When javelin throwers Neeraj Chopra and Sumit Antil hurled their javelins at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics respectively, they weren’t just creating world records by bagging the gold medal, but were also inspiring thousands of aspiring athletes in India to take up a sport that hardly receives attention otherwise. The plethora of victories by Indian athletes at the Olympics and Paralympics caught the attention of sports aficionados and aspiring athletes who have now taken interest in new-age sports or less popular games in India like table tennis, fencing, golf, equestrian, archery, high jump, boxing, shooting, discuss throw and more. India’s progress on the international level, even at other prestigious tournaments is a big leap for newer sports, but it still requires constant fuel from stakeholders for the interest in them to remain piqued.
At the Tokyo Olympics, Bajrang Punia and Ravikumar Dahiya won the bronze and silver in wrestling respectively, while the fiery Mirabai Chanu bagged a silver in weightlifting and Lovlina Borgohain garnered attention for her boxing bronze. In a country that obsesses over cricket, watching other athletes garner praise and publicity for their feats was a welcome change.
Golf, for instance, received massive attention, thanks to Bengaluru-based Aditi Ashok’s stellar performance at the Olympics. Despite being ranked 200th in the world, the golfer finished fourth with a score of 269 and 15-under par, two shots behind the gold medal winner. “When Aditi played at the Olympics, she was followed by so many people in the country who woke up early in the morning just to watch her play, and that broke many notions that people had about the game. Mirabai Chanu’s medal was really special because it was a first for India. Among new-age sports, sailing was noticed, thanks to Netra Kumanan, India’s first-ever female sailor who made it to the Olympics. Shooting and boxing too had their ‘wow’ moments. Every single person pushed human limits to achieve these results,” ruminated Deepthi Bopaiah, CEO, GoSports Foundation, a non-profit that aids the development of emerging and elite athletes.
In the more popular sport categories like hockey and badminton, Indian athletes broke records in both the Olympics and the Paralympics. Shuttler PV Sindhu bagged an Olympic bronze and in hockey, the adrenaline-charged performances of the men’s hockey team drove them to a bronze medal which was India’s first in hockey after 41 years, making the record-breaking win an intensely emotional one for the team and viewers. The women’s team led by Rani Rampal became the first-ever female hockey team to reach a semi-final.
“Sport brought the country together in a hopeless time. A lot of interest has been generated in sport, the possibilities, and supporting young athletes over the last year. Earlier, investing in sport was considered a luxury in a country that has other serious issues to tackle. But now, with the victories of athletes like Neeraj Chopra and Avani Lekhara, the scenario has changed and everyone took pride in these achievements. It’s taken eight to ten years to get those results. Over the last few years, the Government, the Ministry of Sports Affairs, the Sports Authority of India, the federations, and several organisations have worked together by keeping the athlete at the centre and that’s been a huge positive change,” stated Bopaiah.
Paralympics and new-age sports
The year wasn’t just about able-bodied athletes seizing the day — the Indian Paralympic contingent made the country proud with a total of 19 wins and put sports like shooting, high jump, table tennis, and discus throw in the limelight. 20-year-old Avani Lekhara won a gold medal in 10m air rifle standing and a bronze medal in 50m rifle three positions and shooter Singhraj Adhana too clinched a double victory with one silver and a bronze. Manish Narwal too bagged the Gold in shooting, while Nishad Kumar won a silver in high jump and Yogesh Kathuniya shone in discus throw. Devendra Jhajharia and Sundar Singh Gurjar bagged laurels in javelin throw. The Paralympics’ victories were celebrated across the country with many celebrities posting online about them.
Numerous world champions were awarded the Khel Ratna Award including para badminton champions Krishna Nagar and Pramod Bhagat and captain of the Olympic hockey team Manpreet Singh.
