Notwithstanding Glitches, Indian Sports Is Gaining Good Momentum

From PT Usha’s missed medal being the biggest success story in Indian sports to Sindhu winning the silver at Rio.

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PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik won India medal at the Rio Olympics. (Photo: AP)

I got up one morning (4 May) with a news headline on Whatsapp from my sports enthusiast cousin that India had jumped to 100th place in FIFA World Cup ranking. Then his emotions spilled out in next message. He wrote “socha na tha aisa din aayega”.

One would wonder what’s the great deal about being 100th in the world was. But, juxtapose this with India’s FIFA ranking of 173 just a couple of years back, and you will know the importance of the news.

It may still not be big enough to brag about but the feat truly manifests India’s continuous overall improvement in sports over the past decade and a half, which is so gratifying for sports freaks like us, who grew up in the eighties and nineties.

As a kid, I was heartbroken when PT Usha missed an Olympic medal at the 1984 Los Angles Olympics. We thought India would excel in the days to come but the performance plummeted further, and plummeted miserably. So much so that Usha’s missed medal in 1984 remained the biggest success story in Indian sports for years to come.

At the 1986 Asian Games, India bagged five gold medals (four of them won by PT Usha, so there were just two gold medallists). In comparison, China won 94 and South Korea 93 gold medals in the same mega event.

So while countries likes USA and erstwhile USSR were amassing gold medals at the Olympics, India – the second most populous country – was rejoicing Milkha Singh and PT Usha’s fourth positions in their respective events. This very fact depicts the whole narrative of the status of Indian sports at the time.

PT Usha won four medals at the 1986 Asian Games. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/PT.UshaOfficial/photos/a.1457610841164016.1073741826.1456831277908639/1532110273714072/?type=3&amp;theater">PT Usha</a>)
PT Usha won four medals at the 1986 Asian Games. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/PT Usha)

In the 1986 Hockey World Cup, eight-time Olympic gold medallist India finished at a humiliating 12th place out of as many teams. The contingent in 1988 Seoul and 1992 Barcelona Olympic games were simply reduced to tourists. Forget a medal, there was not even a single Indian sportsperson’s performance to boast of.

India hit an unprecedented low at the 1990 Asian Games. Only one gold came in the kitty and that too in newly introduced Kabaddi.

Leander Paes’ bronze at Atlanta Olympic Games salvaged some pride but Karnam Malleswari’s bronze at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 – the first Olympic medal won by an Indian woman - was nation’s first real moment of pride.

So with the onset of the new millennium, things started moving forward step by step. After an individual bronze medal at Sydney in 2000, India bagged an individual silver medal (Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore) at Athens in 2004. Abhinav Bindra further raised the bar by claiming the first ever individual gold medal for India in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics.

Abhinav Bindra with his gold medal at the Beijing Games. (Photo: Reuters)
Abhinav Bindra with his gold medal at the Beijing Games. (Photo: Reuters)

Sushil Kumar became the first Indian to claim two successive individual medals at Olympics in 2008 (bronze) and 2012 (silver).

Then came arguably one of the brightest points of India’s sporting history, when PV Sindhu appeared in the summit clash for the badminton gold at Rio Olympics last year. That was a defining moment. It was unthinkable until a couple of decades ago that an Indian girl would contest for the top spot in an individual racket sport.

India started thriving in sports, which can be primarily attributed to the youth power from small towns and hinterlands. Sports no longer remained the fiefdom of riches and upper class from metros. Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, Vijender Singh, Phogat sisters, MS Dhoni, and Sakshi Malik signify this so immaculately.

Take the case of cricket. The current generation of Indian cricket is notches above that of the nineties. Once dominated by the players from Mumbai, now the stars are coming from small towns of states like Jharkhand, Gujarat and UP.

Various leagues in sports like cricket, badminton, kabaddi, hockey and wrestling have provided the desired impetus to the whole sports ecosystem in the country and helped take things to a whole new level altogether.

India is making its presence felt now. So while earlier cricketers from across the world used to vie for a stint at county cricket in England, now they queue up for the Indian Premier League. It is so satisfying to watch some of the best international badminton players toiling on Indian courts under the banner of Premier Badminton League.

In fact, overall it can be accredited to India’s progression as a nation and society, which was triggered after economic reforms in the early nineties.

Notwithstanding Sindhu and Malik, Rio 2016 was a little disappointing but still, the momentum is good as a whole and as sports fanatics, we can have our wish list for the future from our sportspersons.

For the current generation, India is way behind in sports in comparison to other countries. But, for people like us, currently it has been no less than a roller coaster ride. After all, we have witnessed India not winning a single Olympic medal for 16 years and no individual medal at the Olympics for 44.

(The writer is is an IIT graduate with passion for sports, history and politics and can be reached at @pankajag1973)

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