Column | India makes huge strides in sporting arena

Neeraj Chopra
Neeraj Chopra competes in the World Athletics Championships final. File photo: AFP/Kirill Kudryavtsev

August was a month when Indians all over the world walked with a spring on their heels and a smile on their lips. The successful landing of the Vikram lander in the lunar south pole was greeted with expressions of unbridled joy throughout the country. The pride that ordinary Indians felt on the successful Chandrayaan-3 mission was reflected in the adulatory and congratulatory messages that poured to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the scientists who worked to make it a success. This achievement made India only the fourth nation to land on the Moon and the first one to touch down on the south pole.

This was also a month that brought happiness and heightened the sense of self dignity of sports lovers in India. The World Athletic Championship held in Budapest saw Neeraj Chopra win the gold in javelin, with a throw that travelled 88.17 metres, thus becoming the first Indian to finish at the pole position in the meet.  This victory, which follows the gold medal in Tokyo Olympiad, confirms Chopra's position as the leading performer in this event in the world. He is all set now to conquer new frontiers by setting his aims on crossing the as yet elusive 90m mark. 

Equally important was the fact that there were two more Indians in the finals of this event. Kishore Jena  and D P Manu, who finished fifth and sixth with throws of 84.77m and 84.14m respectively, showed that Chopra's rise is not a flash in the pan. The same was the case with the men's 4x400m relay team which reached the finals with a stunning performance that broke the existing Asian record. The quartet of Muhammad Anas Yahiya, Amoj Jacob, Muhammad Ajmal and Rajesh Ramesh clocked a time of 2 minutes, 59.05 seconds in the heats. Though they faltered slightly in the middle in the finals, they finished fifth, which was a very creditable achievement given the intensity of competition.

It is not in dispute that the emergence of new athletes capable of reaching the finals of World Championships augurs well for Indian sports. This is not to say that all athletes from our country did well at Budapest. There were disappointments as well, as in the case of long jumper M Sreeshankar. The Keralite had raised expectations after he won the silver medal in Asian Athletics Championship with a leap of 8.37 metres and qualified for the Paris Olympics. But he could manage only below par 7.74m performance and thus failed to even each the finals. 

Both Sreeshankar and Chopra have qualified for the finals of the Diamond League competition, which is scheduled to be held in Eugene (the US) on September 16-17. Though Sreeshankar is not in the same league as Chopra when it comes to success on the world stage, he has been steadily evolving into a consistent performer and looks capable of further improvement, which can make him a medal prospect at next year's Paris Olympics. The success of one athlete at a major event carries with it the potential to improve the confidence and performance of his compatriots as well. This is because mind is as important an element as the skillsets when performing on the big stage and only those blessed with the required temperament and poise will meet with success here. One expects that Sreeshankar and Chopra will not only complement but also inspire one another to reach greater glories in their respective events.

Indian Grandmaster Praggnanandhaa on his arrival at the Chennai airport. File photo: AFP

The exploits of R Praggnanandhaa, the teenage chess prodigy ensured that media attention was not hogged by athletics alone during this month. Praggnanandhaa, the youngest ever International Master and the second youngest ever Grandmaster, had carved a niche for himself in the world of chess by winning all international age limit tournaments with ease. In the FIDE World Cup held at Baku in Azerbaijan, he became the youngest ever player to reach the finals of this championship. Though he lost to world champion Magnus Carlsen in a rapid time tie-break, Praggnanandhaa’s remarkable run through this tournament, where he defeated Fabiano Caruana, the third ranked player in the world, won him wide acclaim. Praggnanandhaa looks set to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Viswanathan Anand and carry forward the mantle of Indian chess in the coming decades.

Indian flag in the field of badminton was held aloft in the recent years by the women contingent led by Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu. Though the men managed the occasional win, like the victory in Thomas Cup in 2022, spotlight was focused mostly on the women players. However, of late, the lady shuttlers have not been in great form while the men appear to have raised their game up by a notch or two. This was evident in the manner in which H S Prannoy reached the semifinals of the World Championships held in Copenhagen last month. Though he lost in the semi finals to eventual winner Kunlavut Viditsarn of Thailand, Prannoy could look back at the championship with pride as he defeated world No. 1 and home favourite Viktor Axelsen in the quarterfinals. Moreover, this streak of wins also helped Prannoy to move up by three notches in the world ranking to a career high No. 6..

Prannoy exults after winning a point against Axelsen. File photo: Badminton Photo: X/@PRANNOYHSPRI

A gold medal in athletics, silver in chess and a third place in badminton in the respective world championships shows the strides that Indian sportspersons have made in these events. But more importantly, attention moved away from cricket to these events as sports lovers from India got hooked to watching stars from our country battling successfully with the best in the world. The emotions and the hopes that this raised was probably the reason that prompted Sunil Gavaskar to predict that India will rise as a sporting country in the next 10-15 years.

It is probably too early to say whether these successes in the month of August marks the start of an Indian renaissance in sports. Three medals in as many championships is probably nothing much to crow about either. But to a sports lover brought up during an era when success in any international sporting arena was hard to come by and one repeatedly felt the ignominy of following Olympics and other World Championships without having an athlete or sportsperson to cheer, these achievements certainly provide reason for glee. Hence one cannot be blamed for assuming that these successes in the biggest arena in three different fields appear like green shoots of a huge transformation in the offing.

There is no greater motivation for an aspiring sportsperson than success achieved by his compatriots. Here in lies the significance of the accomplishments of Chopra, Praggnanandhaa and Prannoy. These may be small and easily natural steps for the individuals concerned, but for Indian sports they definitely represent major leap forward. The achievements of the trio will spur a new generation of Indians to take to these events with vigour and passion, leading to increased presence of Indians in the victory stands world over.

Science and sports may be as different as chalk and cheese but to an incorrigible optimist the events in August sends across the subtle message that it will not be all that difficult for a nation that can send an expedition to moon to crack the code to qualify for the finals of FIFA World Cup! It is the fervent hope of millions of soccer fans in the country that this turnaround in the fortunes of Indian football too happens soon enough.

Meanwhile, let us raise a toast to the scientists and the sportspersons who did the nation proud in August.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat) 

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