India’s 200-plus contingent competing in 16 sporting disciplines has delivered a splendid, if not awe-inspiring, performance at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Significantly, the gold medals won at this event go beyond the traditional bastions of shooting (which was excluded this time), weightlifting and wrestling that account for just under half of India’s tally. Indian athletes struck gold also in Lawn Bowls, besides showcasing their tremendous talent and technique to win in boxing, table tennis and badminton. The good news, however, is that the winning feeling has finally returned to its participation in track and field, the core discipline at such sporting events, which could trigger a sporting renaissance in the country. India’s athletes took a great leap forward with a historic gold and silver in triple jump, silvers in long jump, 3,000 meters steeplechase, 10,000 km walk and a bronze in high jump for the first time. The long jump and steeplechase hauls represent a gold standard in their own right as the leap tied with that of the winner, and the dominance of Kenyans since 1994 was challenged for the first time. The track and field tally, as a share of the total, marks the best showing in all editions of CWG.
While CWG success will bring rewards to our athletes, the sporting establishment should also take note that “every medal has a story behind it”, to borrow an expression of the bronze medal winner in high jump. His own story is a shocking indictment of authorities who did not select him for the CWG, forcing him to move the Delhi High Court to head to Birmingham. Even the long jump star had to face serious challenges after he failed to make the cut at the Tokyo Olympics, with authorities bearing on him to drop his father as coach. Other medal winners, too, have made amazing journeys with struggles against deprivation and succeeding against all odds. A silver medal winner in weightlifting had to juggle family responsibilities of running a paan shop while practising while a gold medal winner was supported by his elder brother lifting rice bags. Or a single mother who had to struggle balancing her police duties while supporting her daughter becoming a judoka. This silver medal winner was also not in the CWG squad, and had to write to the concerned officials to be included.
As Indian athletics is at an inflection point, the big question is what is to be done to ensure that athletes can only focus on excelling to world-class standards. A mission-mode drive is necessary by stepping up allocations for the flagship Khelo India scheme, together with help from India Inc to pick potential stars from catchment areas extending to the nooks and crannies of rural and small town India. The over-riding objective must provide state-of-the-art training so that we can have sprinters who can one day challenge the dominance of Jamaicans and Africans in middle- and long-distance running, besides leaping, jumping and hurling the discus and javelin to record-breaking levels. There is a need for more Army Sports Institutes as the one in Pune, which honed some of our medal winners. There is a warrant for taking best practices like the lottery-funded UK Sport which works with partner sporting organisations to lead sports in the country to world-class success. Post CWG, India must ensure the winning feeling continues in track and field.