On their young shoulders, Jeremy Lalrinnunga and Achinta Sheuli weren't lifting weights. They were carrying the hopes of a nation and lifting them to greater heights. At 19 and 20, Jeremy and Achinta are young men with phenomenal futures. And they're not the only ones.
There has been plenty of teenage successes for Indians at the Commonwealth Games. Anish Bhanwala, just 15 at the time, shot his way to gold in the 25 m Rapid Fire Pistol at the 2018 Games.
Indian weightlifters have been raining medals, inspired, perhaps, by the dominant performance of Mirabai Chanu. The silver medallist at Tokyo was a runaway winner by a whopping margin of 29 kg in the women's 49 kg category.
Sanket Sargar (men's 55 kg) and Bindyarani Devi (women's 55 kg) added silvers, and Gururaja Poojary (men's 61 kg) hauled a bronze for India.
But it is Sunday's medals, Jeremy and Achinta's golds, that should usher in the biggest celebration. The transition from the youth categories into the senior tiers of competition is rarely, if ever, straightforward.
The young men have shown us now that they can replicate their success at the junior level in topflight competition. Jeremy's identity can shift now from being India's first gold medallist in the Youth Olympics to a Commonwealth Champion. And Achinta will no longer be just the former junior World Championship silver medallist.
That is a significant leap and one that augurs well for Indian sport. If their success is an indication, it appears that Indian sport is doing a few things right, despite the myriad shenanigans of inept administrators.
While Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have been the leading collectors of Commonwealth medals, India ranks fourth with a rich haul of 503 medals, including 181 gold, as of the 2018 Games.
The bulk of those medals has come from archery, shooting, boxing, and weightlifting for India. Badminton has joined the party in recent years, with many of the Asian and European powerhouses absent from the 72 countries that form a part of these remnants of post-colonial heritage.
What Has Led to These Successes?
There are a couple of key factors that explain the significant successes of Indian athletes in the quadrennial Commonwealth Games.
First, the event is far more significant to the Indian athlete than contenders from other countries. Success at the games is widely celebrated in India, comparable only to the Asian Games, and to a lesser extent, the Olympics.
The seeds of motivation are, therefore, very strong.
The harvest is equally significant – jobs or promotions in the public sector are directly connected to success in these multi-disciplinary events. And then, there is a national recognition and a lifetime of honour from being awarded the Arjuna or Padma Shree based on their CWG performances.
Second, strong performances in the CWG open avenues of support – the state, corporates, and foundations – open their purse to champions, turning the CWG into a strong foundation for success in the Asian Games and the Olympics.
Another fundamental factor aiding Indian success at the CWG is the growth of the sport in India over the past two decades. The emergence of cloud technologies, increasing digitisation, access to the internet, and a near ubiquitous presence of mobile handsets have all contributed to a greater awareness of the sport and a growing appetite.
The 2010 Delhi games have also played a role in expanding the canvas for sport. Besides, there has been a steady stream of heroes for young children looking up to athletes for inspiration. It is no coincidence that India has been a consistent presence in the top five on the CWG medal table in every event since 2002.
Karnam Malleswari's success at the Sydney Olympics brought much-needed attention and funding to weightlifting. And the sport hasn't looked back since then. Her bronze in September 2000 also contributed to the diversity of Indian sport, inspiring a fresh wave of Olympic aspirations, especially for young women.
Similarly, Mary Kom's achievements around the world not only brought much-needed focus to boxing in India but also opened new doors for women in India. Even though Anju Bobby George did not enjoy Olympic success, her accomplishments on the international stage also contributed to a renaissance for Indian sport, particularly in multi-disciplinary events. In a way, both women took off on the Malleswari rocket and carried Indian sport to a higher orbit.
The spirit of sporting exuberance spread rapidly onto wrestling mats, as the akhada culture started yielding a rich harvest for India. Haryana emerged as a particularly rich centre of sporting prowess. The exploits of young athletes from the state served as an empowering statement for women, traditionally undermined in the region.
Others like Saina Nehwal and Jaspal Rana kept Indian aspirations burning bright on the international scene with their work in badminton and shooting respectively. The Beijing gold for Abhinav Bindra provided a new thrust for shooting and other Olympic sports in the country.
PV Sindhu built a monumental career flying on the wings of Saina's success. Her exploits in World Championships and Olympics have turned Sindhu into one of India's greatest athletes.
Sathish Sivalingam, a double gold medallist in the CWG, added to the growing list of heroes in weightlifting. The continued excellence of Mirabai and the fresh energy of Jeremy are an extension of this journey. The Manipuri is already a superstar, having won silver in Tokyo against far superior competition.
There are also external factors contributing to a rich harvest of medals for India. Performances and priorities are relative, but it is hard to ignore that some of the traditional powerhouses in certain sporting disciplines are either missing completely or undermining the CWG through limited participation.
Badminton is a good example. India tends to be far superior in the field, with countries such as Denmark, Japan, and China not part of the competition. In 2018, Saina won gold while Sindhu took home the silver after an all-Indian affair in the finals.
Irrespective of what the CWG means to other nations, it remains an important event on the Indian sporting canvas. The Birmingham games also acquire significance as many from the Indian contingent look to use the games as a launchpad for their Asian Games aspirations in 2023 and the 2024 Paris Olympics. Our contingent, more than two hundred of them, have only just started the count. At five medals, all from weightlifting, the count is well and truly underway for Indian fans. Surely, there will be plenty more to come, despite the absence of shooting and archery from this edition of the games.