Two ongoing events provide India opportunities to showcase its growing prowess as a sporting nation. The Chess Olympiad in Mamallapuram near Chennai and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham come with several positive indicators, which will show up over the period of the next few days.
The Commonwealth Games (CWG), a legacy of India’s colonial past, is one of the largest multi-sport events, but still pales in comparison to the Olympics or the Asian Games, two events with higher prestige. The CWG, however, is a stepping stone, a medal that counts, gives an athlete confidence for greater glory, at a bigger stage.
India’s biggest current star in these events, Neeraj Chopra, has pulled out of the event due to a groin injury, soon after winning a javelin silver medal at the World Championships. His would have been an assured medal, as assured as anything can be in the fickle world of sport where variables like form and fitness play a crucial role. That and the absence in these Games of shooting as a discipline, one in which India has traditionally promised and delivered much, will only be a small dent in the contingent’s overall ambitions.
At the last Games in 2018 in Gold Coast, Australia, India finished third with 66 medals. The country has got over 100 medals just once, when they hosted the event in 2010. But that third-place finish can be bettered this time because four years down the line, the country’s roster of athletes is far more comfortable in its place among a line-up of global performers.
After the men’s badminton team won the Thomas Cup a few months ago, most players agreed that India can now be legitimately called a superpower in the sport. It’s a feeling that transcends disciplines, medals at various events and age categories, have given Indian athletes the belief that they are not merely participants, but contenders.
The men’s badminton team is without H.S. Prannoy, one of the Thomas Cup stars and a consistent performer at the international level, and the talismanic Saina Nehwal. But they still have enough muscle in P.V. Sindhu, K. Srikanth, Lakshya Sen and the doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty.
Combined with the Olympic bronze-medal winning hockey team, the shining line-up of boxers including Nikhat Zareen, Lovlina Borgohain, table tennis players Manika Batra, G. Sathiyan, weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, Ravi Dahiya, Bajrang Punia, track and field’s Avinash Sable, M. Sreeshankar, besides the para-athletes, there are plenty of potential medals.
Besides, there is cricket, with the women’s T20 being included in this edition. TV ratings are obviously a consideration because India and Pakistan are clubbed in the same group. For shooting that’s missing at the Commonwealth Games, there is lawn bowls that remains, part of the 15 disciplines India’s 215-strong contingent will participate in.
Across continents, in sultry Mamallapuram (or better known as Mahabalipuram), the 44th Chess Olympiad is an event for India to showcase its organisational skills as well as its growing strength in a cerebral sport that may not require athleticism but needs endurance. The man who catalysed a chess revolution in the country, Viswanathan Anand, will not be participating, working instead as a mentor and gearing up to contest in the International Chess Board (FIDE) elections that will be held during the Olympiad.
His absence weakens the Indian team considerably, but Anand’s legacy shows in that India now has 73 Grandmasters (GM) and 21 Women Grandmasters (WGM). As hosts, India field three teams in each of the men’s and women’s categories, a sign of how deep the talent pool runs. This includes R. Praggnanandhaa, the teen sensation who became the youngest GM in 2016 at age 10 and has beaten the world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen twice in online events. The top women’s team is seeded one, while the men’s team is seeded two.“I believe that one gold and one silver is the minimum expectation we should have,” Parvin Thipsay, head of the Indian delegation, told ESPN.
There are, as always, notable absentees, in Russia and China. The former was meant to host the event, but the war in Ukraine warranted a change in plans for which All India Chess Federation (AICF) and Tamil Nadu bravely stepped in. Even if a few of the top players will be missing in action, others like Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian will make this a significant event, which includes 187 teams in the open competition and 162 women’s teams.
India’s rise in the sport is perpetuated not just by the massive influence Anand generated over the last four decades, but by the proliferation of the sport online. Chess is increasingly a more democratised sport, with online platforms that not only give access to databases, help analyse positions but also allow for any number of games.
“Now we are suffering the same problem as every wake of life. We are drowning in information. We have databases of millions of games,” Anand said a few years ago. “Geography is no longer an issue—even if you are born in a remote island in the pacific, you have internet, you can play a few games, improve all that. The internet is a wonderful tool to promote chess.”
“For players, you have to separate, you have to extract knowledge from this flood of information. If from all these millions of games you can extract a few useful bits of understanding of the game that will score points. Otherwise, you are same as everyone else and it’s not a big deal.”
“There is no single favourite. On a good day, each one (is a favourite). You are forced to fight for every game. That may be one of the big changes in chess,” he said.The Birmingham Games end on August 8, the Chess Olympiad the following day. By then, this new found confidence among Indian sportspeople, that they are not just participants, but winners, medallists and influencers, would be emphasised many times over.