Catch ’em young. The cliche sounds forced in today’s context.
India’s sporting brigade is hauling in medals at a younger age, medals that eluded earlier generations. This year’s Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, was a great outing for the country – 26 gold, 20 silver and 20 bronze. The Asian Games at Jakarta and Palembang was supposed to be a tougher challenge. But India’s youth, for the second time in 2018, stood up to the challenge as the country had its best ever performance at the continental meet, winning 15 gold, 24 silver and 30 bronze medals.
First it was the shooters. Saurabh Chaudhary, just 16 years old, won the men’s air pistol gold. Even as Saurabh soaked in the adulation of sports aficionados, 15-year-old Shardul Vihan won the double trap silver. Vihan, who finished just one point behind the eventual champion after topping the qualifying stage, was just two years old when Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won the Olympic silver in the same event at the Athens Games.
In the men’s trap, 19-year-old Lakshay Sheoran won the silver medal with considerable poise, even as former world champion Manavjit Singh Sandhu faltered from a position of strength.
“The young shooters have been the highlight of the Asian Games campaign. They have such a positive attitude. Unaffected by the stature of the competition, they approached their matches with determination. They will continue getting better leading into next year, winning Olympic quotas for 2020,” said Mansher Singh, the four-time Olympian who was the coach and team leader for India’s Asian Games shooting contingent.
At the moment, the biggest face of Indian sports — not just of the youth — is Neeraj Chopra. The 20-year-old javelin thrower has now won gold medals at the South Asian Games, the world juniors, the Asian Championships, the Commonwealth Games as well as the Asian Games – all in the span of two years.
At Jakarta, Chopra threw an Indian record 88.06m, the fourth time he’s set a national record this year. He’s within grasp of an Olympic medal – the winning throw at Rio was 90.3m, while 89.89m won gold at the last World Championships.
A pattern emerges
It is pertinent to look at India’s young Olympic medallists over the years. Leander Paes was 23 when he won the tennis singles bronze at Atlanta 1996. Karnam Malleswari was 25 when she won the bronze medal in weightlifting at Sydney 2000. Abhinav Bindra took the 10m air rifle gold at Beijing 2008 at 26, two years after becoming the world champion in the event. Sushil Kumar was 25 at the time of his wrestling bronze in 2008, and four years later won silver in the same event in London.
Boxer Vijender Singh was 23 at the time of his 2008 Olympics bronze medal. Saina Nehwal won the badminton bronze at London 2012 at the age of 22. At Rio 2016, P. V. Sindhu went one better and won the silver at 21. The same year, Sakshi Malik was 24 when she won her wrestling bronze.
There is a pattern to be seen here: Young Indians have been winning international medals for a while now. But what’s increased is the frequency with which they have been doing so.
(An aside: Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, the current Union sports minister, seems to be the exception. He won silver at Athens 2004 at the age of 34. But, to his credit, he had been a practising shooter for only six years then.)
At the Jakarta Games, the young brigade came good at the right time. Sprinters Hima Das and Dutee Chand, heptathlete Swapna Barman and women’s relay anchor Vismaya Koroth are all between 18 and 22. But to expect them to land Olympic medals is to put undue pressure on them. The reality is that India has still not won an athletics medal at the world biggest sporting meet, though some have come close: Milkha Singh, P. T. Usha, Anju Bobby George…
At the same time, it is wrong to write India’s youngsters off.
To reiterate Mansher Singh’s words: “Unaffected by the stature of the competition, they approached their matches with determination.”
But Singh also says the country should not rely just on the youth for Tokyo 2020. “The team for the Olympics should have a balance of both youth and experience. Success at the Olympics requires resilience and determination to withstand the pressure that comes with competing at the topmost stage in world sports. We will need to continuously monitor and counsel our youngsters to move forward towards their goals,” he said.
Wrestlers Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat, both 24, have the ability to extend their Asiad success to the Olympics. Phogat, in fact, was unlucky to break her knee at Rio de Janeiro, where she was carried off writhing in pain.
Kurash silver medallist Pincky Balhara and bronze winner Malaprabha Jadhav are just 19.
Sixteen-year-old Harshita Tomar won the Open Laser 4.7 bronze in sailing, beating the boys. Varsha Gautham had won a bronze at the last Asian Games at the age of 16 in Incheon. This time, she met the selection norms but had to fight in the Delhi high court for her right to represent the country, eventually winning silver with Sweta Shervegar in the 49er FX class.
In shooting, in addition to Chaudhary, Vihan and Sheoran, India has Manu Bhaker (16), Anish Bhanwala (15) and Mehuli Ghosh (17). Bhaker, the winner of two gold medals at the World Cup and one at the Commonwealth Games this year, failed to medal in Jakarta after shooting a phenomenal 593 in qualifying, but the lesson – and the experience – should be worth more than the loss.
India might not have won a shooting medal at Rio despite fielding one gold, two silver and one bronze medallist, but the country should fancy its chances in Tokyo.
India’s successes at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games have proved that the country’s youth are learning quickly and are not affected by the negativity that plagues Indian sports. The Tokyo Olympics in two years’ time is an opportunity for them to live up to the words of Henry Ford: “Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”