As the Asian Games begin in what has been a difficult year for Indian sport, filled with proof of systemic and administrative failures, it’s individual effort that offers hope
As it is with most multi-sport events, the conversation before the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, from 23 September-8 October, was about India’s medal count. On 5 September, when India’s official ceremonial and competition outfits were unveiled, P.T. Usha insisted this Indian contingent “has the potential to get India its best medal haul”.
The most decorated Indian athlete at the Asian Games, with 11 medals, track legend Usha is also the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president. Official broadcasters (Sony Sports Network) run their promotional video with the slogan: “Is baar 100 paar (this time, more than 100)”. Even actors Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini have joined the cheerleading chorus for India to go past the 100-medal mark at this Asian Games.
For the record, India’s best medal tally at the continental event is 70 medals, at the 2018 Games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia. India will be sending their largest Asian Games contingent—655 members—to Hangzhou. Originally scheduled to be held in September 2022, the Games were delayed due to another covid-19 scare.
Given the big strides Indian athletes have taken on the international stage in the last few years, the bullishness on medals may not be out of place. What is baffling, though, is the preoccupation with medals, especially after the year Indian sport has endured.
2023 was a reality check for the growing ambitions of Indian athletes. A reminder that sports federations will continue to erect the biggest obstacles in their way. The year began with Indian wrestlers, including Olympians Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia, taking to the streets and protesting against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a member of Parliament of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Seven wrestlers, including a minor, charged Singh with sexual harassment. It took a months-long agitation, an intervention from the Supreme Court and a strong backlash against Delhi Police for dragging the country’s renowned female wrestlers off the streets and dismantling their protest site, for the authorities to wake up to the problem. The WFI was eventually disbanded. And as the ad-hoc panel was not able to conduct elections for new office-bearers in time, the world wrestling body—United World Wrestling suspended the WFI. However, the Indian wrestling contingent, spearheaded by Tokyo Olympics medallist Punia, will compete in Hangzhou under an India, rather than neutral, flag, since the entries were sent by the IOA and not WFI.
The inefficiency of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) meant India sent a hurriedly assembled, ill-prepared men’s squad that landed in Hangzhou less than 24 hours before their opening match. According to the Indian sports ministry’s qualifying standards, only teams which feature in the top 8 in Asia are sent to the Games. Though India’s men’s team is currently ranked 18th in Asia (the women’s team is 11th), AIFF made a case for them to go based on the popularity of the sport, recent results, and the fact that India will be competing in the 2024 AFC Asian Cup in January.
The final Indian football team, captained by Sunil Chhetri, was announced four days before their first game and sent to the Asian Games without a training session together.
They won that battle but were unable to send their best team for the Asian Games, which, like the Olympics, is an Under-23 tournament that allows a maximum of three overage players. The Asian Games do not come under a Fifa-recognised international window, so some of the Indian Super League clubs refused to release their players. The final Indian team, captained by Sunil Chhetri, was announced four days before their first game and sent to the Asian Games without a training session together.
The selection process for kurash, a martial art, proved to be so controversial that the Delhi high court ordered an investigation by the Delhi Police crime branch. Meanwhile, the Equestrian Federation of India was under fire for dropping the country’s leading dressage athlete, Gaurav Pundir. Event rider Chirag Khandal announced his retirement, earlier this month at the age of 19, from the sport after he was dropped from the Indian squad despite achieving the minimum eligibility requirements (MER) for the Hangzhou Asian Games. “I’ve exhausted my family’s savings and I’ve realised there’s no future for me here. I squarely blame an apathetic and vindictive EFI for this,” he told Hindustan Times.
This is the bleak background against which Indian athletes are hoping to take flight. While the system continues to fail them, what is propelling the movement ahead is individual effort. The sustained brilliance of athletes like Neeraj Chopra and P.V. Sindhu, the resilience of old warriors like Achanta Sharath Kamal and Rohan Bopanna.
The Asian Games, three of the key multi-sport events for India along with the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, has a special place in Indian sports history. India was one of the founding members of the competition and hosted the first Asian Games in 1951 in Delhi. Since then, they have won a total of 672 medals, including 155 gold, and stand fifth in the overall medal tally at the quadrennial event.
All eyes will once again be on javelin star Chopra, who is hoping to close out another successful season on a high. After creating history at the 2020 Tokyo Games, where he won gold to become the first athlete from independent India to bag a medal in Olympics track and field, Chopra added the Diamond League Final win to his impressive resume last year. The Indian completed the holy trinity of athletics medals last month as he clinched the World Championship gold.
