Bharat is finally showing signs of coming up on its own in the global sporting order. There comes a time in the journey of the powerful nation when sports becomes a rear image of its increasing might in the global order. In the post-World War era, USA and erstwhile USSR were the dominant powers replacing the Western Europe dominance in the realm of sports. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, China started flexing its muscles on the medal podiums of major global sporting events. In the case of China as well, sports mirrored the rapid strides the country had taken in terms of its economic and military growth. It’s amidst this backdrop that the time for Bharat has come. As the world was still talking in terms of the successful G 20 summit in New Delhi, Indian athletes in the Hangzhou Asian Games have crossed a psychological barrier, the entire ramifications of which will be felt in the years ahead.
“You have created history. Figures of this Asian Games are witness to India’s success. This is the best performance of India in the Asian Games to date. It is a matter of personal satisfaction that we are moving in the right direction” — Narendra Modi, Prime Minister
Two years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi Government came to power, India was competing in the Rio Olympics 2016. As the Indian contingent reached the games village, there was an article in the State-backed Chinese media which became the topic of debate in the Indian mainstream media. Money, tradition, culture and corruption- Chinese media summarised India’s dismal Olympics performance in these four words. ‘Money, tradition, culture and corruption, India is still poor and sports has never been the priority of the government agenda’. ‘The Global Times’ published by ‘People’s Daily’, even dispatched their reporters to Delhi and Goa and reported that the sports facilities were inadequate and children were still playing football and table tennis in the shabby venues. A section of Chinese media took this debate to a bizarre level and wrote: ‘India’s poor performance in the Olympics sports may be attributed to Indian vegetarian diets and religious beliefs which goes against the Olympics competitive spirit’. ‘Indians are religious, most people believe in Hinduism and Buddhism and competitive sports are contrary to the spirit of their religion’, claimed an article in the website ‘Toutiao’. Chinese media has been following this policy of attacking India on the eve of the Olympics and comparing their performance with the Indian contingent for years. Most of their arguments defied any logic or understanding the innate strength of the Hindu philosophy and thought which had sustained itself despite attacks and invasions for centuries. But what was worrisome this time was the fact that a section of the Left-oriented media was willing to buy these arguments to corner the Narendra Modi Government.
“India is excelling in various fields, and now is the perfect time for us Indians to achieve remarkable feats!” — Neeraj Chopra, Javelin thrower
Setting a New Benchmark
It was against this backdrop that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Government started weaving in a new template in the realm of sports as well. Seven years down the line and a year ahead of the Paris Olympics 2024, the Indian contingent has sent a strong message from the Chinese soil. In the Hangzhou Asian Games 2023, the Indian contingent returned with 107 medals, their best ever performance in the history of the games by a fair distance. More importantly, on one hand, this performance is just a tip of the iceberg in terms of the immense possibilities in the future. On the other hand, this performance is part of the larger trend, which is getting visible after each such major outing. In the Tokyo Olympics Games 2020, which got delayed because of COVID-19, India finished 48th on the medal tally, its highest ranking in four decades. More importantly, in terms of the number of medals won, India stood at 33rd position amongst all the competing nations. The previous best finish was 51st rank at Beijing in 2008, when India won three medals, which included Abhinav Bindra’s gold. India had finished higher during the golden hockey run, but considering the far more increased competitiveness, the two different eras cannot be compared. Before this in the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games, India registered its best ever medal haul till then, winning 70 medals across disciplines- 16 gold, 23 silver and 31 bronze. This was also India’s highest ever performance in terms of gold medals till then. Perhaps, it set the stage for the subsequent medal haul in Tokyo Olympics 2020, where with the 10% conversion rate, India returned with 7 medals in the Olympics.
Earlier this year, on August 8, 2023, India ended their World University Campaign, with their best ever performance, winning a record haul of 26 medals including 11 golds. In fact, this edition’s medal haul was more than the combined total of all the past medals won by the country in all previous editions of the World University Games taken together. India had won 21 medals, six gold, six silver and nine bronze before the 2023 World University Games. Similarly, in all the previous editions of the Paralympics Games taken together, India had won only 12 medals. In the one edition of the Tokyo Paralympic Games alone, India got 19 medals. Behind these trends and numbers, the larger story of India’s performance in the Hangzhou Asian Games 2023, needs to be understood.
Firstly, with the astounding haul of 107 medals, India’s 655 representatives surpassed their previous records set in the Jakarta Games. If we apply the 10 per cent conversion rate formula of the Olympics vis a vis the Asian Games, India will be returning with 10 to 11 medals in the Paris Olympics, thereby touching the double digits for the first time. Secondly, India became the fourth nation in the Hangzhou Games 2023 to cross the 100 medals barrier. As the first individual gold medal winner from the country, Abhinav Bindra says, “It has been the most sensational performance. Just being a former athlete and part of the sports movement in India, I think I am incredibly proud of this day.” Milestones such as these are important as it inspires many to take up the Olympic sports and those who have already taken up the serious sports to strive for excellence. Thirdly, the Hangzhou Games will be remembered for athletes who explored the limits of their endurance to return home successful in disciplines which were hitherto out of their reach.
