How Indian sporting heroes, old and new, raked in a record haul at the Asian Games and set new expectations for sporting brilliance
If Jyothi Surekha Vennam was a picture of stillness, then Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty were explosive energy personified. While the archer competed in sedate surroundings in the light of day, the Satwik-Chirag show took place in an indoor arena throbbing to music, with the spotlight squarely turned on them.
Vennam seemed in peak zen mode as she shot 14 of the 15 arrows in the 10-point circle in the final, finishing with a joint Asian Games record of 149 to win a gold medal in the women’s individual compound archery event. Even as she won India’s first-ever individual archery gold at the Asian Games, the only display of emotion from Vennam was an ear-to-ear smile.
A few hours later, Satwik-Chirag lunged, leaped and smashed their way to victory. The Indian duo defeated South Korea’s Choi Solgyu and Kim Wonho 21-18, 21-16 in 57 minutes in the men’s doubles final on Sunday. High on adrenaline after the win, Shetty took off his shirt, flexed his arm, and egged on a roaring crowd before joining his partner in a little celebratory jig. Not only was it India’s first gold in badminton at the continental event, but it propelled Satwik-Chirag to No. 1 in the world rankings.
The two contrasting, breakthrough golds were the highlights of India’s medal-studded Saturday—the final day of competition for India at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou. In their own way, both triumphs were shining examples of India’s growing might in a variety of sports, through a variety of champions.
Jyothi Surekha Vennam shots for gold in archery at the Asian Games.
India went past a century of medals for the first time at the continental event—overhauling their previous best record of 70 medals at the 2018 Asian Games—to finish with 107 medals, including 28 gold, in Hangzhou. It took them to No. 4 in the medal tally, behind China (383, including 201 gold), Japan (188, including 52 gold) and South Korea (190, including 42 gold). India’s sporting heroes, new and old, came together to deliver a record-breaking performance.
From Parul Chaudhary’s sneak attack in the final 20m to win India’s first gold in women’s 5000m, to Vithya Ramraj equalling P.T. Usha’s 39-year-old national record in the women’s 400m hurdles to reach the finals of the event, the Asian Games threw up countless examples of feats that surpassed all expectations. From the nerveless performance of archers Vennam and Ojas Deotale to headliner Neeraj Chopra coming up with the season-best throw of 88.88m to defend his title, Indian athletes showed that they can consistently rack up world-class numbers.
Parul Chaudhary with her gold medal after winning the women’s 5000m event.
Setting the gold standard
In fact, it is this very consistency of performance in big-ticket events that had made Chopra a clear favourite to win the men’s javelin throw in Hangzhou. This time the competition came from unexpected quarters: Chinese officials and fellow Indian Kishore Kumar Jena.
Chopra was put off his game right at the start of the event as officials, inexplicably, failed to measure the distance his javelin had travelled. After lengthy discussion at the referee’s table, the Indian was made to retake his throw. While the first attempt looked like he had gone past the 85m mark, Chopra’s first official throw landed at 82.38m.
With the world champion struggling to get going, the competition took an intriguing turn, from an Indian point of view, as Jena surged into lead with a throw of 86.77m on his third attempt. This was just the wake-up call Chopra needed. He recorded a season-best of 88.88m on his fourth throw to snatch the lead back from his compatriot. With Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem forced out with injury, the javelin competition turned into a procession for India. Spurred on by Chopra’s effort, Jena threw a personal best of 87.54m. Not close enough to win gold, but India recorded a 1-2 finish in men’s javelin for the first time.
“It was a great, it felt like we Indians are dominating the javelin world,” Chopra said during a virtual press conference on Saturday. “It was similar in the World Championships as well where we had three Indians in top six. It was my dream that Indians dominate javelin like how the Germans, Finnish, Czechs have done it the past and we are slowly reaching there.” With Chopra leading the way, athletics once again was the most productive sport for India at the Asian Games. India won 29 medals, including six gold, from track and field events.
However, the most stellar performance came from the compound archery team, which is enjoying a banner year. Having won three gold medals at the World Championships in Berlin in July-August, the archery team was dominant in Hangzhou as well.
In the 18 Asian Games editions before this, India had won a total of 10 medals in archery. This time they won nine at one go, seven of which belonged to the compound archers. Vennam and Deotale won three gold medals each—in the individual, team and mixed events. The men’s individual final was an all-Indian affair, with Abhishek Verma taking the silver. Aditi Gopichand Swami, who eventually won a bronze, created an Asian Games record of 149 points in the pre-quarterfinals, which Vennam equalled in the finals. As compound archery harbours hope of an Olympic breakthrough at the 2028 Los Angeles Games, India is setting the standard.
Smells like team spirit
Cricket added to India’s medal rush in Hangzhou, with the men’s and women’s team finishing at the top of the pile. While the women’s team had won in the first week itself, on the final Saturday, India won a gold in men’s cricket on pedigree alone. In the final, rain stopped play with Afghanistan at 112 for five after 18.2 overs. Though the match was eventually abandoned India were declared winners for being the higher-ranked team.
The more meaningful team medals, however, came in hockey and kabaddi.
Having endured a disappointing World Cup campaign at home earlier this year, the men’s team regained some ground with an assertive show in Hangzhou. They won seven out of seven matches in the competition and defeated defending champions Japan 5-1 in the final to regain the gold. It was India’s fourth title win at the Asian Games and one that helped them seal a berth at the 2024 Paris Olympics. The women’s team fell short of the Olympic qualification goal, but returned with a bronze.
The Indian men’s kabaddi team during the final against Iran.
Kabaddi scripted a redemption story too as the men’s and women’s teams clinched golds, albeit in more dramatic fashion than expected. India seemed to have lost their iron-grip on the game at the 2018 edition, as the men’s team failed to win a gold for the first time since kabaddi was included in the Asian Games roster in 1990. While they settled for bronze, the women’s team was shocked in the final by Iran.
In Hangzhou, the pressure was on to recapture the gold. The women’s team fought off a spirited challenge from unlikely finalists Chinese Taipei to sneak to a 26-25 win and clinch India’s 100th medal of the 2022 Asian Games.
Meanwhile, the men’s team defeated Iran 33-29 after farcical scenes over a ruling. As the referees deliberated over which lobby rule to apply after a game-changing Pawan Sehrawat raid, the two camps argued their side vehemently. The game was delayed by nearly 55 minutes—longer than the designated match time itself—and the decision changed four times, before the referees finally ruled in India’s favour. Three points to India, one to Iran, took the game from 28-28 to 31-29 with just 65 seconds left on the clock. India protected the lead to wrench back the gold from Iran.
In 1990, when India had won the kabaddi men’s championship for the first time, they were the only ones in the entire Indian contingent to win a gold. This time, they closed India’s gold-medal haul at 28.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.