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Why 2021 was a transformative year for sports in India

This was the year when Neeraj Chopra and other Indian athletes competed with the best in the world and came out on top

Neeraj Chopra celebrates his winning throw at the Tokyo Olympics.
Neeraj Chopra celebrates his winning throw at the Tokyo Olympics. (PTI)

It took Neeraj Chopra a mere 10 seconds to end India’s 121-years wait for a track and field medal at the Olympics. Dressed in navy blue slacks and vest, Chopra calmly took his position for the second attempt, swallowed the runway in long, strong strides and released the spear before he doubled over well within the foul line. There was something Usain Bolt-esque in the way he celebrated, arms up in the air, well before the javelin had landed. The spear had travelled 87.58m—his second throw over 87m that day—the throw that won him the gold medal. The throw that ended India’s 13-year wait for an Olympic gold. 

Chopra’s triumph was the crowning moment for Indian sport in 2021, a year that saw the country expanding its sporting horizons. India raked in its highest ever medal haul at the Olympics (seven) and the Paralympics (19). The country’s men’s and women’s team put hockey back on the pedestal. India found heroes in unheralded sports like fencing, swimming, sailing and golf. It was a year when Indian athletes showed that there is no dream too big. 

Also Read: Neeraj Chopra’s gold medal was emblematic of India's Olympics

Talking Tokyo: Even before the start of the Olympics, which was deferred by a year, Indian athletes had started breaking new ground. It was all the more commendable as they, like the rest of us, were still grappling with the pandemic. The world had become smaller, travelling tougher. A lot of Indian sports stars, including Chopra, spent weeks locked away from training grounds and gyms and missed competitions because of the travel restrictions. But they made the most of almost every hard-earned opportunity they got. 

Bhavani Devi became the first Indian to qualify in fencing, Nethra Kumanan became the first Indian woman to make the Olympic cut in sailing, Sajan Prakash became the first Indian swimmer to qualify for the Olympics with an ‘A’ mark. These are all remarkable athletes with remarkable stories of persistence. Devi went one better, when she became the first Indian to win a round in fencing at the Olympics. 

Also Read: Honour the Indians who didn't win any medals at the Olympics

It was weightlifter Mirabai Chanu who had set the tone for India at the Games by winning a silver on the opening day—another first for India. Chanu, who had failed to register a single valid lift at Rio five years ago, smiled away the memory and the nerves. She lifted a total of 202 kg to win a silver medal in the 49 kg event. The confidence of Chanu, who hails from Manipur, proved to be a beacon for the Indian contingent.

Assam’s Lovlina Borgohain used her long reach to snatch a bronze in women’s welterweight (69kg). PV Sindhu bounced back from a disappointing semi-final loss to clinch bronze and become the first Indian woman to win multiple Olympic medals. 

Also Read: How Anju Bobby George is moulding athletics champions

In wrestling, which has been India’s stronghold for the past few editions, India won two medals—a bronze for Bajrang Punia and a silver for Ravi Dahiya. While Punia’s bravado, which reflected in his decision to take off the knee brace during the bronze medal playoff, was expected, it was Dahiya’s silent progress into the final of the 57kg that stole the show. 

As the incredible Games headed towards the end, an unlikely hero emerged in Aditi Ashok. The 23-year-old from Bangalore, in contention for a medal till the very last round, was the reason Indian sports fans got up at dawn to watch golf. She finished an impressive fourth in a star-studded field. 

Also Read: Indian rugby takes baby steps towards becoming a pro sport

The most feel-good story of the Olympics, however, belonged to hockey. The Indian teams marched on, shrugging off defeats and past disappointments, into the semi-finals of the men’s and women’s hockey events. While the men’s team was left to revive a golden past, the women were left to chart their own journey. Most of the women had beaten much bigger odds in their lives to be daunted by the Olympic stage. Unlike the bronze-winning men’s team, they didn’t have a medal to show for their efforts, but they became the poster-girls of a brave new India in sport.  And on the final day, Chopra provided a strong finish to India’s stirring show at the Olympics. It was gold.

Power of Para: India’s para athletes kept the show going with a historic performance in Tokyo. At the Paralympics, India won 19 medals—more than they did in all the previous editions combined. They also recorded the best finish, 24th, in the medal standings. Bhavina Patel got the ball rolling by winning India’s first silver medal in table tennis, in Olympics or Paralympics. In the women’s Class 4 (athletes who compete in a sitting position) event, she was the only Indian on an overwhelmingly Chinese podium. 

Also Read: India's Paralympians defy the odds to triumph in Tokyo

While shooters didn’t quite live up to their potential at the Olympics, India’s first gold at the Paralympics came via teenager Avani Lekhara. Placed seventh on the starting grid, the rifle shooter from Jaipur shot a world record score of 249.6 to take the top position in women’s 10m Air Rifle SH1 category. Lekhara, aged 19, also won a bronze in 50m Rifle 3 Positions SH1 to become the first Indian to win two medals in the same edition. 

Sumit Antil (javelin, F64), Manish Narwal (mixed 50m Pistol SH1), Pramod Bhagat (badminton, men's singles SL3) and Krishna Nagar (badminton, men’s singles SH6) added to the gold tally. Devendra Jhajharia established himself as one of India’s premier athletes by winning his third medal at the Paralympics. Having won gold medals in Athens 2004 and Rio 2016, the 40-year-old proved he could still compete with the best by winning silver in the javelin F46 category. Athlete upon athlete, medal upon medal proved that India was a rising force in the Paralympics. In a country that still struggles to treat people with disabilities as equal, it was a statement performance.

Also Read: Meet the man who turned India into Para Badminton kings

“In India, there is stigma attached to people with disabilities,” para-badminton star Manasi Joshi had told Lounge in an earlier interview. “But when we see sportspersons, with disability, making a mark on the world level, we see people come out and forget that stigma; that is the change we need to see. Sport is a medium to empower.” 

The Badminton Boys: In recent years, India’s badminton prowess has been defined by the women, primarily Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu. But late in 2021, the men joined the party as well. Lakshya Sen proved why he has been touted as the star of the future when he became the youngest Indian to qualify for the World Tour Finals, which pits the top eight players of the season against each other.The 20-year-old rode his beginner’s luck—two of the players in his group retired during the round-robin stage—and some serious skills, to the semi-finals.

Also Read: Olympian Aditi Ashok is a golf purist's delight

It was, however, another last-four clash that held India spellbound. Sen took on Kidambi Srikanth in the semi-finals of the BWF World Championship in Spain in December. It was the first time that two Indian men were competing for a spot in the World Championship final. In a thrilling game, which lived up to the hype, Srikanth overcame his younger, sprightlier rival 17-21, 21-14, 21-17. Srikanth embraced Sen at the net, in celebration and solidarity. He’d just become the first Indian man to reach the World Championships final. Though Srikanth settler for the silver, it had been a long way back for him after missing out on the Olympics qualification.

From the Olympics and Paralympics to badminton courts and hockey fields, in victories big and small, Indian sport reached higher and grew taller this year. Here’s hoping for more of the same in 2022!  

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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