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Podcast | Digging Deeper - Faster, Higher, Stronger - A look at India's fantastic year in sports

Let’s look at the many bright moments in sports this year, as well as the heroes and heroines who made them happen.

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2018 has been a good year for India in sports. We had some great results at the Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games; a popular year for Indian women’s cricket (despite the fiasco over the selection of a coach); the Test performances of the men’s cricket team in South Africa and Australia as well as triumph in the Asia Cup.

The best part of these seminal moments were the performances by the stars and popular names as well as the emergence of exciting new talents on the world stage - athletes like Manu Bhaker, Manika Batra, and Prithvi Shaw as well as the upswing in the form of sportspersons like G Sathiyan, Jasprit Bumrah and Hima Das. Not to forget, the sterling performances by thoroughbreds like Mary Kom, Neeraj Chopra, Sharath Kamal and PV Sindhu.

The other thing that sets 2018 apart is the emergence of sport as a viable, even lucrative,  career option in India - not just for the top flight success stories but also the middle rung athletes who are willing to push themselves in the pursuit of international glory. I don’t claim that we have turned a corner on that fully - yes, I’m aware we come across, at the least, one or two stories every month of a sportsman or sportswoman ravaged by penury after being let down by state governments and babus of various hues despite promises of being secured by, if not lavished by, state patronage.

But maybe it’s time to hit pause on that old pessimism? One does get the feeling that such stories are reducing in frequency while we see an increase in the number of professional athletes who pursue sports full time. More on that later.

Let’s look at the many bright moments in sports this year, as well as the heroes and heroines who made them happen.

Asian Games:

The 2018 Asian Games held in Indonesia were expected to bring an unprecedented windfall of medals for India. Our athletes had been in pretty good form this year, and many were chosen for the games based on qualifiers. The sports establishment seemed surprisingly free of clutter this year - with no consideration of past laurels, the various bodies picked teams comprising people who were essentially, in form.

And that, in turn, seemed to have worked in terms of results. India won 69 medals at the Asian Games - the best-ever medal haul at an Asiad. I wasn’t kidding when i said windfall!

India’s athletes won 15 gold medals, 24 silver medals and 30 bronzes to beat the medal count from the 2010 Asian Games held in Guangzhou, China. The 2018 gold medal tally matched the number from India’s performance at the first-ever Asian Games conducted in 1951.

Many new national records were created, and we also saw medal-wining performances in sports like sepaktakraw. Rahi Sarnobat became first Indian woman to win an Asian Games gold in shooting while Vinesh Phogat became the first Indian woman to win gold in wrestling. Athletics was the major contributor to India’s best year at the Asian Games.

Track and field events saw India win 7 golds, 10 silvers and 2 bronze medals. As the Indian Express noted, “take away Bahrain’s Africa-born athletes, who finished second best in athletics, and India’s count could have been even higher.” The Express is teetering on the edge of racism there, but they do have a point.

Many Indian athletes were beaten to the podium by the Africa-born star athletes who now compete for Bahrain. Neeraj Chopra and Swapna Barman’s gold medals in javelin throw and heptathlon went alongside India’s continued dominance of the women’s team relay where they claimed gold. Jinson Johnson won the gold in the 1500m race, India’s first in 20 years. Manjit Singh’s 800m gold was the first after 32 years, and Arpinder Singh’s triple jump gold came after 48 long years. PV Sindhu won an individual silver in badminton while Saina Nehwal won a bronze. The men’s hockey team, arguably the most skilled in Asia, were once again underachievers - they finished with a bronze.

The women’s hockey team won a silver medal. It was a similar story in Kabaddi. A medal that looked all but won for favorites India before the games was lost - the men’s team lost in the semis to end up with a bronze while the women’s team finished with silver.

India’s rowers secured a gold in the Quadruple Sculls and two bronze medals in the individual events. Shooting brought in a chunk of medals for India - 10 in all, with 2 golds, 4 silvers and 3 bronze medals. There were also two bronze medals in table tennis, while we won a gold and two bronzes in tennis.

