In February this year, as he made a deadlift, 19-year-old weightlifter Jeremy Lalrinnunga felt a sharp pain streak across his lower back. Lalrinnunga — probably the most talented young men’s weightlifter in the country, with a gold medal at the 2018 Youth Olympics — was later diagnosed with a bulged disc in his lower spine.
Lalrinnunga faced a premature end to his season, which would have jeopardised his hopes of qualifying for the Paris Olympics. He didn’t give up. Over the next few months, Lalrinnunga went through a careful rehabilitation process and to the surprise of many regained full fitness.
Whenever he had moments of self-doubt, Lalrinnunga looked at the wallpaper on his phone screen. The image of the 2022 Commonwealth Games gold medal, the texture resembling the road and waterways of the West Midlands region of England. “When the Commonwealth Games medals were released, I saved the gold medal as my wallpaper. I look at it in the morning and evening. It is a huge motivation for me,” says Lalrinnunga, favourite to win the men’s 67kg weightlifting event in Birmingham.
“It’s going to be one of the biggest days of my career. Ever since the schedule of the Commonwealth Games was announced, I have got a calendar with the date of my event circled,” says Lalrinnunga.
While Lalrinnunga has been counting the days to his big event with excitement, it’s not clear if everyone shares the same sentiment.
Every few years, the Commonwealth Games Federation goes through a bit of soul-searching as it struggles to line up hosts from the nations of the former British Empire. There are inevitable questions about the exact purpose of the Commonwealth Games. It does not help that the Commonwealth Games Federations’ website has a section titled “Our Relevance,” which has the unintended effect of making you wonder why they feel the need to explain it. The Games have memorably been mocked by comedian John Oliver as an “off-Broadway Olympics” and “the historic display of a once-mighty nation gathering together the countries it lost and finding a way to lose to them once more.” Perhaps most unflattering was Usain Bolt allegedly running down the Games in 2014 (but he denied doing so).
There have been complaints from India too. Earlier this year, Olympic shooter and former Commonwealth Games gold medallist Manu Bhaker had called for an Indian boycott after her sport was dropped from the Birmingham Games. Later, the Indian hockey federation named a second-string team for the Commonwealth Games, prioritising the Asian Games (which now stands postponed).
There is legitimate criticism of the Games even if you leave out the problematic sociological background (The Games were after all primarily created as a competition for nations part of the British Empire). While some events draw world-class fields, the competition in others is incredibly weak. In India, with State and Union governments and other organisations making no distinction while handing out prizes for medals, some coaches have expressed concerns that athletes are incentivised to cash out after the Commonwealth Games – well before performing at the world level.
While all this is true, there’s still enough reason to appreciate the Games. But it must be acknowledged that the quality of fields in events where India is most likely to win the bulk of its medals in Birmingham — wrestling, weightlifting, and badminton — are of a far lower standard compared to the Asian and certainly the world and Olympic level.
Just three weightlifters — including India’s Mirabai Chanu — competing at Birmingham have won medals at the 2020 Olympics. Similarly, just three Olympic medallists in wrestling — including two Indians — and two badminton Olympic medallists — India’s P. V. Sindhu and a Malaysian men’s doubles pair — will be competing at the Birmingham Games. In contrast, the competition in track and field, field hockey, cycling, and swimming will be much stronger.
Even here though, the Commonwealth Games have a purpose. “Of course, you can’t compare a medal at the Commonwealth Games to that at the Olympics. But the Commonwealth Games have to be seen as a stepping-stone for success at the Asian and Olympic Games,” says Viren Rasquinha, former captain of the Indian hockey team. He had competed at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. “It’s true that the level of the Games isn’t comparable to an Asian or World Championships, but these Games are often the first time when an Indian athlete competes at a multi-event Games,” says Rasquinha, who is currently the CEO of Olympic Gold Quest that focusses on helping athletes prepare for the Olympics.
“The challenges of multi-event games are very different from that of a championship. At an Asian or World championship, you can focus just on your event. You get to stay at a hotel and customise the kind of coaching and training you need. But that’s not always the case at multi-event games. You must get used to staying at a Games Village with thousands of other athletes. You must learn to adjust because there are invariably restrictions on training timings and support staff. You learn how to deal with the expectations that come with multi-event games. This is probably the best chance for young athletes to get exposure before the Olympics. The confidence they get by performing well at the Commonwealth Games is priceless,” says Rasquinha.
