you do here?’" Jhajharia had told Mint Lounge after he became the first para-athlete to win the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honour in March. “Now people with disabilities are encouraged to play sport."

The way ahead

Despite the progress, some familiar hurdles still exist, like corporate apathy and federation mismanagement. This year alone, three of the major national federations – hockey, football and table tennis—were dissolved and have been put under CoA (Committee of Administrators) control. “I still feel the corporates, they talk big but are still only involved in cricket," says Vimal Kumar. “In badminton, we are now the world champions, but BAI (Badminton Association of India) still doesn’t have a sponsor. Our athletes need that support and attention."

Unless they win big titles, athletes do not have access to resources. “We need a strong grassroots programme to make sure that talent is funnelled into the system," adds Malleswari, India’s first women’s world champion. “Right now, we have heroes in almost every sport, what we lack is the depth."

But the fact that the country is at this point in the conversation is already heartening for the ‘Iron Lady’ of Indian sport.

“There was a time when expectations were so low; just going to the Olympics was considered a big achievement," she recalls. “Even our coaches didn’t have much faith. I went to the 1995 World Championship, in Guangzhou, China and beat a Chinese girl to win the gold medal. When I stepped onto the podium, they didn’t have the tape for the national anthem. Our support staff never thought of bringing it along because no one expected us to win gold. I stood on the podium and sang the national anthem myself."

From Malleswari’s podium finish in 1995 to Mirabai’s at Birmingham 2022, the country has already come a long way. The torch has been lit.

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