One look at the numbers from the past Asian Games makes for sobering reading, if you are an Indian fan.
For a nation that hosted the first ever Asian Games — Delhi, 1951 — and finished an impressive second in the list of medal winners (51 medals — 15 gold, 16 silver, 20 bronze), India has consistently punched below its weight, as it were.
And after the initial high, India has finished in the top three only once, and that too in the controversy-ridden 1964 Asian Games at Jakarta, in which the top sporting power in Asia, China, did not even participate.
India's performance, which was constantly dipping, kind of perked up when New Delhi again hosted the Games in 1982. The medal tally for the first time since 1951 went past the 50 mark threshold.
In the 1986 Seoul Asiad too, India did well to finish at number five in the overall list. But India's performance was skewed. Out of the five gold medals India picked in that Asian Games, the remarkable PT Usha, who donning the green silk shorts and saffron and white vest emblazoned with the number '67', alone accounted for four golds.
The women athletes led by her (and comprising impressive talents like Shiny Wilson, M D Valsamma, Vandana Rao) made the country proud. It was a performance like never before, and unfortunately, never after, till now.
By the 90s, India was back to its mediocre mean. And its lowest was at Beijing 1990, where India finished for the first time outside the top-10 in the medals ranking. (With just 23 medals in total, India ended up at 11th place). It’ll be sobering to know that Pakistan had a better Asian Games than India (It was slotted at the 6th place).
The birth of the new century improved India's fortunes, relatively speaking. At Doha 2006, India went past the 50-medal mark after a gap of two decades.
At Guangzhou (2010), Incheon (2014) and Jakarta (2018), India's overall medal collection remained over 50, the country could finish among the top five.
India's most number of medals came in the last edition — Jakarta 2018 — with 70 medals (16 gold, 23 silver and 31 bronze).
Putting The Performance At Hangzhou In Perspective
Such a lengthy statistical prelude is required to understand in the right perspective India's showing at the Hangzhou Asian Games that is veering to close in a day.
At the moment of writing, India's medal tally is at 95 and looks promising to go past the historic 100 mark — a feat that has not been achieved before by the country.
In that sense, this is undoubtedly an occasion to celebrate. But one that has to be leavened with realism and common sense.
One heartening thing about the performance at the current Asian Games is the medals have come across sports and not confined to its traditional domain of athletics, boxing, shooting and wrestling.
For the record, only in athletics and wrestling, India's cumulative gold total across Asian Games (79 and 11 respectively) is in the double figures. In Hangzhou, Indians are doing well (again relatively speaking) across the board.
India sure has a long way to go before it matches the likes of China, South Korea, and Japan, the traditional sporting powerhouse in the continent. But the fact that India is likely to finish at number four, should be a great moral booster in the troubled journey in becoming a sporting nation.
The Overall Picture Offers Hope
But what offers hope for India is the fact that at the Olympics level too, things seem to be looking up.
If in the 80s and 90s, the girls from Kerala (Usha, Shiny and co and also Ashwini Nachappa) were the inspiration, the arrival of Abhinav Bindra in the first decade of the 2000s and his epoch-making gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics (men's 10 metre air rifle) has been a matter of huge sporting significance for the country. He was the first Indian to win an individual gold medal at the Games.
At the last Olympics Games, 2020 Tokyo (but held in 2021), India managed to win seven medals (one gold, two silver and four bronze) — its best ever show in the history of Olympics.
Among the seven was the historic gold — India's first ever in athletics — from the nation's hero Neeraj Chopra. Also, after the 1980 Moscow Games, the Indian hockey team was in the podium (bronze).
To be sure, India's numbers are still measly. But the thing is the emerging stars are from the smaller cities and towns of this big nation. Like in cricket, new talents are blossoming out of nondescript locations.
For instance, the newly crowned Asian Games champion in 5,000 m Parul Chaudhary, is from the little heard Ikaluta village near Meerut. Parul, who is also the national record holder in steeplechase (it came at the recent World Athletics Championships at Budapest), earned her spurs by running in the sugarcane farms in her village.
HS Prannoy, who is set for a medal in men's singles badminton — the second men's singles badminton medallist in 41 years after Syed Modi in 1982 — hails from Thiruvananthapuram, which is not a big sports base.
The ferocious final kick at the home stretch she unleashed in the 5,000 m, is now stuff of legend. And it points to a strong nerve for competition and it belongs to the new emerging India that is fearless and confident.
The 17-year-old Aditi Swami, who is part of the Indian women's compound archery team that clinched a historic gold, comes from Satara, the town in Maharashtra that has no sporting pretentions.
The Last Decade Has Been Good For Indian Sports
These are small, but significant signs, that inner India is awakening to its sporting potential. With over a billion people, there is bound to be a lot of talent.
But now there is an opportunity to help provide further impetus to those sporting skills. The sporting administration, despite its many flaws and deep-rooted problems, is working at least infinitesimally.
The last decade has seen things ease up (in comparison) for the Indian sportsperson. Foreign coaches, training at chosen locations abroad and the latest fitness and sports equipment are no longer an impossibility.
But a sporting champion nation does not happen overnight or a good show in one event will not fetch consistent excellence.
It is, as the cliche goes, an arduous and relentless process. It is an ethos, and has to be built and inculcated over time. It is a spirit that has to be imbibed.
Enjoy the show at Hangzhou. Celebrate the moment. Dance and party a bit. Celebrate the 100-medals milestone. But don't get carried away. The journey is just beginning.
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