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Why 2023 was a landmark year for Indian athletes

From Neeraj Chopra to the strong showing at the Asian and Para Asian Games, Indian athletes inspired and empowered

Sakshi Malik and other Indian wrestlers' quest for justice defined Indian sports in 2023.
Sakshi Malik and other Indian wrestlers' quest for justice defined Indian sports in 2023. (PTI)

The year 2023 was one of reckoning for Indian sport. While Indian sport stars continued to soar to greater heights on the field, the battles behind the scenes often spilled over.

The year started with some of India’s top wrestlers, including Olympic medallists Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia and Olympian Vinesh Phogat, taking to the street to protest against then Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. The wrestlers found little support in the power corridors of Indian sport despite Singh, a Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament, being accused of sexually harassing several wrestlers, including a minor. Though Singh was dismissed as the WFI president, one of his aides, Sanjay Singh, was elected to the post on 21 December. Within a week, the Union sports ministry also suspended the newly formed WFI for hastily announcing U-15 and U-20 national trials in Gonda, Uttar Pradesh—Brij Bhushan’s stronghold—by the end of the year.

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The year ended with Malik, India’s only woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal, quitting the sport in tears hours after Sanjay Singh’s election. She deemed it a battle lost. The episode threw light on the systemic struggles Indians, especially women, have to face, no matter how many medals or laurels they have won.

The silver lining? In possibly the longest and most public protest launched by Indian athletes, it proved that some of them were not afraid of taking on a much bigger enemy and championing causes beyond the sports field. Even if it came at a hefty price in their careers.

Though the wrestlers’ protest has left an indelible mark on Indian sports history, as the year draws to a close, we look back at the happier, affirming times. When Indians excelled in a more objective, black and white world of sports. When they inspired and empowered.

Also Read Neeraj Chopra's relentless quest for perfection

Man with the golden arm

Tokyo Olympics was just the start; Neeraj Chopra may well go down as the man who changed the course of India’s track and field history. On 27 August in Budapest, Chopra, 26, speared another first as he claimed gold at the World Athletics Championships. He hurled the javelin to 88.17m to become the first Indian world champion in athletics and complete the holy trinity of triumphs—an Olympic gold, a Diamond League gold and now a top finish at the World Championships.

Neeraj Chopra and Kishore Kumar Jena secured gold and silver medal respectively at the Asian Games.
Neeraj Chopra and Kishore Kumar Jena secured gold and silver medal respectively at the Asian Games. (PTI)

“Competition-wise, the World Championships is always tougher than the Olympics. Athletes train very hard for this,” Chopra said after the win. “As they say, throwers don’t have a finish line. No matter how many medals you win, there will always be the motivation that you can throw further. To win a medal does not mean we have won everything.”

India has won three medals at the prestigious global event, two of which have been won by Chopra. Long-jumper Anju Bobby George had broken the glass ceiling, when she claimed a bronze at the 2003 Paris World Championships. Chopra won a silver in Eugene, Oregon, US, in 2022.

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The genial javelin star is not unaware of India’s storied athletics history, replete with near-misses and heartbreaks. But with each throw, each win, he’s helping Indian athletes shed that baggage, the doubts, and meet the moment.

At the World Championship it was evident that the confidence was rubbing off on his compatriots too. Three Indians qualified for the javelin final in Budapest. While Chopra took gold, Kishore Kumar Jena finished fifth and D.P. Manu was placed sixth. It was by far India’s best performance at a World Championship. Chopra then came up with the season’s best throw of 88.88m to defend his Asian Games gold.

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Smashing success

Every once in a while, as the shuttle soars towards the back of the court, Chirag Shetty yells, “Get him.” More often than not, his partner, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, jumps up, knees bent, head steady, and brings the racket face down for one of his trademark smashes. There is nothing subtle about Satwik-Chirag.

In the big bold world of men’s doubles badminton, where shuttles fly at a dizzying speed, the Indian duo is stamping their authority. On 10 October, they ascended to No.1 in the world after winning gold in the men’s doubles at the Asian Games. Both the feats were a first for India.

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Indian badminton stars Prakash Padukone, Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth have all been ranked No.1 in the world before, but Satwik-Chirag are the first pair to earn the honour. And they did it in style. The Asian Games, with the sport’s powerhouses like China, Indonesia and Japan competing, is one of the toughest events to win in badminton. Shetty and Rankireddy, who had already pocketed a silver in the men’s team event, defeated South Korea’s Choi Solgyu and Kim Wonho 21-18, 21-16 in the final to become the first Indians to win an Asian Games badminton gold, across events.

Chirag Shetty (R) and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy at the BWF World Tour China Masters 2023.
Chirag Shetty (R) and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy at the BWF World Tour China Masters 2023. (AFP)

When the team first got together, in March 2016, they had to make a few technical adjustments as both Shetty and Rankireddy preferred playing from the back of the court and unleashing those powerful smashes. But Shetty, the older of the two, stepped up to the forecourt and honed his wristwork and reflexes. Rather than attack from the get-go, the Indian duo learned to defend, and defend well. Satwik-Chirag had energised the team as India galloped to a historic Thomas Cup triumph last year.

They scaled new highs this year, including winning India’s first gold medal at the Badminton Asia Championships in 58 years. Dinesh Khanna had won the continental event back in 1965. In June, they also won the Indonesia Open crown to become the first Indian pair to win a Super 1000 tournament—the highest value in the pecking order of badminton events.

Women of steel

Every good story deserves to be repeated. Here’s one on how Nikhat Zareen took up boxing. As a kid, Zareen had first taken up athletics, but once during a sports fest at her local ground in Nizamabad, Telangana, she saw girls participate in all sports but boxing. Zareen asked her father Mohammad Jameel, a former state-level footballer, “Boxing bas ladke hi karte hai kya (Is boxing only for boys)?” Though Jameel had always supported her sporting dream, he hazarded a guess—boxing was not what society expected from girls.

