Neeraj Chopra in action during the men’s javelin throw final at the Hangzhou Asian Games, October 4, 2023 (Photo: Reuters)
IT DOESN’T MATTER whether you follow sport. When the Asian Games or the Olympics arrive every four years, they bring with them a familiar feeling of anxiety for most Indians. With a population of over a billion, where are the medals? Why does a country of our size not win enough? At one point or another, most of us have asked ourselves this. It is a question that bothers a lot of us and tugs at our heartstrings. It is why those who may have never cared for badminton cheered for PV Sindhu each time she screamed on the court against Spain’s Carolina Marin in Rio in August 2016, or when the national anthem was played and the Tricolour went up in Basel after she demolished Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara to become the badminton world champion in 2019. It is why so many who would have never even thought about gymnastics before found their hearts in their mouths when Dipa Karmakar took off for her ‘vault of death’—the Produnova—on August 15, 2016; or why so many Indians started googling the previously unheard-of term “repechage”—a wrestling rule which enabled Sushil Kumar in 2008 and Sakshi Malik in 2016 to make a comeback and win Olympic bronze medals despite their previous losses.
Besides the sheer beauty and the supreme physicality of the athletic contests, multidiscipline events like the Asian Games are also a crucible of symbolic force. A stage where, as historian John J MacAloon says, nations play out their “hopes and terrors”. For India, these Games serve as a reality check every four years on where our athletes measure up globally. India has overcome its old shortcomings on several counts and become a rising global power. It currently dominates the world of cricket, both financially as well as on the pitch. It has left behind many older narratives of failure. Yet, we have remained an inexplicable minnow in the realm of global sports.
A look at the history of Indian performance at the Olympics helps highlight this fact. In its first 84 years of participating in the Olympics between 1920 and 2004, India won a total of 15 medals. This is not counting the two medals won by Norman Pritchard at the Paris Games in 1900. Eleven of these (almost two-thirds) came from hockey back when India was a hockey superpower. Our sporting legends have been built on heartbreak surrounding what-could-have-been scenarios: if only PT Usha had lunged her chest forward in 1984; if only Milkha Singh was faster by a hundredth of a second in 1960.
From the 1990s, India started seeing individual medal-winning strokes of brilliance, which served as partial face-savers while also helping the country overcome a dispiriting state of hand-wringing: the adrenaline-fuelled, Tricolour-waving Leander Paes in 1996, the underrated superstar weightlifter Karnam Malleswari in 2000 and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore who came out of the Army’s training programme to win a silver medal in Athens in 2004. Yet, their triumphs were blips of hope on a barren landscape, not a systemic shift.
The Asian Games in Hangzhou has changed it all.
Athletic achievement in China has made India a sporting country of sorts. Each time an Indian athlete went on to the podium, the narrative of failure, underperformance, and underachievement was buried once and for all. India, finally, is a multi-sporting nation and the Hangzhou Asian Games is proof. India won medals in a staggering 22 sporting disciplines, the first time in Indian sport’s history. The number of medals, 107, more than half of what we had won in Jakarta in 2018, is testimony that India has indeed turned the corner.
For India, Hangzhou 2023 is its coming-out party as a sport power. The 107 medals promise a new sporting resurgence. The fact that India won many medals at the Hangzhou Games in its traditional strongholds—shooting, hockey, and athletics—suggests that a real sporting turnaround is beginning to look possible. I followed the travails of Team India in China: a team of 651 athletes, which made it our single biggest Asian Games contingent ever. The sense of hope surrounding progress in Indian sport was palpable. And the athletes did not disappoint.
In understanding how it happened, the one factor that needs to be emphasised here is the huge consumption of the Asian Games on television and digital. When such media starts focusing on sport and creating stars, it has a knock-on effect in terms of aspiration. In the case of badminton, as Gopichand Pullela points out, the catchment area has increased: “I think what used to be about 30 or 40 players in numbers, has actually gone up to around 2,000 to 2,500. So, the number of people playing the game seriously has increased drastically by maybe 100–200 per cent every year in the last few years, especially in the 13 to 15-year sub-junior categories. These are amazing numbers and the quality of players who are playing at a certain level has gone up as well. Earlier, 10 years ago, there were maybe 10 kids who could actually play a serious rally. That number has gone up to a thousand now. So, I think, the overall standard of grassroots-level badminton has grown drastically.”
