With 57 athletes, India headed to the 2008 Beijing Olympics with its biggest contingent at the time and came back with its most successful medal haul till then, with a first-ever individual gold medal courtesy of shooter Abhinav Bindra icing the treat.
Aside from the gold, India also bagged two bronze medals, thus improving on India’s two prior performances at the 1900 Paris Olympics where Norman Pritchard won two silver medals, and the 1952 Helsinki Olympics that saw the India hockey men’s team and Dadasaheb Jadhav win a gold and bronze medal respectively.
Beijing 2008 whetted India’s appetite for what was to come in the following edition when India would double its record with six medals.
For many Indians, Beijing 2008 will always stand out for rifle shooter Abhinav Bindra’s incredible gold-medal winning effort.
A two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist heading into the event, Abhinav Bindra barely made it through the qualification round. Once in the final, Bindra was in command, not dropping below 10 in any of the rounds, and ending the final round with a 10.8 score.
Bindra’s final score in the 10m Men’s Air Rifle stood at 700.5, beating Athens 2004 gold-medallist Zhu Qinan.
Qualifying topper Henri Hakkinen of Finland managed to hang with Abhinav Bindra but floundered in the final to post a score of 9.7 in the round.
The achievement turned Bindra into an overnight sensation in households across India, a nation whose prayers for a first gold medal since 1980 had just been answered.
While it would be hard to top Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal, Vijender Singh’s bronze medal effort in the middleweight category nine days later was also universally celebrated.
The 2006 Commonwealth Games silver-medallist briskly made his way through the rounds of 32 and 16 with convincing winning margins of 13-2 and 13-3 respectively. In the quarter-final, he outfought Ecuadorian southpaw Carlos Gongora 9-4, thus assuring India of its first boxing Olympic medal.
Despite a valiant fight, Vijender Singh could not fend off Emilio Correa in the semi-final, losing 5-8 to the Cuban, but his bronze medal ensured a hero’s welcome back to India for the Haryanvi pugilist.
Sushil Kumar had won a bronze medal at the Asian Games two years earlier, and heading into Beijing 2008, he was in trouble early after losing to Ukraine’s Andriy Stadnik in the 66kg freestyle wrestling event’s opening round.
However, he made it through the first and second repechages successfully to end up at the bronze medal duel. Despite the lack of a masseur (team manager and former Asian Games medallist Kartar Singh had to fill in), Sushil Kumar dominated the proceedings on the mat to beat Kazakhstan’s Leonid Spiridonov 3-1, thus earning his bronze medal on the same day as Vijender Singh.
Near yet far
While Abhinav Bindra, Vijender Singh and Sushil Kumar stole the spotlight, a few others came within touching distance of a greater fate.
The sixth-seeded women’s archery team of Dola Banerjee, Bombayala Devi and Pranitha Vardhineni made it to the quarter-finals but were narrowly denied (206-211) from moving on to the semi-finals by China.
Also denied from reaching the semi-finals were athlete Mandeep Kaur (400m) and the 4x400m relay team of Sathi Geetha, Manjeet Kaur, Sini Jose, Chitra Soman and Mandeep Kaur ranking sixth and seventh in the heats respectively.
Then there was Saina Nehwal, for whom greatness lay waiting in the following edition of the Olympics, but in 2008, despite a strong start in her quarter-final that saw her win the opening game, she made it no further after losing 28-26, 14-21, 15-21 to Maria Kristin Yulianti of Indonesia.
And while Vijender Singh shone in the middleweight category, fellow boxers Jitender Kumar and Akhil Kumar, contesting the flyweight and bantamweight categories respectively, also could have been medallists but for elimination at the quarter-final stage.
Gagan Narang, like Saina Nehwal, would go on to win a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics, but in 2008, like Abhinav Bindra, found the going tough in 10m Air Rifle qualifying, and while Bindra squeaked through, Gagan Narang didn’t and ended up ninth in the ranking.
Finally, the ever-popular pairing of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi was also left wondering what could have been after they were defeated 2-6, 4-6 by the Swiss duo of Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka in the quarter-final.