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”.
Fighting the status quo
Yet, before anointing India’s newest generation of 21st century Indian athletes and trendsetters, we must understand that the boldest sporting challengers of 2023 have not had a triumphal finish to rousing music. Standing up against Indian sport’s deeply entrenched status quo and status quoists, the wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, and Bajrang Punia have shown their tribe the consequences of their courage.
It has meant being trapped in limbo—between wanting to get the most out of their competitive careers and committed to governance reform in wrestling but left to the mercy of the Indian legal process. This will eat into months of their lives and tear training and competition schedules to shreds but will barely scratch the veneer of self-importance worn by those who run Indian sporting federations. The wrestlers will pay a heavy price for what they did, but the value of the message they sent is immeasurable.
Phogat, Malik, and Punia headed a group of wrestlers who took on Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Who was not just the most powerful man in their sport but, due to his political standing, was also prized and therefore protected by the most powerful men in the country.
Over a period of six months, the wrestlers’ complaints against Sharan Singh were responded to with contempt and aggression. Their protest site at Jantar Mantar in Delhi was first denied easy public access and later trashed. The image of the women wrestlers battening themselves to the ground while being manhandled by the Delhi Police and carried off into vans went around the world. The message it sent was clear: never mind medals, stature, achievements. This, at the most basic level, is how India treats its athletes.
Nothing that the wrestlers said in their protests was either unknown or unheard of in wrestling or other sporting bodies in India. Administrative misdemeanour and financial impropriety are par for the course in nine of 10 Indian sports federations, eight if you are being kind. Stories of sexual bullying, abuse, harassment inflicted on the young by figures of authority (male or female) are shared in low tones, and found everywhere in India’s formal sporting structures. Sometimes federations and institutions take note, in most of the cases the issue itself is buried along with young careers.
Unprecedented in Indian sport
What made the wrestlers’ protest unprecedented in Indian sport is that it was the most famous players who were up front, calling out their sport’s capo dei capi in public. Punia is an Olympic and four-time World Championship medallist, Malik is India’s only woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal, and Phogat is the only double World Championship medallist among India’s women wrestlers.
Today, India’s elite athletes are more materially well supported than they have ever been. The linking of sporting success to national self-esteem and political superpower aspiration along with social media play gives them a direct line to power. Malik’s and Phogat’s achievements had them quickly co-opted into the “Bharat ki betiyaan” pantheon, which is how the establishment likes its athletes: successful, smiling, silent. But Phogat described what happened when these wrestlers, particularly women, stood up and pointed fingers at their boss: “When women raise their voices, they are targeted first.”
In no time, there was an outbreak of news that their protest was politically motivated. When the wrestlers threatened to immerse their medals in the Ganga, mainstream media parroted that fundamentally the medals were not theirs to throw away because they had received so much financial support from the government. Phogat said: “They ask, ‘how did we get so much courage to speak against the system… speak so much against the system.’ They aren’t happy when women talk against the system….” We saw the pillars of that system react in confusion; to date, only 12 prominent athletes from the wider sporting community have spoken up in vocal support of the wrestlers.
The response to the wrestlers’ protest became like an MRI scan of Indian sport’s mindset and motivations held up to the public. It became a case study of the worst consequences of political involvement in sport. It demonstrated the Indian sporting establishment’s flat-footed incompetence in responding to a governance crisis unless given directions by its political masters.
Sporting bodies that shout “autonomy” when questioned about their elections or finances by anyone from the outside do not squeak at being taken over and dictated to by the current government.
The Sports Ministry’s suspension of the WFI and its setting up of an “oversight committee”, intended to reflect fast action, ended with the committee’s results being leaked to put pressure on the wrestlers.
Other official sporting bodies (the Indian Olympic Association, or IOA, led by none other than the venerable P.T. Usha, and its newly formed Athletes Commission led by the Olympic medallist M.C. Mary Kom) froze as if it was the IOA that was answerable to the WFI, not the other way around. As if they had no independent authority to speak on behalf of troubled athletes and demand answers from their member federation.
