Exactly one year after Neeraj Chopra struck gold in Tokyo to clinch India’s first medal in track and field at the Olympics, 7 August proved to be a banner day for Indian athletics yet again. Two young men from India’s athletics cradle Kerala, Eldhose Paul and Abdulla Aboobacker, won gold and silver respectively in the men’s triple jump event at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
The historic 1-2 finish in men’s athletics—India’s first at CWG—was the apt outcome of India’s sustained momentum since the Tokyo Games. India finished fourth in Birmingham, with 61 medals, of which 22 were gold. On paper, it wasn’t their highest medal tally or their best finish – both belong to the 2010 New Delhi Games when India stood second with 101 medals. But they crossed the 60-plus mark without the contribution of shooting, which has historically accounted for almost 25 per cent of India’s medals (135 out of 564), including gold (63 out of 203), at CWG.
Instead, they found old heroes and new; maintained their dominance in sports like wrestling and weightlifting and made breakthroughs in events like lawn bowls (gold, women’s fours) and para powerlifting (gold, Sudhir in men’s heavyweight).
Saikhom Mirabai Chanu began India’s gold rush with a mighty performance in the 49kg category in weightlifting. She lifted a total of 201 kg, a new CWG record, and lifted 29kg more than her closest rival to win the event in style. Spearheaded by the Olympics silver medalist, the Indian weightlifting contingent won medals in 10 of the 17 weight categories they competed in. Beset with cramps, Jeremy Lalrinnunga still found the strength to clinch gold in the men’s 67 kg class. Meanwhile, Achanta Sheuli, lifted a CWG record 313 kg to win the men’s 73 kg category.
India was even more dominant in wrestling, winning medals in each of the 12 categories they competed in. While Tokyo medalists Ravi Dahiya and Bajrang Punia coasted to gold, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik scored morale boosting wins. Searching for confidence after the Tokyo debacle, where she lost in the quarter-final and was chastised by the federation, Phogat won all the three bouts to claim gold in women’s 53 kg. Sakshi Malik, who had found the going tough since winning bronze at the Rio Olympics in 2016, announced a resounding return to form by winning the 62kg category.
PV Sindhu is one of India’s most consistent performers in big-ticket events, and she ticked another box by winning her first individual gold at the CWG. Even though Sindhu played with a taped right ankle throughout the event, and wasn’t moving as freely, she soldiered on. She dropped just one game in the first four matches and defeated Canada’s Michelle Li 21-15, 21-13 in the final.
Lakshya Sen and the doubles team of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty also delivered on the heightened expectations after the men’s team Thomas Cup triumph this May. The 20-year-old Sen, who is enjoying a breakout year, defeated fifth seed Ng Tze Yong 19-21, 21-9, 21-16 in the final to win his first individual medal at a multi-sport event. Rankireddy and Shetty, meanwhile, clinched gold in men’s doubles without dropping a single game.
In boxing, Nikhat Zareen continued to turn her chances to gold as she won the 50kg event. Making her CWG debut, the 25-year-old Zareen dwarfed opponents, just as she had while winning the World Championship in June. After picking up a win through RSC (referee stops contest) in the first round, she won the next three with unanimous 5-0 verdicts. Competing in the same weight category, Indian boxing legend MC Mary Kom and Zareen haven’t always seen eye to eye, but the feisty boxer from Nizamabad is already staking her claim as a worthy successor.
If Zareen has impressively charged out of blocks, veterans like Saurav Ghosal and Achanta Sharath Kamal showed the value of persistence. The flagbearer for Indian squash for over a decade, Ghosal had been to three CWG before this but fell short of winning an individual medal. But last Wednesday, on 3 August, the ultra-fit 35-year-old dismantled former World No. 1 and defending champion James Willstrop 11-6, 11-1, 11-4 to win the bronze. As squash is not in the Olympics, the CWG is as big as it gets, and it was fitting that Ghosal brought home India’s first individual medal in the sport.
Sharath, who participated in his first CWG in 2006, became India’s most consistent winner in Birmingham. In the four events he competed in, Sharath won gold medals in three and silver in one. India showed strength in numbers as Sharath, G. Sathiyan and Harmeet Desai won the men’s table tennis team event. He won a mixed doubles gold with Sreeja Akula and a men’s doubles silver with Sathiyan.
Despite the packed second week—where he played six matches in one day on 5 August across three categories—the 40-year-old put on an absolute show in singles and returned to the CWG final for the first time since 2006. On Monday, the last day of Birmingham 2022, he overcame second seed Liam Pitchford 11-13, 11-7, 11-2, 11-6, 11-8 to win a memorable gold.
After the resurgence in Tokyo, Indian hockey teams continued their strong run. While the men’s team won silver, the women won their first medal at the CWG since 2006, when they defeated defending champions New Zealand in a thrilling bronze medal playoff. The women’s team, which had finished fourth at Tokyo, conceded a goal in the last 20 seconds of the match, but were quick to shake it off. With captain Savita Punia standing tall in goal, they won the penalty shootout 2-1.
But the tale of this CWG would be incomplete without talking of the massive strides taken by the athletics contingent. Indian athletes, fresh from their exploits at the World Athletics Championships, where seven of them made the final, claimed eight medals. Though they were missing their talisman, Neeraj Chopra, the confidence he has injected into Indian athletics was evident in Birmingham.
Tejaswin Shankar put away the drama and controversy in the lead-up to win India’s first high jump medal (bronze) in CWG. Meanwhile Priyanka Goswami claimed silver with a personal best of 43:38.83, becoming the first Indian woman race-walker to win a medal in 10km walk. The promising Murali Sreeshankar’s best attempt of 8.08m saw him win the silver in long jump, a joint-best for an Indian. Annu Rani won a bronze in javelin throw, the first Indian woman to do so at CWG.
There is a different energy to Indian athletics now and it seemingly reached a crescendo on Sunday, when Eldhose Paul and Abdulla Aboobacker took the top two spots in triple jump, winning gold and silver respectively. India could have recorded a clean sweep, but Praveen Chithravel missed the bronze by 0.03m. Almost the entire Indian athletics contingent cheered on as the two triple jumpers paraded and posed with the Indian tricolour in celebration.
The day before, a lean man from the drought-stricken Beed district of Maharashtra, had tried to single-handedly bring down Kenya’s hegemony in 3000m steeplechase. Since 1998, the African nation has won all the medals on offer in the complicated, technical discipline. And for the most part of the steeplechase race in Birmingham, it looked like the same old story as India’s Avinash Sable, in fourth position, chased down the Kenyan trio of Conseslus Kipruto, Amos Serem and Abraham Kibiwot.
It was just before last lap that Sable went for the kill. At the penultimate water jump, with just over 500m to go, Sable leapt past Kipruto and Serem to move into second spot. Despite Sable charging in to close the gap, Kibiwot just about managed to hold off the Indian and hold on to his gold medal. Sable broke the national record for the ninth time and clocked his personal best of 8:11.20 minutes, but missed the gold by 0.05 seconds. The loss was agonising, but the message clear. After years of near-misses in track and field, India is making a run for it.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.