In a historic Asian one-two, Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem won silver at the World Championships with a throw of 86.79m. Their friendship and rivalry has blossomed over the years and it will be one of the most anticipated clashes at the Asian Games.
However, Chopra will be hurting over the dip from his own lofty standards during the Diamond League Final on 16 September. The conditions were tough in Eugene, Oregon, US, during the Diamond League showpiece event and none of the javelin throwers crossed 85m. The Indian finished second with a throw of 83.80m.
“The position does not matter. But I am not happy with my throw,” Chopra said in the mixed zone later. “I didn’t feel good with any of my throws. Even in my warm-up throws, I was not feeling good. It happened after a long time. I was very consistent. But it will teach me something and I will improve. I will try my best in the Asian Games.”
While Chopra is the defending champion in javelin, Sindhu will be hoping to win her first gold at the prestigious event. Sindhu, the only Indian woman to win two Olympic medals, has captured an Asian Games bronze (2014 Incheon) and a silver (2018 Jakarta). The 28-year-old, however, has been struggling for form this year. Of the 15 tournaments she has competed in, she suffered seven first-round defeats and has not won a single BWF (Badminton World Federation) title in 2023 so far.
P.V. Sindhu will be hoping to win her first gold at the prestigious Asian Games 2023.
Apart from Sindhu, her fellow Tokyo medallists, Mirabai Chanu and Lovlina Borgohain, will also look to make a mark in Hangzhou. Having undergone a hip surgery last December, Chanu has competed in only one event so far—the Asian Weightlifting Championships, where she finished second. To make sure she remained fit for the Asian Games, Chanu did not lift at the World Weightlifting Championships held from 4-17 September.
Poster girls of India’s women’s boxing prowess, Nikhat Zareen and Borgohain are also chasing Asian Games glory. Zareen, competing in the 51kg category, and Borgohain, who has stepped up to the 75kg weight class, will make their Games debut at Hangzhou.
Boxing is one of the few sports in which the 2022 Asian Games will provide qualifying points for the 2024 Paris Olympics. The men’s and women’s hockey champions in Hangzhou will get direct entry into next year’s Summer Olympics. Similarly, men’s singles and women’s singles winners in tennis at the Asian Games will also seal a spot for the Paris Games.
For the kabaddi teams, the Hangzhou Games are a shot at redemption. India dominated the sport ever since it was introduced at the 1990 Beijing Games, winning seven straight gold medals in the men’s competition. They also won the first two editions of the women’s event, held in 2010 and 2014. The 2018 Jakarta Games were the first time India failed to win a gold medal in kabaddi. While the women won silver, the men’s team failed to even make the final. They were beaten by eventual champions Iran in the semi-final and had to settle for a bronze.
Back to the future
The official mascots of the 2022 Asian Games are three sporty robots called Congcong, Lianlian and Chenchen. Collectively known as the “smart triplets”, they represent both the Unesco World Heritage sites of eastern China and the country’s growing prowess in internet technology. Something old, something new. Much like the roster of games they have opted for. Hangzhou will see a revival of games like cricket, last played in 2014, and chess, last played in 2010. It will also see breaking and esports, which target the younger demographic, debut as medal sports at a multi-sport event. Though India will not be represented in breaking, the country has sent a 15-member squad for esports.
“People would see me playing and say I waste my time on the computer; I should just focus on my studies,” Akshaj Shenoy, the captain of the League of Legends team tells Lounge. “Their opinion of esports has changed. They are happy that I get to represent my country.” The 21-year-old, who has graduated in economics, sociology and industrial relations, will wait until the end of the Asian Games to decide on a career path.
Chess’ re-entry into the continental event has coincided with a massive upswing in Indian chess. At the Fide World Cup, which took place in August, D. Gukesh dethroned Viswanathan Anand in the live ratings as India No.1, a position Anand had held for 37 years. Four Indians—Gukesh, R. Praggnanandhaa, Arjun Erigaisi, Vidit Gujrathi—made the quarter-finals. Praggnanandhaa went all the way to the final, where he fell to Magnus Carlsen. It was a coming-of-age tournament for Indian chess. The four World Cuppers, along with women’s chess stars Koneru Humpy and D. Harika, will be the favourites at the chess event.
With India competing in 41 of the 61 events at the Asian Games, they may well beat the best-ever mark of 70 medals. A silver lining in a subduing year for Indian sport? Or enough glitter to gloss over the systemic and administrative failures?
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.