Are you getting bored of me recounting all the medals? Well that’s how many we won, for a change. Oh yeah, I almost missed telling you about the two golds in wrestling. We also won a few medals in martial arts - something named Wushu and Kurash. Apparently, if there was a sport at the Asian Games, India was making a play for a medal win. If you had a terrible 2018 and think it sucks, India’s sportspersons might disagree.

2) Commonwealth Games:

Now, let’s review the other big moment for Indian sports in 2018 - the Commonwealth Games. This year, the games were hosted by Australia and the gold coast saw some great performances by India’s athletes. Sure, it was the Commonwealth Games, so the best in the world weren’t around. But someone had to win, and UK, Australia etc. aren’t exactly pushovers.

As PTI recounted, “From the teen shooting trio of Manu Bhaker, Mehuli Ghosh and Anish Bhanwala, the historic table tennis performance by Manika Batra to the arrival of a very confident Neeraj Chopra on the big stage, India had its next crop of stars ready to challenge the world.”

With 26 gold, 20 silver and 20 bronze medals, India finished third in the medals tally. There were nine medals from boxing, 12 from wrestling, 16 from shooting and nine from weightlifting. That meant India went up two places from the previous games held in Glasgow, and it was a combination of youth and experience that delivered the results. Athletes like MC Mary Kom, Seema Punia and Sushil Kumar showed that experience can never be discounted, turning back the clock to deliver performances which were nothing short of awe-inspiring. While the shooters, weightlifters, wrestlers and the boxers were expected to bring home the maximum share of medals, there was a significant new addition to that in table tennis. India scored just a solitary bronze in the 2014 games and there were concerns how the performance might turn out this time around.

22-year-old Manika Batra, who dropped out of college to focus on her game, ensured that things turn out differently. It was a tour-de-force by the youngster from Delhi - in the best individual performance by an Indian athlete, she won a historic individual gold, a team gold, a women's doubles silver and a mixed doubles bronze.

In badminton, it was all about Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu but Kidambi Srikanth also created a space of his own after defeating the legendary Lee Chong Wei,helping win the gold in the team competition. Meanwhile, Saina defeated Sindhu to win the battle of the shuttlers.

India’s boxers were a revelation at the Commonwealth Games. They won two golds, three silvers and three bronze medals while Mary Kom continued to be the top performing woman, bringing home a gold.

In track and field, Neeraj Chopra’s brilliance won a gold in the javelin event while Seema Punia, despite the shadow cast by her past doping, won a silver in discus throw.

3) Cricket:

We now come to the biggest sport in India - cricket. It was a mixed year for India in cricket - while the ODI team finished 2018 as the most successful team, it was a decidedly underwhelming year in Test cricket. Virat Kohli’s team started the year by losing two Tests in South Africa but bounced back to win the third Test on a ridiculous Newlands pitch that even the home team found too much to handle. India’s batsmen took blows to the body but kept going, and the bowlers repaid the hard work of the batsmen by dismissing the Saffers to record a famous win. Then they went to England - the less said about the 4-1 thumping suffered by India, the better. While Kohli did well as a batsman, except for the win in the third Test at Trent Bridge, it was a forgettable your for the number one ranked Test team.

They turned things around to win the Asia Cup defeating Bangladesh in the final, and even seemingly avenging the loss to Pakistan in the 2017 Champions Trophy final.

Then came the tour of Australia - the big cricket event of the year for all Indian fans. India won the first Test, in spite of the inability of Kohli’s team to dismiss opposition tailenders in test matches. Even as the fans’ euphoria was rising, India conspired to lose the second Test rather ignominiously. Out of nowhere, the so-called weakest Australian team in years, if not decades, had leveled the series. Now we hear the familiar refrains about the captain not being good enough and the coach needing to be fired. Though I’m not sure any fans would mind if Ravi Shastri were not a part of the dressing room. Cricket could be the winner, perhaps?