Sharan Singh faction returns
The WFI was still suspended by United World Wrestling and administered by an ad hoc committee until its December 21 elections, which brought a Sharan Singh acolyte to power. After Sharan Singh’s “faction”—and our sport is full of federation factions—won the December WFI elections, Sakshi Malik announced in tears that she was quitting the sport and would never be seen again on a wrestling mat. She put her wrestling shoes on the press conference table and left the venue. Phogat said she did not know how she could find justice in her country. Posters at Sharan Singh’s home celebrated an electoral victory, and the athletes were mocked with slogans around Sharan Singh’s face saying, “Dabdabaa toh hai, dabdabaa toh rahega. Yeh toh bhagwan ne de rakha hai.” (The power/dominance always is and will always be. It is given by god.”) As clear a signal as any that in Indian sport, authority is sacred and causes that challenge them are rendered peripheral. Excellence, pride, nationalism, tiranga are only empty words.
Phogat and Malik could not compete at the Hangzhou Asian Games; Punia lost his bronze medal bout. But to use sporting results as a metric to measure the purpose of the wrestlers’ challenge is to yearn for a disconnect with the real-life experience of Indian athletes and their truths.
What do the 100-plus medals mean? India’s increasing medal tallies at mega-events like the 2023 Asian Games reflect the response of our talent to an increase in resources, expertise, and opportunities at the elite level. The sight of some of its most successful athletes sitting in protest against their games’ rulers is a reminder that behind the headlines, there is much that needs to be challenged and changed at the governance and institutional levels.
The centrality of the athlete in Indian sport—an absolute no-brainer for progress—is not something the “system”, as Phogat referred to it, is comfortable with. Yet, the escalation of elite athlete management, backed by government/private funding, and sports science interventions have led to a dramatic escalation in the global presence and performance of Indians across sport. Very little in popular culture has busted clichés about India and Indians like sport has—and continues to—in this millennium.
- In 2023, Indian sport’s varied challengers—against convention, stereotype, authority, history—left this condescension and trepidation in the dust, rewriting templates and textbooks.
- Standing up against Indian sport’s deeply entrenched status quo and status quoists, the wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik, and Bajrang Punia have shown their tribe the consequences of their courage.
- India’s badminton doubles pair of Satwik Sairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty won India’s first Asian Games badminton gold, and their progress through 2023 has made dreams of another badminton medal at Paris 2024 possible.
- If there is a sport where decades of singular achievement and prodigal talent has burst into a proliferation of contenders, it is chess in 2023.
Breaking through in badminton
In October 2023, India’s badminton doubles pair of Satwik Sairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty were ranked World No. 1, having won three events on the pro tour this year, including the prestigious Indonesia Open. Doubles in badminton has historically been India’s weak link in team competition, but Rankireddy and Shetty have broken through. Partners since 2016, they were rocks around India’s historic 2022 Thomas Cup victory, winning all their knockout matches. Currently World No. 2, they won India’s first Asian Games badminton gold, and their progress through 2023 has made dreams of another badminton medal at Paris 2024 possible.
What was also torn apart in 2023 were stereotypes of Indian track and field athletes as shy, retiring types. The men’s 4x400 m team—Muhammed Anas Yahiya, Amoj Jacob, Muhammed Ajmal, and Rajesh Ramesh—shattered the Asian record when they qualified for the final of the Budapest World Athletics Championship 2023, overall second in the heats, hot on the tails of, guess who, the US. The Indian team’s 2:59.05 smashed the national record (3:00.25) by more than a whole second and chased down Japan’s Asian record of 2:59.51. Indians in World Championship sprint finals were unknown until now.
