Carrying the hopes of over a billion people—the cliché cannot be ignored as Amit Panghal and Bajrang Punia limber up for the much-delayed, pandemic-hit Tokyo Olympics, hopefully starting on July 23. Power sport has never been an Indian strong point, although a few medallions of honour and pride did come by in fits and starts. Seldom has two world number ones given us the best shot for a podium finish even before the Games began. Against this backcloth of history, boxer Panghal—No. 1 in 52kg flyweight—and wrestler Punia, top ranked in 65kg, underscore the changing scenario in world sport. But how did the Indians become serious medal contenders at the Summer Games after a dismal Rio 2016? The answer can be grubbed out of the preps and qualifiers—especially India’s record haul of 15 medals (two gold, five silver and eight bronze) at the Asian boxing championships in Dubai. Isn’t that a clear indication of the promise our pugilists hold out? Tokyo will define the careers of many of them.
To know more, we need to dive into the cradle, the nursery—Haryana, for one. The Haryana factor packs a punch in Indian sports, particularly in disciplines that demand raw, robust power and stamina. Panghal and Punia come from this turf. Panghal’s hometown Rohtak and Punia’s Jhajjar are hardly 40 km apart. Both had a humble beginning and gravitated to sport inspired by their families—Panghal’s brother and Punia’s father were their push factors. For the Punias and Panghals, and many more seeking a career in sports, Beijing 2008 was a catalyst. A nation starved of Olympic success—India returned empty-handed from three successive Games in 1984, 1988 and 1992—was so stoked that accolades and incentives won’t stop pouring for Beijing stars Abhinav Bindra (shooting gold), Sushil Kumar (wrestling bronze) and Vijender Singh (boxing bronze). In rural Haryana, a young boy or girl could hope of something beyond farming.