Now, we come to the individual athletes who had a great 2018.

1) Prithvi Shaw:

Since we’re talking cricket, let’s talk about the exciting new talent in cricket - Prithvi Shaw. Yes, Virat Kohli has had a fabulous 2018 - he has scored over 1000 runs and has led India to famous wins in South Africa, England and Australia. Many long columns will be written about him, so we’ll look at the newcomer who has everyone comparing him to Sachin Tendulkar.

To achieve fame at an early stage isn’t that difficult these days, but to maintain it and remain humble at the same point is difficult. Indian cricket’s latest sensation, Prithvi Shaw’s story is a touching one. Playing his international match for India against West Indies, Shaw became the youngest Indian centurion on debut.

Shaw’s father had a clothing business - he used to get clothes from Surat and sold them in Mumbai and Thane. Shaw’s father used to accompany him for training at Bandra since the age of 5. They lived in a chawl at Virar and have seen tough situations but he managed to overcome all and make his mark at the international level.

2) Hima Das:

Hima once dreamed of being a footballer. The Asian Games Gold medalist, whom some call ‘Dhing Express’ (because embarrassing nicknames are such an Indian thing), has come a long way as an international athlete. Hima first grabbed headlines for her historic gold in women’s 400m event at IAAF World U-20 World Championships. Born into a poor family in Assam, Hima has become a poster girl for Indian athletes. She has trained at her father’s rice field and worked hard to get the position she is at present. Winning those medals at the Asian Games - gold in Women's 4x400m and silver medals in mixed 4x400m and 400m individual event - was indeed a proud moment for Hima and her village. The enduring image of Hima Das in viral videos from the Games is perhaps that of her medal ceremony, singing the national anthem, with tears in her eyes, the flag flying behind her and an Assamese gamosa draped around her neck. Goosebumps stuff right there.

3) Swapna Barman:

Swapna Burman is the daughter of a rickshaw puller from Bengal. She won the gold in the heptathlon event at the Asian Games this year. Swapna was born with six toes in both feet and couldn’t even find the right shoes to run in! To make matter worse, she had to compete wearing regular normal shoes which didn’t help when running. However, this impediment didn’t stop her from clinching India’s first gold at the Asian Games in Heptathlon.

Interestingly, Swapna was suffering from a toothache and hence used a tape on her jaws to tackle the pain during the all important event. Overcoming acute pain, Swapna managed to get the job done and scripted history for India.

4) Dattu Baban Bhokanal:

The next athlete is a hero of sorts - a man who doesn’t give up. India’s rowing star Dattu Baban Bhokanal overcame all that life threw at him and won a gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games. Prior to that, in 2016, Dattu represented India at the Rio Olympics while his mother was in a coma! Dattu was born to a well-digger father who could barely afford to pay his son’s school fees. Quitting studies, Dattu decided to join his father to earn wages for family.

Since then, the rowing gold medallist has done several odd jobs like selling onions and working at petrol pumps, in order to support his family. After the death of his father, Dattu joined Indian Army where a new chapter of his life began. In the 2018 Asian Games, he won the gold in Quadruple Sculls.

5) Dutee Chand:

Asian Games medallist Dutee Chand is carrying the torch for women athletes in the country. Chand started her journey from a small village in Odisha and has now become an icon for young women who want to take up competitive sports. Chand was born in a family of weavers and has been pursuing athletics from the age of four.

Chand is no stranger to a difficult life. She didn’t have even a pair of shoes to run in, and was forced to run barefoot. Worse, she didn’t have even right clothes and in winter, despite shivering, Chand never stopped running. This year, we saw the results of her struggle as she won silver medals in the 100m and 200m events.

6) Tajinderpal Singh Toor:

Tajinderpal Singh Toor won the gold medal in Men’s Shot Put final at the Asian Games. It was quite a win - Toor moved into first place on his first attempt with a throw of 19.96m. His third attempt was a foul. Then, the 24-year-old athlete threw a record 20.75m to clinch the gold medal.

