Steeplechase medalist Avinash Sable and Grandmaster Nihal Sarin | Photo: ANI
India shining. Those two words best describe the touch of euphoria that swept the country post the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and the Chess Olympiad at Mamallapuram, near Chennai. India did not sweep the medals as such, but our sportspersons did enough to raise cheer, hope and belief that the future is turning brighter for sports in the country. And these thoughts could not have come at a more opportune time than when the country has just touched its 75th year of Independence.
Time has flown and so have aspirations grown to inspirational levels. Take chess for instance. A sport which is believed to have originated in India but developed and flourished in other parts of the globe. But, ever since the rise of Viswanathan Anand, chess has taken a new turn upwards in India. Then came the opportunity for India to host one of the biggest meets in Chess, the Olympiad, again inspired by Anand and backed by the Tamil Nadu government. With two bronze medals in the team events including a historic first for women aside from a host of medals including two gold in the individual section the event overall gave a new insight into India’s strength in this mental sport.
Like the way Anand’s greatness became a household story when the great Indian played his world championship match in India, the chess Olympiad has given a first-hand account of India’s rich talent to the fans in the country. As Anand, the five-time world champion himself said what pleased him most was the way the young players responded to the challenges. His attention particularly went to D. Gukesh, one of the youngest GMs in the sport. He was the biggest success story of this Olympiad, even while he showered praise on the others for the commendable effort. What will be keenly looked forward to from here is not whether Indian chess standards will go higher. It definitely will, for such is the way young chess players are sprouting up in the country, and with more and more Indian players breaking into the ELO 2700 barrier (India has currently seven in this elite club) the signs are even more promising. More tournaments are the need to sustain the high interest and that will be the key. With Anand now a Deputy President in the world body, surely he will do his bit to ensure the good tidings actually multiply in the time to come. Chess could not have hoped for better times!
Much in the same mould is the state of other sporting disciplines. One of the biggest impact of the Tokyo Olympics was Neeraj Chopra, the star javelin thrower. His gold medal triumph literally was an eye opener that Indians can perform at this high level. From mere participation which used to be the norm barring an exception or two, to winning medal is a huge step foward but that has been a hurdle for most part.
True, shooting provided the first signal with Abhinav Bindra bagging the Olympic gold in 2008 Games in Beijing and heralding a new era for this sport. Shooting has since then seen some top rate performances. Infact, the absence of shooting at the Birmingham CWG was feared would affect India’s medals tally overall but what came about ultimately was a revelation thanks to a transformation that promises to become a new chapter in the history of Indian sporting deeds. In short what Birmingham witnessed was an assortment of success stories from athletics to lawn bowling. Imagine an Indian winning a medal (silver) in an athletic event like 3,000 m steeplechase, something that had long been considered a monopoly of the Kenyans! Army man Avinash Sable did the seemingly impossible with a new national record to boot to reveal to the nation that the country had big hearts like him.
Commonwealth Games may not be on par with the Olympics or even Asian Games. It cannot be without the big performers like USA, Russia or China, for instance, but an event of long standing still does provide a forum for the athletes to test their wares on an international scale of value. Some one like Neeraj would have loved to perform here. Aside from being the defending champion, he has added a few more precious jewels to his crown and Birmingham would have given him a perfect setting for displaying his class again. Injury stopped him or was it providence! The way his Pakistani friend and rival Arshad Nadeem won the gold with a heave of over 90 m, things could not have been easy considering Neeraj’s best has never crossed 90 m thus far! But that is a different story.
Like Sable, what impressed was the way most medals were won, through that rare touch of fixity of purpose backed by hard work and hope. Take, for instance, Sharath Kamal, the table tennis veteran at age 40, was still brimming with the kind of confidence and grit that must have been a great inspiration for his team mates. Three gold medals were his rewards for his outstanding show. Talk of aspirations and the story of weightlifter Sanket Sagar can be moving. One, who sold paan and lived in humble settings, still did dream big, and CWG showed him the way with a stellar performance (silver medal) that will surely change his world for good! Similar is the tale of another gold medal winning weightlifter Achinta Sheuli.
If new names shot up, there were established ones like badminton star and big achiever P.V. Sindhu proving her mettle again and alongwith Lakshya Sen and the doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty giving a golden hue to the sport. It is such success stories that provide a new hope and direction to Indian sports in general.