If you are part of the dejected billion-plus-Indians-and-yet-no-Olympic-gold-medal crib brigade, don’t be. You’ll be surprised at the number of world-beaters who have sprung from Indian soil. Eleven years after Independence, Wilson Jones put us on the map, becoming "the first Indian to win a world crown in any sport" when he won the World Billiards championship. He was to start a legacy that has seen Michael Ferreira, Geet Sethi, Om Agarwal and Pankaj Advani claim world titles in billiards and amateur snooker. Even the ladies haven’t done too bad, Anuja Thakur and Chitra Magimairaj have won top honours in the world ladies billiards championships. Games of tactics have also been a forte, chess genius Viswanathan Anand and the plethora of IMs and GMs in the country certify to the fact. Anand, incidentally, won the world title in 2000 and is also the reigning world No. 1.
Of course, there have been other stray highs too. Like Prakash Padukone at the All-England championships—the Wimbledon of badminton—in 1980. It was all silken grace and tactical acumen against opponents who were perhaps much more physical in their game. The shuttler’s aura, of course, grew by his triumph in the Alba World Cup the next year. After that, it was a long 20-year-wait before Pullela Gopichand recreated the magic at the All-England in 2001.
Coming to tennis, we’ve had a rich tradition of sorts. Ramanathan Krishnan was once world No. 3 while Vijay Amritraj was in the early ’70s talked of in the same breath as Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors—the "A, B, C", no less. In recent times, Mahesh Bhupathi—the first Indian to be ranked world No. 1 on the ATP doubles chart—has combined with Leander Paes to give the nation many wonderful memories. The pair played in the final of all four Grand Slam events in 1999, winning the French Open and Wimbledon, besides many dogged Davis Cup ties. More recently, ‘Sania mania’ has held our attention. It’s been a see-saw ride for the fans but, of late, a string of good performances has seen her cracking the ATP Top 30 rankings.
Shooter Abhinav Bindra
Incidentally, India’s hasn’t done too badly in what may be considered by some as fringe sports. Like yachtsmen Homi Motivala, Pushpendra Garg and the late Kelly S. Rao, Farokh Tarapore and Vikas Kapila who won a World Enterprise championship in the early ’90s. In recent years, shooters too have made a mark—Abhinav Bindra and Manavjit Singh won world championship titles in 2007. Double trap specialist Rajyavardhan Rathore, of course, became a national treasure in the genre after he shot a silver at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. (It wasn’t the first, the late Karni Singh of Bikaner had bagged a silver at the world championship in 1962. He missed the gold in a tie-break shootout.
. Coming back to Olympic events, India is yet to crack the track and field arena. Our only close miss was P.T. Usha in 1984, who missed an Olympic bronze by a hundredth of a second. That said, she did give women’s sport in India a huge fillip by winning five gold medals at the Asian Championship in 1985 and four in the 1986 Asian Games. By the the time she called it a day, she had 33 medals, including 18 gold, from continental meets. Since then, long-jumper Anju Bobby George’s bronze at the 2003 World Championships in Paris is the closest India has come to marking her presence. In the men’s field too, it’s always been a flatter-to deceive thing. Though triple-jumper Henry Rebello was considered a medal prospect in the 1948 Olympic Games, it was Milkha Singh in 1960 in the 400 m who was an almost bronze. (For more than four decades, wrestler Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav remained the only Indian to have won an individual medal at the Olympic Games.)
India won the 1975 World Cup in hockey under Ajit Pal Singh’s captaincy, but the advent of astro turf in ’76 saw us hit the skids.
Now what of our erstwhile national game, hockey? India won the Olympic Games competition in 1948, 1952 and 1956 before Pakistan challenged its supremacy. To be sure, India won the 1975 World Cup hockey under Ajit Pal Singh’s captaincy but the advent of artificial turf in 1976 changed it all. Of course, India won the Olympic Games in 1980 (when a number of nations stayed away) in Moscow, but the 1998 Asian Games gold medal remains its biggest achievement on astro turf.
Now back to the nation’s favourite pastime, cricket, which in a sense has been a weathervane of all the ills and triumphs that plague Indian sport. Has the singular focus of the nation’s eyeballs led to other sports being demeaned? You can overstate that point—for, cricket, like any other sport in the country, has progressed pretty much on its own, in spite of the deficiencies of the sports authorities. Other sports may not have the money, but when a spark has been lit, Indian fans have not been found wanting in their support.
The ills that plague Indian sport also make it a level playing ground. The gentleman’s game was rocked by the match-fixing scandal in the year 2000 while the spectre of doping has reared its head time and again, especially in athletics and weightlifting. The penchant of many sports officials to hang on to their positions despite an inability to deliver administration of any quality has also hurt India no end. But if there has been one colossal failure, it must be our inability to become a ‘sports-conscious nation’ even after 60 years of independence. We missed the chance in 1982 when we hosted the Asian Games and, with no vision, look set to repeat the mistake in 2010 when Delhi hosts the Commonwealth Games. Worse, with world sport finding its way into our drawing rooms, we’ll be breeding more and more couch potatoes rather than actual sportspersons.