The Commonwealth Games has been a stepping stone to greatness for many super athletes over the years. Some superstars who went on to win multiple Olympic gold medals had first given a hint of their prowess in the Games of the Commonwealth nations.
The beauty of it all and the ecstatic moments have mostly been captured in rich literature for future generations to read and relish. The current generation may be more inclined towards video footage of the great moments, but it is the stories, brilliantly narrated thanks to the British influence, which put things in perspective.
I was lucky to cover two Commonwealth Games in person – the Manchester Games in 2002 and the one held in Delhi in 2010.
Shooting, which will not be held in the current edition in Birmingham, gave India a super identity 20 years ago when it was held in Bisley in Surrey. We did a bit of shuttling between Manchester and London, but one was glued to the shooting as history was unfolding.
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For most of the people who watched it all on television – the British providing spectacular coverage – the women’s hockey gold was the high point. Pritam Thakran, Sita Gussain, and the match-winner Mamta Kharab did make a point for Indian sport.
Yet, it was the double gold medal by Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore that sticks to memory.
It was some experience to watch Asian champion Anwer Sultan chanting, “Chilly jeet gaya. Chilly jeet gaya,” as Rathore was nailing those clay birds in a heady climax, with uncanny accuracy, in the individual final.
“I was the odd man out,” Rathore recalled as he walked down the memory lane.
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Yes, Rathore was dropped from the Indian squad for the Commonwealth Games in 2002 by the government, despite shooting brilliantly in the World Championship in Lahti, Finland, a few days before the Games. He was eventually cleared to compete, as he flew into London from Helsinki, as per plan.
What we saw was beyond anyone’s imagination. Rathore and Moraad Ali Khan won the pairs gold, beating the powerful Aussies and the British, among others. Later, Rathore went on to win the individual gold with spectacular shooting.
“2002 Commonwealth Games was amongst the best opposition one faced. The likes of Olympic gold medallists, world record holders and world rankers. It also happened to be my first international medal ever,” said Rathore, as he allowed himself the luxury to reminisce, despite the hectic schedule, as a politician.
There was Michael Diamond and Russell Mark, apart from Richard Faulds. Rathore beat Mark, the current shotgun coach of the Indian team, for the gold by one point, with a flawless finish and a score of 191.
“Both my golds – in 2002, and in 2006, in Melbourne – were won on completely contrasting skill levels, but both on an amazingly high level of mental game,” recalled Rathore.
Champion of champions
For sure, the two gold medals in 2002 – in pairs and individual double trap – built him up for the Athens Olympic silver in 2004 and medals in the World Championship, the Asian Games, the World Cup, and the Asian Championship.
Samaresh Jung was adjudged the “champion of champions” and given the David Dixon award in 2006 for winning five gold, a silver, and a bronze medal from eight starts. He was given the name ‘goldfinger’ then, and finds himself as the coach of the national team now.
Indian shooting has indeed come a long way since those days, and perhaps does not need that Commonwealth step any more to spring to world standards.
It may also be recalled that Anju Bobby George jumped 6.49 metres for the bronze medal in Manchester 2002, before winning the World Championship medal in Paris the following year.
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It had all started with Milkha Singh winning the first gold medal for the country in Cardiff in 1958. Krishna Poonia came up with the discus gold in the packed Nehru Stadium in Delhi in 2010 for the second individual gold in athletics for the country.
Saina Nehwal beat compatriot and Olympic silver medallist P. V. Sindhu for the gold in the last edition in Gold Coast, to add to her gold won on home turf in 2010. Table tennis star Manika Batra became one thanks to her spectacular performance in 2018, as she won the individual and team gold, apart from the doubles silver.
There have been many other heroes of Indian sport who gave us the best moments in many editions.
Shifting the focus slightly, we find that the universal No. 1 moment from the Commonwealth Games has been Roger Bannister beating John Landy in the ‘miracle mile’, in Vancouver in 1954, with both running the distance in less than four minutes. Cathy Freeman, who lit the cauldron in the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000 and went on to win the 400-metre gold, made her initial statement for the aboriginals in the Commonwealth Games in 1990 when she was 16 years old.
Swimming legends Dawn Fraser and Ian Thorpe jumped into the pool for many gold medals, first in the Commonwealth Games in 1962 and 1998.
In the 1974 Games in Christchurch, Filbert Bayi, a 20-year-old from Tanzania who used to run six miles every day for school, shattered the 1500 metres world record by going full blast from start to finish, with his, ‘catch me if you can’ style. He beat the New Zealand star John Walker who also came under the world record.
“The greatest race I have ever seen,” commented Bannister, watching that race, as so many records tumbled.
Human effort continues to breach fresh barriers in the sporting arena, and that means many feats of excellence will be on display at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Let us catch them before they slowly turn into enchanting memories of history.