“Fencing too garnered attention, thanks to Bhavani Devi’s path-breaking achievement of being the first fencer to qualify for the Olympics from the country. Equestrian too got recognition, thanks to Fouaad Mirza, who became the first Indian equestrian in the last 20 years to qualify for the Olympics,” said Sarvesh Kedia, COO and co-founder, Sportwise, a sports management agency that represents Olympians, Paralympians, and Winter Olympians.
Throwing light on how the support has been for them, Sarvesh said: “In India, athletes get attention and sponsorship from corporates only if they win a medal. There still is a disparity in terms of sponsorship between Paralympic athletes and Olympians. The government and sports ministry have supported the players really well, but we need more foundations to support these players and corporates to step up and fund more of them. While we still have a long way to go in terms of infrastructure and funding, the last two years have seen great improvement and many players have got good deals and support from organisations.”
Amongst the new-age sports that have come to light recently, is the intriguing Boccia, a precision ball sport, played by athletes confined to a wheelchair. Interestingly, The Para Boccia Sports Welfare Society, India has been promoting the game here.
Apart from the Olympics and Paralympics, Indian athletes shone at other prestigious tournaments too.
The Indian men's table tennis team comprising G Sathiyan, Sharath Kamal, Harmeet Desai, Sanil Shetty, and Manav Thakkar won the bronze and brought home India’s second medal since 1976 at the Asian Table Tennis Championship.
It was also a year that saw young stars like long jumper Shaili Singh win the silver medal at the U-20 World Athletics Championships and the Indian women's chess team create history at the FIDE World Women's Team Chess Championship, as they clinched the silver.
As for Anshu Malik, she bagged a silver at the World Wrestling Championship at Oslo, making her the first-ever Indian woman to achieve this feat.
The Winter Olympics is a tournament that needs more support too. “We have so many players who are ready to go to the next level at the Winter Olympics, but there is hardly any support for them as people don’t understand winter sports in India. The policies need to change for winter sports and players need to be brought out of their comfort zone and provided with monetary support etc to be able to see results in the next few years,” opined Sarvesh.
Supporting athletes at the right time
World champions from these diverse sports got a lot of brand and corporate support post their victories, but what matters is backing them to get to the top. Champion swimmer Niranjan Mukundan, who is one of the athletes to have debuted at the Paralympics last year, said: “In 2010, when I was a budding swimmer, people had no idea about para-swimming and even now, a lot of people don’t recognise our sport. To take part at the national level, you need a minimum of Rs 1.5 lakh — this is just the basic cost and there are additional expenses involved. It’s important for corporates/brands to sponsor sports that are not popular. Only a handful of athletes get that support, but it happens only after they win a tournament. Athletes need support when we’re evolving, in order to become a world champion.” Niranjan recently bagged six gold medals and a bronze at the Croatian International Championships and is the first Indian para swimmer to win 50 medals globally.
So how does one continue to give these sports consistent support post these big tournaments? “In terms of new sports, we are keen to create Olympians and Paralympians. There are so many events India doesn’t even participate in — the number of participants has to go up. With India mandating CSR in 2013 for organisations, it came as a huge step towards Indian sport building. Our corporate sponsors are crucial. To sustain interest in a particular sport, we need the media to support alternate sports and declare results regularly. It has changed over the years and our newspapers don’t just focus on cricket anymore — they cover hockey, kabaddi etc too. Even corporates should spread the word among employees about how tough it is to make a champion athlete,” stated Deepthi.
Sarvesh too hopes for media support and shares, ““Fencing has great potential in India, but it’s an expensive sport. Indian basketball players should shine more globally. Swimming needs a lot of support too — we don’t have proper training centres or a structure for swimmers who are struggling — we haven’t won as many medals in it, and the same goes for running. These sports can grow greatly with proper support.”
There’s a lot more to look forward to for athletes and sports aficionados with the Asian and Commonwealth games coming up later this year. The country’s athletes have great scope for achieving greater feats globally and with proper backing coming in, let’s hope that 2022 sees them shine even more brightly at the world stage.
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