Asian Games track and field medals have, however, always come in sizeable numbers for India: in fact, there were two more golds in the Jakarta 2018 tally of 20 (8-9-3) than in Hangzhou’s 29 (6-14-9). But what we saw in track and field in Budapest and Hangzhou was sass, heart, and belonging, teeth bared for the fight. Whether it was the Budapest relay sprinters, Parul Chaudhary’s gut-busting last 10 m in the 5,000 m final, Jyothi Yarraji’s muscled arms, hands on hips, glaring down officials trying to get her disqualified from the 100 m hurdles final, or Tajinderpal Singh Toor’s final table-turning throw in shot put in Hangzhou.
It is here that we must keep in mind that if the men’s quartet of Anas-Jacob-Ajmal-Ramesh are treated like K.M. Beenamol, Rajwinder Kaur, Chitra Soman, and Manjit Kaur were, fingers have to be pointed at the Athletics Federation of India. Don’t recognise the latter set of names? That is the Indian women’s 4x400 m team that made the relay final at the 2004 Athens Olympics, breaking the national record. A record that still stands. In an age before social media, their names, prospects, and futures just disappeared into the history books. Bad governance in Indian sport has outlasted generations of talent; we should not let our new generation bear any of it.
Proliferation of chess contenders
Just like the track and field stereotype-challengers, if there is a sport where decades of singular achievement and prodigal talent has burst into a proliferation of contenders, it is chess in 2023. For the first time in 36 years, Viswanathan Anand was not India’s No. 1 chess player on the FIDE rankings. In August, D. Gukesh was ranked No. 9 ahead of Anand at No. 10 and remained above the former five-time World Chess Champion for a few months. That same month, Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, ranked No. 13 in the world in December, also scaled Anandesque barriers. He became the first after Anand to reach the FIDE World Cup final, which earned the boy called Pragg a direct entry into the eight-man-strong Candidates field. Pragg, in April 2024, will match wits with the last man standing to take on defending champion Ding Liren for the Classical World Championship title.
The last Indian, the only Indian at a Candidates event was, of course, Anand (2016), who in May had hoped that “some Indians would qualify for the Candidates”. Already among the men, a second somewhat unexpected Indian will keep Pragg company at the Candidates. Vidit Gujarathi, 29, not a Chennai prodigy but from Nashik, arrived at a tournament called the Grand Swiss in the Isle of Mann as the No. 15 seed and lost his first match. After 10 days, as Grand Swiss winner, he entered the Candidates pool. Two of the eight Candidates spots still remain, and Gukesh has a chance to become the third Indian at the men’s Candidates.
But there is already a third Indian in the Candidates, in line for a shot at the women’s world title. She is Rameshbabu Vaishali, only the third Indian woman Grandmaster (GM) after Koneru Humpy and Harika Dronavali. She is also one half of the only brother-sister team—Pragg is her younger brother—in history to have earned GM titles and to have also qualified for the Candidates events. In the same year. It has taken a while, but there are many now lining up to seize the spot as Anand’s true successors.
Just before the year ends, let us all give thanks to Indian sport’s history-maker, standard-bearer, and yet, constant challenger. The tasks that lay before Neeraj Chopra in January 2023 are already tucked under his arm. His silver in the 2022 World Championships was turned into gold in Budapest 2023. There were three Indians in the Budapest javelin finals, the ripple effect of Chopra’s Tokyo Olympic gold. In Hangzhou, Kishore Jena led the field briefly before Chopra pulled out his winning throw. Chopra is now Olympic, World, and Asian champion—a member of an elite club of athletes invited to participate in the year-round competitions called the Diamond League. This year, of his six competitions, he won four and finished second in two. In the two years following his Tokyo gold, Chopra has, by performance and example, changed the way his peers assess their careers and their goals. He remains a joyful victor against the alluring but dangerous straitjackets of Indian athletic ambition. He wants to go even higher, to be a multi-medalled Olympian, to tumble barrier after barrier that has defeated Indian sport in the past and, even better, have company while doing so. Chopra was one of the 12 who spoke out in support of the wrestlers. A 24-karat champion knew what true challengers of his tribe look like.
Sharda Ugra is an independent sports journalist based in Bengaluru.