If there were any doubts that India could keep up the momentum of its historic performance at the Tokyo Olympics last year, were banished in May this year. To begin with, India’s badminton team won the Thomas Cup—the premier men’s badminton team event—for the very first time on 15 May. Four days later, on the 19th, boxer Nikhat Zareen captured the World Championship title with an emphatic 5-0 win. Two world titles, in two different sports, in four days. It was heady; it was historic. It confirmed that India was here to play. While both titles were equally great, their narratives could not be more different.
Having spent the majority of her career as a boxer under the shadow of the legendary M.C. Mary Kom, the IBA World Championship in Istanbul was Zareen’s breakout moment. And the 26-year-old from Nizamabad, Telangana, was more than ready for it. She won all her matches, five out of five, with a unanimous 5-0 decision, wowing fans and judges alike as she clinched the flyweight (52kg) world title.
Before her final against Thailand’s Jutamas Jitpong, Zareen told herself, “Aaj final hai, aaj hi ke din history karni hai (Today is the final, I have to create history today).” She manifested it perfectly, in her rope-a-dope style, to become the fifth Indian woman to win the World Championship gold.
It was that same belief that buoyed the Indian men’s badminton team to success. Modern badminton is said to have originated in Pune and India certainly has a pedigree in the sport: From Prakash Padukone to Saina Nehwal, from Pullela Gopichand to P.V. Sindhu. Never before, though, had individual brilliance amalgamated to form a winning combination.
“This might sound a little dramatic. But a week before the tournament we created a (Whatsapp) group titled ‘It's coming home,’” one of India’s best singles players K. Srikanth later revealed. India, who had thrice reached the semi-finals of the Thomas Cup, were by no means the favourites. But they kept refusing to lose, to Malaysia, to Viktor Axelsen’s Denmark, to defending champions Indonesia.
Srikanth and H.S. Prannoy, the eldest members in a team bubbling with talent, took responsibility, winning all their matches and creating the space for the younger players to thrive. India’s premier doubles team, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, hit the high notes. After a slow start, Lakshya Sen joined the party by giving India a 1-0 lead in the final. India’s unlikely heroes defeated 14-time champions Indonesia, most successful team in the competition, 3-0 in the final to capture the Thomas Cup.
Onward and upward
Last year, Neeraj Chopra unburdened Indian athletics of a century of disappointments as he won the country’s first medal in athletics at the Olympics—a glittering gold in javelin throw. Set free from the disappointments of the past, Indian athletes continued to soar in 2022.
The 25-year-old Chopra once again led the way by winning a silver at the World Championships and a Diamond League Final gold. His silver at the World Championships in Eugene in July was India’s only second medal at the event—Anju Bobby George had broken that glass ceiling by winning bronze in long jump at Paris 2003.
On an overcast September day in Zurich, Switzerland, Chopra threw the javelin to a distance of 88.44m to become the first Indian to win the Diamond League final. “I always thought the Diamond League (Finals) was a big competition,” he said. “The trophy should be there in India, and finally that happened last night. It felt really good, aaj aise feel hua ki hum bhi global athletics ka ek hissa hai (Today, it felt like India is also a part of global athletics).”
Chopra summed up the emotion in a year where Indian athletes broke new ground. Though the javelin star was the only one to return with a medal, India registered their best performance at the Athletics World Championships as six athletes made it to the finals.
They continued the good form at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, claiming eight medals. India scripted a historic 1-2 finish in triple jump, with Eldhose Paul and Abdulla Aboobacker winning gold and silver respectively. Priyanka Goswami won the country’s first racewalking medal as she grabbed silver in the 10km event, bronze-medallist Annu Rani became the first Indian woman to win in women’s javelin throw, and Tejaswin Shankar won a bronze in high jump—another first for India. Murali Sreeshankar’s best attempt of 8.08m saw him win the silver in long jump.
The lasting image of the giant steps India has taken on the global stage was conjured by Avinash Sable. He was running behind three Kenyans in the 3000m steeplechase, an event the African nation has owned in the recent past. The wiry Sable burst into life just before the last lap, overtook two of the three ahead him in a few, smooth strides and finished with a silver, only 0.05 seconds behind the gold-winning Abraham Kibiwot. For the first time since 1998, a runner not from Kenya finished on the men’s steeplechase podium at the Commonwealth Games.
Though it wasn’t India’s most successful outing, the country won a total of 61 medals (22 gold, 16 silver, 23 bronze) at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. They utterly dominated wrestling and weightlifting: Winning medals in each of the 12 categories they participated it in wrestling and claiming 10 medals in 17 categories in weightlifting.
However, the stand-out star of India’s Birmingham Games was Achanta Sharath Kamal. Showing no signs of slowing down, the 40-year-old participated in four events and finished with a gold in three and a silver in one. 16 years after making his CWG debut, in Birmingham, the table tennis star had to play 21 matches in 11 days. He won 19 of those, winning gold in men’s singles, a gold in men’s team event, a gold in mixed doubles and a silver in men’s doubles.
“It's the best thing that happened in my professional life until now,” Sharath told Lounge recently. That performance went some way in him finally being awarded India’s highest sporting honour—the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna award.
Also Read Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu wins CWG gold
Made of steel
Mirabai Chanu likes to seal her lifts with a sweet smile. But she’s made of pure steel.
The Commonwealth Games field was a cakewalk for her, or at least she made it look like one. In a league of her own, the 4’11” dynamo lifted a Games record total of 201 kg—29kg more than her closest rival—to win the gold medal in the 49kg category. Rarely has an Indian athlete bossed an event so completely, and the crowd was in raptures as Chanu kept lifting the barbell, heavier and heavier, till she peaked at 88kg in snatch and 113 in clean & jerk.
The World Championships, in December, was significantly tougher with China competing. A wrist injury threatened to derail her. On her second attempt, 87 kg in snatch, Chanu visibly struggled and couldn’t compete the lift. She dug in deeper on the third. Drawing of years of experience and the strength in every sinew, Chanu raised the weight overhead, the strapped left wrist held up. 87kg done. The 28-year-old Manipuri had to do it all over again, as she failed at her first attempt in clean & jerk. But she lifted 113kg on her third and final chance, to secure a podium finish at the world event in Bogota, Colombia.
Chanu, who had brought India its first medal in Tokyo, rounded off an encouraging 2022 for Indian sport with another silver. More than the results, it’s the energy among Indian athletes, a surge of confidence that’s propelling Indian sport onward and upward.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.