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