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From Dark Horse to Global Icon: India’s Incredible Journey of Triumph in Sports

Indias performance in the recent Asian Games held in Hangzhou, China, validates a turnaround tale that dates back roughly a decade. Just a decade ago, India carried the ignominious label of being a sporting underachiever despite its massive population of 1.4 billion. Today, that label is a distant memory. The 19th Asian Games have triggered jubilation across the nation, as the Indian delegation secured the highest medal count in the history of the Asian Games. The historic feat has overshadowed even the commencement of the Mens Cricket World Cup. India won 107 medals in Hangzhou, 38 more than in 2018 at Jakarta. There were 28 gold, 38 silver, and 41 bronze medals.

Athletics led the medal list with 29 medals. Some of the noteworthy performances in athletics were Neeraj Chopras gold in the javelin, Avinash Sables gold in the 3000 metres steeplechase, and Parul Chaudharys dramatic 50-metre run winning the gold in the womens 5,000 metres. Rowers, squash players, kabaddi stars, and the mens hockey team performed admirably. Highlighted achievements included a historic first-ever gold medal in equestrian, along with emerging stars in roller skating, wind-surfing, wushu, and sepaktakraw. Cricket, which had long abstained from multi-disciplinary extravaganzas, joined the party, giving two gold medals to India’s tally. The men’s and women’s cricket teams brought glory by bagging the top spot in Cricket. And the inclusion of Cricket at the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics, formalised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), will further its worldwide appeal.

Nonetheless, it is an undeniable fact that certain medals hold greater intrinsic worth while competing in continental events. Disciplines such as badminton and table tennis feature intense, near-world-level competition throughout the Asian region, which adds to the significance of the medals won. Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy’s gold in men’s doubles badminton, H.S. Prannoy’s bronze in men’s singles badminton, and Sutirtha and Ayhika Mukherjee’s incredible win over Chen Meng and Wang Yidi to ensure bronze in women’s doubles table tennis all fall into this category. While a few performances, such as Neeraj Chopra’s 88.88m, are world-beating, emerging stars like Kishore Kumar Jena, the young athlete from Odisha, also deserve applause for his silver medal-winning throw, which gained him an entry to the Paris Olympics.

India has recently demonstrated great accomplishments in a variety of sports. In the Commonwealth Games in 2022, India finished fourth despite the lack of some sports with strong medal potential. Moreover, India did well at the 2021 Summer Paralympics, achieving its best-ever performance in the multi-sport tournament. Similarly, India has performed admirably in major individual competitions and tournaments across the globe in various sports, including women’s hockey, javelin throw, relay race, squash, and badminton.

India’s recent growth in sporting achievement is not a coincidental occurrence, but rather the result of a methodically organised sports development agenda. The Union government, Sports Authority of India, and several state governments have all launched efforts to assist athletes. Achieving sports success requires not only significant socioeconomic improvement but also a large talent pool with access to high-quality sports facilities and resources. India has effectively fostered both of these critical characteristics, owing to tremendous socioeconomic growth and well-designed governmental measures.

The Khelo India Scheme, which has received significant financial support, is one notable initiative in this respect. The project has played a critical role in providing opportunities to about 23 lakh school students and finding latent talent that may be nurtured further. It recognises that skill is frequently distributed equitably, but opportunities are not.

While we celebrate the recent achievements in sports, it is important to recognise that much more work remains to be done for India to emerge as a real sporting powerhouse in multi-sport competitions. According to Anirudh Krishna and Eric Haglund (2008), it is the effectively participating population that holds more importance than the total population size in determining whether the team finishes at the podium or not. This is why countries like Australia, Japan, and other African countries with low populations, give comparatively better performances and fare well in multi-sport tournaments. Their main focus has always been effective participation with fewer participants.

Essentially, sports personalities can actively participate in sports if their basic requirements, such as healthcare, education, and nutrition, are addressed. Ensuring accessible participation in sports and grooming Olympic-level athletes are challenging goals for the state. The government must take responsibility for not just the one-time expenditures of constructing specialised infrastructure but also the ongoing costs of maintaining the required administration and execution mechanisms.

India’s progress in sports resembles the country’s rise in soft power. From hosting the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup to the 2023 Men’s FIH Hockey World Cup to the 2023 ODI Cricket World Cup, India is exercising its influence in several ways. A country that can win more medals in sports may also promote talent in other areas, allowing for social mobility. This is evident in India’s case. The capacity to devote more attention to sports, particularly those that are not commonly considered “mainstream,” demonstrates India’s rapid progress toward meeting development goals. More concerted efforts, however, are required to make sports a mass movement. As we look ahead to the Paris 2024 Olympics, it would not be surprising to see India performing brilliantly on the global sporting stage.

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