When I started my career, the highlights in Indian sports could have been accommodated on the back of a postage stamp. There was hockey and its eight Olympic gold medals, but already European countries and Australia were pulling ahead. Then there was Ramanathan Krishnan and his two semi-final appearances at Wimbledon, Milkha Singh’s near miss at the Rome Olympics in 1960, India’s two appearances in the final of the Davis Cup, Prakash Padukone’s brilliant win at the All-England Badminton Championship, the world titles of Wilson Jones and Michael Ferreira, Vijay Amritraj’s unfulfilled promises, and that was pretty much that. We paid tribute to our sole Olympic bronze once every four years. Newspapers wrote about “India’s Forgotten Hero”, as K.D. Jadhav, the wrestler who won bronze at the 1952 Olympics, receded further from memory. It was the same medal that his family is now trying to auction off to raise funds for a wrestling academy that was first promised by the Maharashtra government and then forgotten like the Olympian himself.
The 1980s were a good time to begin reporting on sports. There was promise in the air, although the Milkha-Vijay syndrome of the “nearly man” was ever present. Ferreira won two of his three World championships in billiards, the Indian cricket team won the World Cup. When Bangaloreans lined the streets to give a smiling Padukone a welcome after his triumph, I was in college and part of that crowd. It was exhilarating.
At the 1984 Olympics, P.T. Usha missed a medal by a hair’s breadth. It took the great hurdler Edwin Moses to tell us that she needed to reduce the number of strides between hurdles. Indian coaches tended to be emotional crutches and father figures, but lacked international experience. Talent exists, we told ourselves in consolation, but lack of funds, poor coaching and corrupt officials kept many from flowering. Talented sportsmen and corrupt officials continue to exist, but coaching and funds have vastly improved.
A few generations had to pass before the traditional excuses made way for some straight answers.
More significant than Usha’s near miss was the influence she would have on India’s women athletes. She became a national icon, celebrated in sport and attracting more women to it. To see a straight line between Mithali Raj’s World Cup cricket team and Usha might be a stretch at this distance, but sport as a career for women was first suggested by her brilliance on the Asian and world stage.
In 1982, India hosted the Asian Games for the second time and colour television made its debut. The next year India won the cricket World Cup, and we began to feel like we belonged. For 35 years following Independence, India were happy to merely follow the Olympic principle: “The most important thing is not to win but to take part.”
We participated, oh yes we participated: the Olympic Games, the Commonwealth Games, World Cups, multi-nation tournaments. Our captains and managers arrived on foreign soil and said sweetly: “We have come to learn. To participate is a great honour. We may not win anything, but we will go back enriched by the experience.”
In the decade of Independence, Indian sport was often seen as an adjunct to nationalism. At the 1948 Olympics, when India beat Great Britain 4-0 in the hockey final, the symbolism was inescapable. India’s barefoot footballers impressed while losing 1-2 to France after missing two penalties. The same year, Lala Amarnath’s team of cricketers impressed Don Bradman’s eleven in Australia and nearly pulled off a series-equalling win at home against the West Indies.
The 1940s promised in the manner the 1980s was to do. But this was a false dawn, not the start of something new, but the end of something old. If the following generation was expected to build on the achievements of the 1940s sportsmen, it disappointed.
Although India finished fourth in football at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, causing us many decades later to speak of the “glory days of Indian football when we were among the best”, one of the members of that team, Bangalore’s Krishna “Kittu”, in one of his last interviews, admitted: “We were not very good.”
But they were good enough to become the first Asian team in an Olympic semifinal—Neville D’Souza scored a hat-trick against Australia. Indian football never regained those heights. So excited was the government of India that it felicitated the players…53 years later! Eight of the 17 players had passed on by then.
The 1950s saw a setback in many ways, although New Delhi hosted the Asian Games successfully in 1951 without any direct financial contribution from the government. India won the football title, but it became increasingly evident that even as India struggled to maintain its standards in both team and individual sports, other countries were progressing at a spectacular rate. Pakistan was already India’s equal in hockey and would go on to beat it in an Olympic final in 1960.
At a sports symposium in the mid-1980s, an Indian official made a plea for streamlining sports participation. “We take part in too many events at the Olympics,” he said, “too many events where we stand no chance for a medal. We need to choose a few sports and throw all our energies [and money] into them.”
Another plea at the same symposium was to focus on the “mother sports” in schools, the sports that formed the basis for all sport: athletics, swimming, and gymnastics. “Our children do not have a grounding in sport, and by the time they become competitive they are already playing catch-up,” explained a participant.
Our sports theory was sound, but not so our sports participation. Or culture. But as the 21st century beckoned, Indian sport, far from restricting itself, actually began to expand. World-beating archers emerged, as did, some years later, Formula One drivers. It could be argued that the former was a traditional sport, but the latter was a key to the direction Indian sport was taking—becoming professional, seeking to be the best in the world and not just in a small well in South Asia, and, above all, in its ability to attract sponsorship and viewership.
In this century, all these elements came together: the sheer numbers, professional coaching, money and security. Despite remnants of the old problems, from officialdom to lethargy to an easily satisfied attitude, still existing, Indian sport advanced. In both domestic and international terms, Indian sport has made more progress in this brief century than it did in the whole of the previous one. But without those years of hit-and-miss, we would not have been in the current position. Those failures were stepping stones to these successes.
It began with Pullela Gopichand emulating Padukone by winning the All-England badminton title. Soon, a badminton culture was born. Saina Nehwal, the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Olympics in 2012, was world number 1; four years later, P.V. Sindhu won a silver.
