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Asian Games: How Indian athletes are pushing the bar higher with every win

India may not be a sporting superpower yet, but with every win, Indian athletes are daring to dream bigger

Sutirtha Mukherjee and Ayhika Mukherjee at the Asian Games.
Sutirtha Mukherjee and Ayhika Mukherjee at the Asian Games. (PTI)

A gold won in equestrian; a gold lost in women’s golf. A steeplechaser who opened up a lead big enough to have enough time to turn, cast a glance at the competition he had far left behind and coast to victory. Table tennis stars who shed mental baggage to beat world champions from China in their own den. A debutant who refused to bow down to an unfair ruling and raced to a silver. Breakthroughs came in all forms for India in the last seven days at the 2022 Asian Games.

Anush Agarwalla, Hriday Chheda, Divyakirti Singh and Sudipti Hajela set the ball rolling as they clinched a gold in the team dressage event, India’s first-ever in the equestrian discipline. Since the event’s inception at the 1986 Seoul Asian Games, South Korea and Japan were the only two countries to have won a gold in team dressage. But the young Indian team—all four are in their early 20s—ended the hegemony for what is possibly India’s most surprising triumph at the Games so far. It was the country’s first gold in equestrian in 41 years.

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Though the four athletes don’t come from privileged backgrounds, they have had to move to Europe due to the lack of coaching and facilities in India. According to a report in the Indian Express, their parents have spent over  3 crore out of their own pocket to keep their dream alive. Singh’s family even sold their house in Jaipur so she could continue training in Europe.

While the underdog dressage team rose to the occasion, star golfer Aditi Ashok seemed to shrink in the spotlight. The 25-year-old from Bengaluru had first captured the country’s imagination as she finished a brave fourth at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In May 2023, she became the first Indian woman to break into the top-50 in the world.

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Heading into the final day of competition at Asian Games, Ashok had built a commanding seven-stroke lead. But she fell behind with a double bogey on the 16th hole. Ashok finished at a score of 271, two more than World No. 206 Arpichaya Yubol of Thailand on Sunday.

“It's a gold lost, anyone will look at it like that,” Ashok, the first Indian woman to medal in golf at the Asian games, told reporters after the event. “When you are behind, your mind thinks of all the good things you can do to catch up. When you're leading, it's hard to get over thinking all the things that could go wrong, not that that's what happened. It was just a bad day, but it wasn't easy knowing I had to play well or bad to decide the outcome.” It is a measure of Indian sports, and the ambition of athletes like Ashok, that we talk about it as a gold medal lost than a historic silver won.

Indian women’s doubles table tennis team of Ayhika Mukherjee and Sutirtha Mukherjee scripted one of the upsets of the Games, as they defeated Chen Meng and Wang Yidi 11-5, 11-5, 5-11, 11-9 in the quarterfinals on Saturday. Together, China’s Meng and Yidi are ranked No. 2 in the world and are the reigning world champions. Meng alone won two gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics—in women’s singles and the team event.

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Despite the strides Indian tables tennis has taken in the last few years, beating China in China had seemed a dream too far. But Ayhika’s deception and Sutirtha’s aggression helped India crack the Chinese code. Though the duo fell in the semis, they had already secured a bronze. 

Sunday turned out to be the most successful day for India in the history of Asian Games. The country bagged a total of 15 medals—the biggest haul in a single day. The highlight of the day was Avinash Sable’s dominating win in 3000m steeplechase. Sable clocked 8:19.50, more than four seconds faster than his closest competitor. Having sprung into lead on the first lap itself, Sable steadily pulled away from the pack. Before the start of the last lap, when Sable looked back over his shoulder, he was more than 100m ahead of the rest. 

The continental event is not as competitive as the Olympics, or even the Commonwealth Games where Kenyans starts as clear favourites. But Sable helped raise the bar as he became the first Indian man to win a gold in steeplechase. In 3000m women’s steeplechase event, two Indians finished on the podium for the first time—Parul Chaudhary won the silver and Priti Lamba the bronze. India had a similar 2-3 finish in men’s 1500m as well as Ajay Kumar bagged the silver and Jinson Johnson bronze.

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On her Asian Games debut, Jyothi Yarraji battled on and off the track to clinch a silver in 100m hurdles—India’s first medal in the discipline. As China’s Wu Yanni made a false start, Yarraji, who was in the next lane, also jumped the gun. The race did go ahead under protest, with both Wu and Yarraji allowed to race. The Indian was upgraded to a silver after Wu, who had finished the race second, was eventually disqualified. The officials, however, initially disqualified Wu and Yarraji. The 24-year-old from Visakhapatnam, stood her ground and argued her case vehemently. Meek? Not this lot.

With every international event, every multi-sport extravaganza, Indian athletes are shaking off the doubts. India may not be a sporting superpower just yet, but with every win, big and small, they are paving way for further success.

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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