The National Sports Development Fund (NSDF) was set up by the government in 1998–99 with just ₹2 crore in its corpus. In the two decades since, it has raised over ₹240 crore (with roughly 38 per cent coming in from private sources, 35 per cent from government-owned companies, and the rest from the government itself)
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All of this was impossible without a significant increase in funding. In early 2016, India was spending about ₹11.5 per Indian on sport (with about ₹1,541 crore in the Union sports budget). By 2019, this spending had increased to ₹16.5 per Indian (with an overall sports budget of ₹2,216.92 crore). And in 2023, it is close to touching ₹2,800 crore.
What does this mean in real terms? The National Sports Development Fund (NSDF) was set up by the government in 1998–99 with just ₹2 crore in its corpus. In the two decades since, it has raised over ₹240 crore (with roughly 38 per cent coming in from private sources, 35 per cent from government-owned companies, and the rest from the government itself). Overall, as the sports ministry reported to Parliament, funding for the training and participation of elite athletes in international events through the support given to sporting federations went up almost fourfold between 2014– 15 (₹130 crore) and 2019–20 (₹482.5 crore budget ceiling). For Tokyo 2020, in particular, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) announced in December 2018 that ₹100 crore had been earmarked for the government’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), which identifies elite athletes and supports their training. The TOPS itself was set up in September 2014 and became operational by mid-2015. Abhinav Bindra headed its selection committee through all of 2017 when the scheme funded 220 athletes. In 2016, the TOPS spent ₹19.9 crore on athletes in 17 sports. This spending increased to ₹28.17 crore across 19 sports in 2017–18. By September 2019, 89 sportspeople, including several para-athletes, were being funded in 12 sports. Now, the number has more than doubled.
For decades, Odisha was about temples and beaches, and more. But there was never any sport. Odisha and sport did not go hand-in-hand. Rather, locals from Odisha would travel to West Bengal to play and it was not something that was a priority in the state. There were a few local stars, Dilip Tirkey and Lazarus Barla to name two, who made it to the national team, but these were all individual efforts rather than results of any form of structural change in the state.
Now, things are different. Under the leadership of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, Odisha has turned a page. With the amount of work that has happened in the last six years, the state is now the new nerve centre of Indian sport. With the most incredible infrastructure and the best technical expertise and coaching, Odisha has started to produce some incredible athletes who end up scripting incredible stories of achievement.
Take the case of Sundargarh. Not too long ago, it was a tribal belt with little or no facilities for sport. People in Sundargarh played hockey and some like Dilip Tirkey made it to the Indian team from the pebbled fields in the district, but such stories were more of jugaad than anything else. Dilip was an aberration and not the norm. And there were a few like him making Sundargarh the cradle of hockey in Odisha. But without a structure in place, you can only go up to a certain point, and no more. The Indian hockey story is proof. Once the dominant global force in field hockey, India has not won a major championship for decades and it was only in Tokyo after a gap of 41 years that the Indian team was back on the Olympic podium. A large part of the credit for this showing goes to what has been done in Odisha in the past few years.
Seeing Neeraj Chopra, we have a whole bunch of athletes who have now made it to the Diamond League and are competing with the best in the world. Some like Murali Sreeshankar have already qualified for the Olympics and are looking at breaking the ceiling in Paris
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One man and a revolution—that’s how we can actually describe the impact of Neeraj Chopra on Indian athletics. Seeing him, we have a whole bunch of athletes who have now made it to the Diamond League and are competing with the best in the world. Some like Murali Sreeshankar have already qualified for the Olympics and are looking at breaking the ceiling in Paris. As Sreeshankar argues, “For us, it was not just a gold medal. Rather, it was much more. It said to each one of us that with proper preparation and training, we could certainly do well and win on the international stage. Neeraj Bhaiya actually changed the narrative. Now, many of us believe we can win medals and follow in his footsteps. It is no longer alien to us. A medal is possible and that’s the biggest plus his medal did for us. I can tell you that I will do everything humanly possible to see the Tricolour go up in Hangzhou, and then in Paris. That’s the ultimate ambition for Indian athletes and Neeraj Bhaiya has taught us to dream. Not simply me—you will see a number of Indian athletes do well at the Olympics.”