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September, Chess, Sports: Can Neeraj Chopra Repeat What Vishy Anand Did in 2000?

The past provides an indication of how tough it has been for India in the arena of sports.

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(This is part three of a four-part 'September' series that revisits significant historical events or policies and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society. Read part one here, and part two here.)

Some might think the authors used a classic, clickbait headline.

After all, Viswanathan Anand is a chess player whose brains supposedly matter more than brawn.

In contrast, Neeraj Chopra belongs to an entirely different world of physical sports where the brain is not supposed to play the leading role.

Some might even argue that Neeraj has claimed higher mountains than Anand, winning both the Olympic gold Medal and the World Championship Gold. Besides, what does a javelin throw have in common with a chess move?

The authors will come to that in a while.

All this is happening at a time when the Indian contingent is chasing a record tally of medals at the Asian Games currently going on in Hangzhou, China, adding an Equestrian Gold to the tally after more than 40 years. Anand would definitely have fond memories of China. 23 years ago, in Shenyang, China, he had won his first FIDE World Cup, a title he successfully defended for 13 years.

Still, why the headline? The answer is very simple.

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In Sports, It Has Always Been Tough for India

Two generations of chess players have been inspired by the heroics of Anand and the country is now a bona fide chess superpower of the world, alongside America, Russia, and China.

This year, another Indian chess prodigy, Pragnanandha came within heartbreaking distance of emulating the feat of Anand before losing to reigning champion Magnus Carlsen in a tiebreak.

Incidentally, it was Carlsen who had broken the 13-year stranglehold that Anand had over the title by defeating him in 2013 to become the new FIDE world champion. Carlsen has held on to that title since then. But those who follow chess seem convinced it is a matter of time before Pragnanandha dethrones Carlsen.

Coming back to the headline, Anand was the first Indian to become a Grand Master of chess in 1988. Prior to that, Indians had to be satisfied with claims that chess was originally born in India in ancient times. Since then, India has produced 83 grand masters including two females. Becoming a GM means you belong to the elite of the world.

In that context, going from zero to 83 in just a few decades is a stunning achievement. In no other sports category has India produced so many potential and actual champions in such a short period of time. There has been some success in wrestling, shooting, tennis, and badminton. But nothing compares to what has happened with chess in India.

The Olympic Gold Medal and the world championship crown won by Neeraj Chopra have been as inspiring as the FIDE chess crown won by Anand in 2000 in China. The question is: can this inspire a generation of track and field athletes to become world champions?

The past provides an indication of how tough it has been in India. There have been flashes of brilliance followed by long periods of mediocracy. A long time ago, Milkha Singh inspired and electrified India with his feats on the track, narrowly missing out on a medal in the 400 metres race at the Rome Olympics.

But after him came mediocrity.

Forget the Olympics and world championships, India failed to produce an athlete who could win even the Asian Games Gold after Milkha Singh who won in the 1962 Asian Games.

It is the same story with P T Usha who came heartbreakingly close to winning a medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in the 400-metre hurdles race. No female athlete has come even close to matching Usha’s performance since then.

In the 1970s, Vijay Amritraj was considered one of the best tennis players in the world. He even entered the Wimbledon semi-finals and came close to beating Jimmy Connors. India has since then produced some very good tennis players like Sania Mirza, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupati, and others. But none have excelled at the individual level in Grand Slam tournaments.

There has been more success in badminton after Prakash Padukone and Puella Gopichand. But not at the level generated in chess after Anand became world champion. There are similarities between Anand and Gopichand, though.

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Glimpses of Change

The mother of Pragnanandha, Nagalakshmi with her simple attire and smiles has become a celebrity in her own right. In an age where social media was not around, Susheela, the mother of Anand had played a key role in nurturing and encouraging the talent of her son.

An even bigger and unsung role was played by Aruna, the wife of Viswanathan Anand. Without seeking government, she has led the effort to mentor young talent in chess for almost two decades along with her husband. The effort includes financial support and even meals during coaching sessions.

Arguably, the other sport in which a whole generation of medal-winning athletes have emerged is badminton. One cannot deny the stellar role played by Gopichand as a mentor, coach, and advisor. From getting up at dawn to work with fresh talent to spending day after day improving their techniques, Gopichand has indeed created a generation of champions.

To some extent, campion shooters like Gagan Narang and Avinabh Bhindra have played a significant role in nurturing fresh talent in shooting. Not surprisingly, Indian shooters have been consistently winning global tournaments, barring the huge disappointment at the Tokyo Olympics.

Neeraj Chopra is uniquely placed to become the next Anand when it comes to track and field athletics. The reason is that more people, money, resources, and facilities are pouring into Indian sports in the 21st century. In the past, sports was rarely a financially rewarding career with dozens of stories about medal-winning athletes living in abject penury. Even now, barring cricket, sports don’t offer financial rewards and security.

But that is changing.

For decades, a thing called the “sports culture” never took root in India. It is not about DNA. It has always been about money, facilities, and professional training. As the Indian economy has become the fifth largest in the world, both governments and private sponsors are investing big money in sports facilities and in individuals. This will inevitably create a pool of world-class athletes by the end of this decade. Worldwide, sports have followed the economic trajectory of nations.

One can already see glimpses of this.

Till a few years ago, people would have laughed at you if you suggested Indian athletes could compete with the best in the world in track events. But in the recently held world athletics championships, the Indian quartet in the 4*400 metres relay race shocked the world of sports by finishing fifth.

Of course, India will perhaps never be the sports powerhouse that China has become. That’s because the authoritarian Chinese state can single-mindedly pursue what a noisy and still poor democracy like India can never. But then, even if India starts winning a handful of medals in track and field events at the Olympics, it should be a reason to celebrate rather than compare China with India.

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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