The word “challenger” in sport usually refers to an upcoming, somewhat less-decorated competitor who takes on a much stronger and established champion. In men’s professional tennis, the tournament rung below the big-money Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour events is called the Challenger Tour. From 2001 to 2014, hockey ran a FIH Champions Challenge event held between teams outside the world’s top six. Sport’s challengers usually make up the bunch, straining to mix with the big boys (or girls) and more often than not ending up a smidgen short of the real deal.
But in 2023, Indian sport’s varied challengers—against convention, stereotype, authority, history—left this condescension and trepidation in the dust, rewriting templates and textbooks. They covered previously untraversed distances and sought their place in the sun. These disruptors of what had happened before set the tone it is hoped for what can happen in the future. Through the year, India found athletes who stopped clocks, owned the moment, and may have dramatically recalibrated the country’s notions of its sport. It is a long and robust roll call and, as happens in most year-ender sporting assessments, normally their glory story gets top billing. In an Asian Games year, 100-plus medals—28 gold, 38 silver, 41 bronze—should fill the pages, just ahead of the national men’s cricket team’s stirring run in its first solo home World Cup. Had that World Cup been won, we would have been corralled into a different discussion. However, as Tom Cruise says in Top Gun: Maverick, “but not today”.
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