Why one Neeraj Chopra or Abhinav Bindra does not make India a global sporting power

Two characters were a source of inspiration for millions of sports fans growing up in India in the 1950s and 1960s. One was a professional freestyle wrestler who won international championships. The towering figure of Dara Singh seemed to symbolize the raw power and physical strength of a country reborn as an independent nation in 1947. We all dreamed of gaining his physical abilities to defeat our enemies.

The second character was an epitome of speed who became a national icon, able to run so fast that many stories arose around his running abilities; some true, some false, which have survived to this day. It was said that Milkha Singh once chased a thief but ran away from him in seconds
without realizing it, and wondered where the thief had disappeared.

The man who quenched a parched nation’s thirst for success was born of division and the horrors it unleashed on a country divided into two nations—India and Pakistan. He had fled his village in Pakistan after losing his parents to the insane rage of a violent mob. He had survived in utter poverty on the streets of Delhi.

From being jailed for traveling on an unticketed bus to becoming the world’s best 400m sprinter, Milkha’s story was truly amazing. He won almost everything there was to win except one race that really mattered – he finished fourth at the 1960 Olympics. But as no other Indian athlete could even remotely qualify for, let alone compete in, the Olympics Milkha, even after defeat, a hero figure for all of us.

Dara Singh would later become a famous actor and even pound all the evil giants of the world to a pulp on screen. Milkha received enough opportunities from the state to lead a comfortable life.

He made his son Jeev Milkha a successful golfer. Athletics was still a poor man’s endeavor and Milkha had seen enough poverty to dissuade his son from pursuing a sport where money was hard to come by.

The 1970s and 1980s may have seen a revolution in India’s most popular and highest-grossing sport – cricket – but the world’s burgeoning Milkhas were still struggling.

The emergence of a world badminton champion, Prakash Padukone, was an aberration in a sporting system lacking in infrastructure, money and encouragement. We made progress, but the pace was so slow that the goal was not within reach.

There was no Neeraj Chopra in sight, no Abhinav Bindra; no sporting victories to inspire and enjoy. A weightlifting medal or tennis success at the Olympics did not do justice to a nation of a billion people. The label “Underachiever” was plastered in bold letters across the face of a nation whose economy was growing reasonably well.

No wonder cricket encroached on places where hockey once reigned, earning India three Olympic gold medals after 1947. Smaller towns and villages took to bat and ball with greater enthusiasm. Our Test cricketers became idolized figures. TV screens reinforced the effect and as the money poured in we didn’t even realize when cricket had gone from just a sport to a brand and the players to brand ambassadors.

For a long time, cricket seemed to have marginalized all other sports. We were still denied an Olympic individual gold.

Then, in 2008, the very calm, meditative figure of Abhinav Bindra achieved this feat. Shooting, which we imagined as a sport of the Rajas and Maharajas, grew into a major medalist for India in the international arena. Abhinav Bindra and Rajyavardhan Rathore became the faces of a sport that is still not easily accessible to the masses.

India lived on in the past and the story of Milkha still pulsed in our memories. We haven’t had a single athlete like him, male or female, who could dominate the world stage. While the sports system has improved over the years, it still lacked a dedicated roster of people and money to support its growth.

The outback of Haryana, where the sport has invaded the very conservative society, has given India a lot of hope, be it in boxing, wrestling or athletics. His women are at the forefront of this revolution.

At the 2018 Commonwealth Games, where India won 66 medals, 22 were won by athletes from Haryana. So it came as no surprise that India’s first track and field gold medal at the Olympics was won by a Haryanvi.

Neeraj Chopra threw the javelin a distance of 87.58 meters to rewrite a gold at the age of 23
Chapter in the history of India in 2021. While Neeraj became a nation’s toast, the man himself had not forgotten what Milkha meant to India’s athletic brotherhood. In his acceptance speech, he dedicated his medal to the “Flying Sikh” who died a few months earlier, on June 18, 2021, at the age of 91.

Neeraj, who recently won silver at the 2022 World Athletics Championships with a throw of 88.13 meters, is just 24 years old. Like most athletes, he had to face difficult odds to overcome many hurdles to achieve his goal.

As the saying goes, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Likewise, a Chopra or a Bindra does not mean that we are a world-level sporting power.

Yes, we have our sports stars and incredible achievers to be proud of, such as badminton player PV Sindhu, who will win many more medals for us. But the fact that India has just won two individual gold medals at the Olympics since 1947 can be very humbling.

While the successful become our brands and we shower them with money and fame, India is far from providing a benign environment for aspiring athletes. It needs to invest more money and energy in its villages and towns to create an infrastructure and sports culture that could lead to many more champions being produced.

Pradeep Magazine is a cricket writer, columnist and former sports editor. He is a fellow of the New India Foundation, whose book Not Quite Cricket: A Reporter’s Journey through Modern India was published by HarperCollins in 2021.

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