Olympian Aditi Ashok won the silver and became the first Indian woman to claim a medal in golf. India claimed their first ever medal in Women’s Sepaktakraw at the games with the regu team winning the bronze. Sailor Vishnu Saravanan’s bronze was India’s first medal in the men’s dinghy ILCA7 event in the games. Sudipti Hajela, Divyakirti Singh, Vipul Hriday Chheda and Anush Agrawal won India’s first ever dressage team gold in the Asian Games. It was the country’s first gold medal in 41 years. In 1982 Asian Games in Delhi, Indian team had grabbed three gold medals. After 13 years’ wait in archery, India’s men and women recurve teams clinched a silver and bronze medal respectively. Arjun Singh and Sunil Singh Salam clinched bronze medal in men’s canoe double 1000 metre event in the Asian Games.
In shooting the team of Manisha Keer, Rajeshwari Kumari and Preeti Rajak combined to win India’s first ever medal in Asian Games in women’s skeet and that too a silver medal. Anantjeet Singh Naruka clinched the country’s first ever silver medal in men’s skeet individual event.
In badminton, HS Prannoy and the pair of Satwiksairaj Ranki Reddy and Chirag Shetty won India’s first singles and men’s doubles medals after 41 years. It was Syed Modi who won a bronze in 1982, while the doubles pair of Leroy D’sa and Pradeep Gandhe won the bronze in 1982. Satwik-Siraj gold was a first for India at the Asian Games. In table tennis, Suturtha Mukherjee and Ayhika Mukherjee became giant killers to clinch a historic bronze medal. However, amidst all this, the silver lining is athletics.
Sign of New Bharat
Avinash Samble became the first Indian man to win a gold medal in 3,000 meters steeplechase at the games. The 29-year-old national record holder completed the race in 8:19:50 seconds. More importantly, Sable also rewrote the previous games record of 8:22:79 on way to the top podium finish. But the athlete who symbolised the sign of Naya Bharat was Parul Chaudhary. In the 5,000 meters race, the 28-year-old was behind Japan’s Ririka Hironaka in the closing stages but produced a stunning dash in the final 40 meters to claim the yellow metal with the timing of 15:14:75. In the process, she became the first Indian woman to win an Asian Games gold in 5,000 meters race, adding to the 3,000 steeplechase silver that she had won earlier. For far too long, India’s reputation was symbolised by legends Milkha Singh and PT Udha so near and yet so far moments in the Rome and Los Angeles Olympics respectively. Parul represents Bharat which knows how to come from behind and cross the finishing line when it matters.
“PM Modi has been a tremendous source of inspiration for us. Whenever we witness him making India proud, it fuels our determination to do the same. It’s truly incredible to have a leader of his caliber” — Yashasvi Jaiswal, Indian Cricketer
Bridging the Gap
Though India still has to cover a huge distance to bridge the gap with the leading sports power like the US, China, Russia and other European countries, Hangzhou shows that it is not beyond our reach and a solid foundation is being laid. Firstly, the credit for the emerging trend goes to the Target Olympics Podium Scheme (TOPs), which consistently supports athletes and handles the budget efficiently. The department of Sports identifies and sponsors promising athletes, with a focus on those with a medal potential in the upcoming 2024 Paris and 2028 LosAngeles Games. Secondly, whereas earlier the only platform for the exposure for the emerging athlete were the National Games which were too few and too far in between. Now the Khelo India Games structure provides the athletes with the much needed exposure. In the Hangzhou Asian Games, 124 Khelo India athletes participated and 36 of them won medals. The Khelo India Games are produced and telecast live on the leading sports channels and public platforms of the country. Para Sports has been brought to the national mainstream and the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs is preparing for the inaugural Khel India Para Games this year.
“PM Narendra Modi’s personal motivation goes a long way to push athletes to perform good” — Nikhat Zareen, Women’s boxing
Gradually, a supply line from the grassroots in terms of the Khelo India to the top in terms of the TOPs is being formalised. For instance, Esha Singh was identified in the 2019 Khelo India Games, joined the Khelo India scheme and subsequently the Target Olympics Podium Schemes. The SAI has implemented a rigorous standard operating procedure, resumed national coaching camps and has laid out a comprehensive plan for 2024 Paris and 2028 LosAngeles Olympics.
Indian athletes in the Hangzhou Asian Games have crossed a psychological barrier the entire ramifications of which will be felt in the years ahead
Thirdly, there has been a perceptible change in the sporting ecosystem in the country. From IPL, PKL to the ISL, drivers of different sports leagues have become leading global sports properties. Different sports federations have started thinking out-of-box and the Government of India is encouraging them in this effort. Lastly but most importantly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Government are leading this change from the front. Before, during and after every major event, he personally interacts with the athletes, encourages and empowers them and keeps the entire Government machinery on its toes.
“Participating in the Asian Games was indeed an honour for us. We are incredibly grateful for the opportunity, which was made possible thanks to our Prime Minister Narendra Modi” — Harmanpreet Kaur, Captain, Women’s, Cricket Team
On the Right Track
Bharat has announced the signs of its arrival on the global sporting platform. India, in early years of Independence, was identified with firstly hockey and then cricket- the two colonial legacy. Whereas it is now dominating cricket and reclaiming its lost space in hockey, it’s emerging as the potential power in Olympics sports. In sports as in life we say, ‘Let your performance do the talking’. Bharat is on the right track and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is leading the change we all want to see.