A Turn­ing Point in In­dian Sport

Be­hind In­dia’s best Asian Games show ever lies team­work, metic­u­lous plan­ning and a deep pool of tal­ent


With 7 gold, 10 sil­ver and 2 bronze medals in Ath­let­ics, the 2018 Asian Games have been, by far, In­dia’s best per­for­mance at an Asiad. But this, as they say, is just the be­gin­ning. Take a look at the ju­nior tal­ent pool: Neeraj Cho­pra, Hima Das, Sar­i­ta­ben Gayak­wad, Vis­maya, P.U. Chi­tra, Swapna Bur­man are all un­der 24; Hima, at 18, is the youngest. These young­sters are yet to peak and yet two of them have al­ready struck gold at the in­ter­na­tional level. In 2016, Neeraj be­came the first In­dian to win a gold at the World Ju­nior Cham­pi­onships, in Poland; in win­ning the javelin throw event, he set a new world record. In July 2018, Hima brought In­dia its first gold in a track event at the World Un­der 20 Cham­pi­onships, in Fin­land, by win­ning the women’s 400 me­tres.

In­dia would have added eight more Track and Field gold medals to its tally at this edi­tion of the Games, but for the out­sourced African ath­letes, among the best in the world, rep­re­sent­ing two West Asian coun­tries. Count the Africans out, and our tally would read: 15 gold, 4 sil­ver, 1 bronze. There is a lot of me­dia de­bate on the le­git­i­macy of African ath­letes rep­re­sent­ing Asian coun­tries, but we should sim­ply aim higher—at the World and Olympic podi­ums—and com­pete with the best in the busi­ness, Africans or any other ath­letes. Our women’s 400m quar­tet as well as Jin­son John­son and Man­jit Singh have proved that they can beat the best in the world.

Apart from the com­mit­ment, de­ter­mi­na­tion and tire­less ef­forts of the ath­letes, I must em­pha­sise that this per­for­mance has been achieved through team work and metic­u­lous long-term plan­ning by the Ath­let­ics Fed­er­a­tion of In­dia (AFI), fol­lowed up by ef­fi­cient ex­e­cu­tion by the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee, coaches, man­agers, doc­tors, masseurs and phys­io­ther­a­pists.

One must also thank the gov­ern­ment and the Sports Au­thor­ity of In­dia for their sup­port in train­ing and mak­ing avail­able com­pe­ti­tion fa­cil­i­ties for our ath­letes. The Mis­sion Olympic Cell cre­ated by the gov­ern­ment, to pro­vide as­sis­tance to the ath­letes, met ev­ery week to ex­tend sus­tained fi­nan­cial aid.

Many seem sur­prised by this per­for­mance, but any­one track­ing the progress of the ath­letes will have seen this com­ing—in 2012, only 12 ath­letes qual­i­fied for the Lon­don Olympics; in 2016, 34 qual­i­fied for Rio. This is a measure of the si­lent progress made over time.

In the first Asian Games, 1951, In­dia had won 10 gold medals in ath­let­ics and, in 1978, our tally was 8. How­ever, to put things into per­spec­tive, we need to re­mem­ber that in 1951, In­dia had host-na­tion ad­van­tage. Also, in 1951, there were far fewer coun­tries par­tic­i­pat­ing (11 com­pared with 45 in Jakarta 2018). Also con­sider the emer­gence of China in the late 1980s. At the 1990 Bei­jing Games, In­dia won just 4 sil­ver and 2 bronze medals. In Hiroshima, 1994, with both China and Ja­pan rak­ing in medals, we won a pal­try 1 sil­ver and 2 bronze medals. Be­fore this, when In­dian ath­letes brought home eight golds in 1978, China and Ja­pan were not a force to reckon with. Again, af­ter the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Cen­tral Asian coun­tries such as Uzbek­istan, Kaza­khstan, Kyr­gyzs­tan, Turk­menistan and Ta­jik­istan be­com­ing a part of Asia, com­pe­ti­tion at the Asian Games be­came much tougher. The lat­est prac­tice of some West Asian coun­tries buy­ing and field­ing African ath­letes has raised the bar to World Cham­pi­onship lev­els.

Our per­for­mance at Jakarta has made In­di­ans proud. Per­son­ally, too, it is a mat­ter of great pride that both first-time in­ter­na­tional gold medals in Track and Field have been won dur­ing my ten­ure as AFI pres­i­dent. I am con­fi­dent that with team­work and com­mit­ment, we’ll achieve our goal of an Olympic podium fin­ish. But I must also cau­tion that we have a chal­leng­ing road ahead if we are to suc­ceed at that level.

Adille J. Sumariwall­a is the pres­i­dent of the Ath­let­ics Fed­er­a­tion of In­dia, a former Olympian and an Arjuna awardee, 1985

In 2012, only 12 ath­letes qual­i­fied for the Lon­don Olympics; in 2016, 34 qual­i­fied for Rio. This is a measure of the si­lent progress made over time

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