That moment of glory was a bittersweet one for the unsung hero. Toor hails from a family of farmers in Moga, Punjab. His childhood dream was to become a cricketer but on his father’s insistence, he took up shot put. His father died before seeing his son winning the gold medal at Asian Games. Getting proper shoes, food supplements or even using a professional gym - it was all very hard work for Tajinderpal to get any of these. It’s an easy guess that Indian sportsmen, the ones that haven’t made it yet, can’t afford a Gold’s Gym membership.

Toor shot to fame with medals in the Federation Cup, Interstate Competitions, and Open Nationals. In 2015, he joined the Indian Navy. In 2018, he won the gold at the 57th National inter-State athletics championships, and is Asia’s number one shot putter at present.

7) Neeraj Chopra:

20-year-old Neeraj’s gold medal in Javelin at the Asian Games is the stuff of dreams. And makes for a great YouTube motivational video. Neeraj Chopra, the flag bearer for India at this year’s Asian Games, hails from a village near Panipat in Haryana. He used to practice in the green fields in and around his village s there was no playground or stadium nearby.

It’s that familiar story that comes with Indian sportsmen. Lack of financial support and professional training meant that Neeraj learnt the basics of javelin watching YouTube videos! Well, someone finally benefited from the overkill of YouTube motivational videos.

Neeraj was dealt a shock n July 2018 as his coach Garry Calvert passed away. Garry had coached Neeraj at the time he had scripted history by becoming the nation's first-ever World Champion at a track and field event - a gold at the U20 World Championships in Finland. Neeraj is now coached by Uwe Hohn, a retired German track and field athlete who competed in the javelin throw. Hohn is the only athlete to throw a javelin 100 metres or more. Hohn's world record of 104.80 m is now considered an ‘eternal world record’ because javelins were redesigned in 1986.

8) Manu Bhaker:

16-year-old Manu Bhaker mae sports headlines when she became the youngest Indian shooter to win a World Cup gold. She finished in first place in the women's 10m air pistol event at ISSF World Cup in Guadalajara, Mexico in March this year. She also presents a contrast in the podium photograph, smiling next to a none-too-impressed, and definitely less amused, Alejandra Zavala of Mexico.

That probably had something to do with the final - In a dramatic encounter, Bhaker scored 237.5 in the final, defeating local favourite Zavala by a meagre 0.4 point difference. Alejandra, who has won several World Cup medals since 1998, has been a favorite since even before Manu was born! Manu then won anotehr gold in the mixed team event, and followed that up with a Commonwealth Games gold medal in the 10m air pistol event. She had a less than impressive time at the Asian games but Manu Bhaker is definitely one to watch in the future.

9) Mary Kom:

What can we say about her that hasn’t been said before? I mean that - she has a biopic made on her life. This legend of Indian boxing added another feather to her cap by becoming the World Champion for a record sixth time. She defeated Hanna Okhota of Ukraine to win a record-equalling sixth gold at World Boxing Championship. No one has ever won more gold medals than Mary Kom at the World Championships. Earlier this year, she also won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games 2018 in women's 45-48kg boxing category. 2018 was another great year for this unstoppable woman.

10) PV Sindhu:

We must wind up this podcast with the woman who has taken badminton in India to new heights. PV Sindhu has been one of India's best athletes in the past couple of years and she continues to shine on bigger stages. In 2018, Sindhu became the first-ever Indian to win a silver medal in any women's singles badminton event at the Asian Games 2018. She lost 21-13, 21-16 the final to Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying but scripted history by making it to the title clash. Sindhu then ended the year on a high - she broke her 'finals jinx' to clinch a gold medal at the World Tour Finals - after a win over 2017 world champion Nozomi Okuhara no less.

In a great year for Indian sports, these 10 men and women proved they could compete with the best in the world and win. May their tribe increase.

First Published on Dec 22, 2018 11:35 am
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