The Leander Paes generation gave tennis a similar thrust. Paes himself won a bronze at the 1996 Olympics, and with Mahesh Bhupathi won the doubles Grand Slam. Paes won Wimbledon titles in three different decades and is one of the most experienced Davis Cup players ever. Geet Sethi and Pankaj Advani took over as the kings of the baize game a generation apart, and won world titles as both amateurs and professionals. Rajyavardhan Rathore won a silver at the 2004 Olympics.
The Olympian of Olympians has to be Abhinav Bindra, who, in 2008, became India’s sole gold medal winner at the Beijing Games. Few Indian sportsmen have displayed Bindra’s obsessive, focused, committed approach to winning. “More than medals, this is the athlete’s gift to himself as he leaves his sport,” Bindra wrote after his final competition. “The truth of effort, the memory of deep commitment.” This has to be the Indian sportsman’s motto, effort and commitment.
The greatest? Independent India’s greatest sportsperson ever? That title might, theoretically, have many aspirants. Yet there is only one greatest: Viswanathan Anand, India’s youngest grandmaster, world champion, world No. 1 in chess, a sport which probably originated in India. If a sportsman had to be given the Bharat Ratna, the nation’s highest honour, he was the natural candidate (it was finally bestowed upon the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar).
Anand is special, combining an endearing Indianness with an other-worldly professionalism; a talent bordering on genius with the ability to calculate and identify patterns given only to a handful; the necessary “humility” that is looked for in Indian champions, and the flair to hold his own in any company; a remarkable world-awareness with knowledge in his field whose width is matched only by its depth.
Besides his own achievements, Anand was responsible for the boom in the sport in India. He became a grandmaster (GM) in his teens. Today, while he continues to play the circuit, there are nearly 50 GMs in India. Anand held the FIDE World Chess Championship from 2000 to 2002 and became the undisputed World Champion in 2007. Earlier, he became only the fourth player in history to pass the 2,800 Elo mark on the FIDE rating list, after Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov. He occupied the number one position for 21 months, the sixth longest on record.
In a recent book of his, Garry Kasparov, considered by many to be the greatest chess player ever, wrote: “I always felt I had the advantage in calculation over anyone else except the Indian star Viswanathan Anand, who was justly famous for his speedy tactical play.”
The greatest champion must have the record to show for it, longevity and consistency, should have an impact on his sport and influence the spread of the game. Anand ticks all the boxes. He is, besides, a gentleman in the finest sense of the word. Great sportsmen do not have to be wonderful gentlemen, but if they are, it honours both themselves and their sport.
By the nature of his sport, Anand cannot be the kind of popular star Tendulkar was in his prime. India’s obsession with cricket has confounded many. Other sports become popular when India wins, but cricket alone retains its hold, win or loss. And when India wins, as it did at the World Cup in 1983 and 2011 and the T20 World Cup in 2007, the whole nation rises to applaud.
Anand played an exhibition match at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. But chess is still some way from becoming a part of the competition at the Olympics. It is not among the five new sports at the 2020 Olympics to be held in Tokyo. A desperate president of the international body even suggested that chess pieces be made of ice so that chess could be included in the Winter Olympics. India’s hopes of Anand winning a gold have been taking a beating every four years.
Still, other sports at which India has done well in recent years, such as boxing, wrestling, gymnastics and shooting, have brought much glory. Dipa Karmakar became the first Indian woman gymnast to compete in the Olympics, and finished a heart-breaking fourth as a nation was glued to its television sets. She had won the bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. She also made ‘Produnova’ the word of the Olympic year as she attempted that very difficult manoeuvre in Rio de Janeiro, 2016. Geeta Phogat, who won a wrestling gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2010, was paid the ultimate compliment when the Bollywood star Aamir Khan made a popular movie on her and her sisters. When even Bollywood sees possibilities in the stories of sporting icons, sections of the population begin to take sport seriously. The earlier film on Mary Kom, five-time world amateur boxing champion, might not have been as successful, but Mary Kom herself could stake a claim to being India’s greatest sportswoman. Her bronze at the 2012 Olympics, which might have been hailed even a generation earlier, came as a disappointment, thanks to rising expectations. It was a testimony to greater sporting self-confidence.
While much of the focus has remained on cricket, which Ashis Nandy characterised as an Indian sport accidentally invented by the English, international success shone the light briefly on other sports. In the 70 years since Independence, the question is no longer about India competing well but about India winning, and that is the most obvious sign of progress. Thanks to the phenomenally successful Twenty20 IPL cricket league, other sports have realised the importance of the short, well-marketed competition shown on live television. The popularity of the indigenous kabaddi is testimony to this line of thinking. The message has come through clearly: there is money in sport, besides the glamour and the honour.
In international competitions, athletes still finish at the back of the pack, national teams still embarrass fans, but the probability of victory has increased in recent decades, certainly since the start of this century. Which might make this the third important phase of sports development in India. If the 1940s and 1950s were about starting out and the 1980s about consolidation, then we are probably at the takeoff stage, making it yet another exciting period for sports in the country. Even individual champions, who evolved thanks mainly to their parents’ interest and despite the lackadaisical attitude of officialdom, now emerge from supervised systems, both private and governmental. A system is in place, and that is making a difference. Would our heroes of the past have made that final leap if they had today’s backing? Perhaps. But the heroes of the future certainly will.
With inputs from Ramesh Chakrapani, who also compiled the sidebars.