The numbers also support Rasquinha’s theory. Of the 15 Olympic medals won by India in the last three Olympic Games, 11 were won by athletes who had first won medals at the Commonwealth Games.
Two-time Olympian and World Championship bronze medallist Vinesh Phogat agrees that the competition at the Commonwealth Games is not the toughest, but says her gold medal at the 2018 Gold Coast Games gave her enormous self-belief.
“The 2018 Commonwealth Games was my first major competition since the Rio Olympics (where she had suffered a horrific knee injury). The competition was not the toughest, but I was so nervous before that tournament. I wasn’t even nearly as worried at the Asian Games the same year (she became the first Indian women’s wrestler to win a gold medal at the Asian Games). I still think that gold medal at the Gold Coast Games was important because it gave back the self-belief I had lost after my injury at the Olympics,” says Phogat, who will be competing for her third Commonwealth games gold in Birmingham.
Phogat isn’t the only one for whom the Commonwealth Games have been a springboard. Two years before she nailed the Produnova vault to finish fourth at the Rio Olympics, Dipa Karmakar stuck her first landing – with a swollen foot – on that challenging technique at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. “Before the Games, we had a foreign coach, who had said that only the boys had a chance of winning a medal. That’s when (Bishweshwar) Nandi Sir and I came up with the idea of working on the Produnova. It was difficult but I was determined to win a medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and prove the doubters wrong,” says Karmakar, the first Indian woman gymnast to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games. “If I had failed to bring a medal on that day, women’s artistic gymnastics in India may have been over.”
Indian gymnastics might have failed to build on the spark first lit by Karmakar in 2014, but that’s not always been the case. The breakout moment for Indian women’s wrestling came in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi where Geeta and Babita Phogat won gold medals and inspired a generation of women’s wrestlers to take up the sport.
“In the evolution of every sport in the country, there’s always one medal that stands out. What’s sometimes a lot more important than the individual medal is its value in boosting the sport and encouraging a few 1000 kids to pick up the sport,” says Rasquinha.
You don’t even need to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games to make a difference. Often lost out in the deluge of gold medals that are inevitably won at the Commonwealth Games, are more modest colours that have had outsized significance. At the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Kashinath Naik became the first Indian to win a medal – a bronze – in the men’s javelin throw.
While Naik’s career peaked with that medal, he has become one of India’s most successful coaches in the event.
One of his students Neeraj Chopra would go on to win gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, before eventually becoming the first Indian track and field athlete to win gold at the Olympics. At the 2022 Games, three of Naik’s trainees – Chopra, Rohit Yadav, and Manu DP – will be bidding for a place on the podium.
In contrast to other events at the Games, the standard of the javelin throw field in Birmingham is very high with two Olympic and a World champion in the mix. Yet even if they don’t return with a medal, there’s still plenty to compete for.
“The medal is not in our hands. But what I want to see from our athletes is at least a personal best. It’s a big competition and if our athletes can do a personal best in this sort of field, it will help them build towards the competitions in the future too,” says Naik.
Rasquinha, too, hopes for the same from all Indian athletes. “It doesn’t matter if they are in a sport where the competition is relatively easy or hard like swimming. What you want to see from our athletes is for them to give their best efforts. Whether or not they win medals, you want them to achieve personal bests,” he says.
But that’s not enough. With no Asian Games this year, the Commonwealth Games are the highest profile event of the season, which means there will be a financial windfall for medal winners. “It’s always good to win a medal but it’s important not to get carried away. You can’t become complacent. You have to keep the long-term future and the Olympics in mind,” says Rasquinha.
That’s Lalrinnunga’s goal too. “I want to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. But I won’t be satisfied with just that. I also want to set a new national record. After that, I must keep performing. My final target is to perform at the Olympics. The Commonwealth Games is a milestone, but it’s not the only goal. Once I get that medal, I’ll change my phone wallpaper to the Olympic medal,” he says.