Nikhat Zareen established herself as one of the best boxers in the world in 2023.
Nikhat Zareen established herself as one of the best boxers in the world in 2023. (PTI)

Indian women boxers gave a resounding answer to that question, which had led Zareen down this defiant path. Four Indian boxers—Zareen (50kg), 2020 Tokyo Olympic medallists Lovlina Borgohain (75kg), Saweety Boora (81kg) and Nitu Ghanghas (48kg)—won a gold at the IBA Women’s World Boxing Championships held in Delhi in March.

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It was India’s best haul at the world event since 2006, when a M.C. Mary Kom-led India squad also captured four golds. But women’s boxing wasn’t an Olympic sport then, it was granted the status only in 2012 at the London Olympics. In 2006, 180 athletes from 32 countries had entered the World Championship, the figure had swelled to 324 boxers from 65 at this year’s world event.

Zareen defeated Vietnam’s Nguyen Thi Tam in the final to claim her second World Championship medal on the trot. Boora, who had won a silver in 2014, claimed gold in the 81kg category. Ghanghas, 22, who perhaps had the toughest draw, announced her arrival on the big stage while Borgohain proved she couldn’t be counted out in big-ticket events. Though the Assamese boxer has struggled for consistency since winning bronze in Tokyo, she made all the right moves to win in the 75kg category.

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Growing up, each of them had their own battles to fight—while Ganghas’ father had to take loans to support her career, Zareen was discouraged by a conservative close family. But they have found common ground in the boxing ring. With their success, they are re-shaping attitudes about women in combat sports.

The perfect picture

After turning a ball from Lockie Ferguson towards the square leg boundary, Virat Kohli set off, he raced to complete two runs, then kept going for a moment, arms raised. He punched the air, then fell to his knees. Kohli, one of the best runners between the wickets, had just chased down a colossal record. Fifty One Day International (ODI) hundreds. He brought up the half century of centuries in Mumbai, during India’s 2023 ICC ODI World Cup semi-final against New Zealand. He had just beaten the record of 49 centuries by Sachin Tendulkar, at his home ground.

It was not surprising that Kohli had picked up the torch once Tendulkar, known as the “God of cricket” quit the scene. A young Kohli idolised Tendulkar and carried his hero on his shoulders after India won the 2011 World Cup, at this very ground. Though more industrious and a less awe-inspiring shot-maker, Kohli has emerged as India’s best batter in the 50 overs format. His 50 hundreds had taken 291 ODIs and 279 innings; Tendulkar had scored 49 hundreds in 452 innings.

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A master at pacing the innings, Kohli was also the highest scorer at this year’s World Cup, with 765 runs in 11 matches. The team management had given him the role of dropping anchor and holding the innings together and he did it magnificently. Till the final against Australia—the day it all went wrong.

Hitting the bulls-eye

For more than 90 years of its existence, India had not won a single gold medal at the Archery World Championships. From 1931, when the Championships was launched, till 2021, India had won 11 medals—nine silver, two bronze and no gold.

A young Indian squad set the record straight as they bagged three gold medals in the space of two days at the World Championships in Berlin, Germany, in August. Jyothi Surekha Vennam, who has been the spearhead of the Indian compound archery team, led them to the maiden triumph in the women’s team event. Vennam, 27, Aditi Gopichand Swami, 17, and Parneet Kaur, 18, defeated Mexico 235-229 to bag India’s first gold medal at the elite event. This was only the second time that Vennam, Kaur and Swami were shooting together as a team (they debuted as a team in June at the Archery World Cup Stage 3 in Medellin, Colombia).

Also Read How India hit bullseye at the World Archery Championships

Aditi Gopichand Swami.
Aditi Gopichand Swami. (AFP)

Only a day later, Swami became the youngest archer to win an individual gold medal at the senior world championships. She defeated Vennam 149-145 in the semi-final. She shot another 149—which meant only one of the 15 arrows had not hit the 10-point circle—in the final to Mexico’s Andrea Becerra.

Ojas Deotale, 21, gave India the perfect finish. In a high-quality final, with the pressure cranked up, he hit the 10-point circle every single time to beat Poland’s Lukasz Przybylski 150-149.

Century of medals

India’s collective might on the sports field was evident at the Asian and Para Asian Games this year, as the country bagged 100 plus medals at both events.

India went past a century of medals for the first time at the continental event—overhauling their previous best record of 70 medals at the 2018 Asian Games to finish with 107 medals, including 28 gold, in Hangzhou, China. From Chopra and Jena’s 1-2 finish in javelin to India regaining gold in old faithfuls like kabaddi and men’s hockey, it was a stunning effort across the board.

Sheetal Devi at the Asian Para Games, in Hangzhou, China.
Sheetal Devi at the Asian Para Games, in Hangzhou, China. (PTI)

Following their lead, Indian para-athletes also stormed their way to a record-breaking Games. They claimed a total of 111 medals—29 gold, 31 silver and 51 bronze—to smash the previous best of 72 medals at the 2018 Asian Games.

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They also finished in the top 5 in the medal table for the very first time. Compound archer Rakesh Kumar and para-badminton stars Pramod Bhagat and Thulasimathi Murugesan also won three medals each. But the poster girl for India’s Para Asian Games campaign was Sheetal Devi, the first armless woman archer to compete at the tournament and win medals. She won three of them: women’s individual gold, mixed team gold with Kumar and women’s team silver with Sarita.

With their spirit, Indian athletes have spun a winning tale. The sporting revolution has taken root, but it remains to be seen if India can weed out the many ills still plaguing the system.

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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