The reason why India could have a breakthrough year at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan goes far beyond their semi-successful displays in the 2012 and 2016 editions.
Apart from the eight medals that the nation garnered in the previous two Olympics, the last decade has a plethora of other instances that point to the fact that the widely claimed “sleeping giant” has woken up and is gradually spreading its wings.
We look back at a few of these sporting moments...
Sindhu, Okuhara in a match for the ages
After the Rio 2016 final, which immortalised PV Sindhu overnight, she wasn’t very consistent in subsequent tournaments. She saw early eliminations in Denmark, Korea, and French Opens, before beating Sun Yu to lift the Thaihot China Open - which was her last title in 2016. She started 2017 on a stronger note, though, winning back to back titles at the Syed Modi International and India Open events, before a winless slump was on the cards yet again.
However, little did she know what challenge was awaiting her. Entering as a favourite at the 2017 World Badminton Championships, Sindhu went on a fine run beating Kim Hyo Min, Cheung Ngan Yi, Sun Yu, and Chen Yu Fei to set up a summit clash against Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara.
Barring her clash against Ngan Yi in the round of 16, which went on for one hour 27 minutes, Sindhu mostly had straight games all along the way. But Okuhara had other plans. The gruelling final, which eventually transcended beyond technical superiority to sheer grit, lasted a mammoth one hour and 50 minutes as it ended 21-19, 20-22, 22-20 in the Japanese’s favour.
Not only is this match one of the most celebrated women’s singles clashes in badminton history, but it also made Okuhara a nemesis for the ages for PV Sindhu.
While the silver was Sindhu’s first medal at the World Championships 2017, it took the Indian another two years to banish the ghost of that edition when she demolished Okuhara in straight games to clinch the title in 2019 - this time ending the match in 37 minutes.
Olympics calling for women's hockey
Despite the film “Chak de India“ bringing a breath of fresh air for India’s hockey eves, the lack of any real achievements by them was making it difficult to retain lovers of the game. The women’s team had last qualified for the Olympics back in 1980 when the Games were held in Moscow, finishing at a respectable fourth position then.
And it took the team a whopping 36 years to seal another berth for the Olympics. While India would be thankful to England for their semi-final win over Spain in the European Championships (for their qualification in the finals of the Rio Games), it was mostly the side’s strong performance in the 2015 Hockey World League semifinals, which were held in Belgium, that got the job done.
England’s win came after the Netherlands got the better of Germany in the semifinal of the European Championships, which consequently freed one quota spot as both the teams reaching the finals had already qualified for the Olympic Games.
"It is a proud moment for Hockey India and the whole country. We have been waiting for this for the last 36 years and this achievement is the sweetest and the most memorable among all our previous feats in recent times," the then Hockey India president Narinder Batra was quoted as saying.
Women’s TT team's golden run at 2018 CWG
The situation of the Indian paddlers was pretty gloomy as well. Approaching the 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG), held in Gold Coast, India’s table tennis contingent had never won the yellow metal before, but things were going to change this time.
India had done comprehensively well to reach the final of the mixed team category with the likes of Manika Batra, Mouma Das, and Madhurika Patkar firing on all cylinders in the early stages. But playing the final against defending champions Singapore, a nation which had won the event at every edition since its introduction to the CWG back in 2002, didn’t really put India as the favourites.
India started the final with their blue-eyed girl Manika Batra and she stood up to expectations by getting the better of Tianwei Feng to hand India an early 1-0 lead. That was the much-needed confidence that India needed, for although Singapore levelled proceedings in the next match itself where Mengyu Yu defeated Madhurika Patkar, the belief was set.
Patkar partnered with Mouma Das to beat Yihan Zhou and Mengyu Yu in the very next match, before Batra had an easy win against Yihan Zhou to cross over the line and hand the Indian women their first-ever table tennis gold medal at the CWG.
"Even in my wildest dream, I had not thought that I will beat an Olympic medallist and world number four. I knew that she was having problems with my pimpled rubber and I realise that, but I did not use it as my strength all the time. I kept changing my game. I did not want to keep her settled so I changed my rubber after the second game," Batra said after the win, reported TOI.
Neeraj Chopra and the world record
Perhaps the most deserving athlete not to get a place in the Rio contingent, Neeraj Chopra had taken little time to become a household name. If winning a gold at the 2016 South Asian Games - where he equalled the Indian national record - wasn’t enough, Chopra took it a level higher with a gigantic javelin throw of 86.48m at the IAAF World Under-20 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
Consequently, he not only became the first Indian track and field athlete to win a gold in a World Championships, but also the first-ever Indian to hold a world record in athletics, across both junior and senior levels.
However, Chopra hasn’t stopped at that laurel and has only gotten stronger with each season. He won the gold in the 2017 Asian Athletic Championships, and more importantly, became the first Indian to win in javelin throw at the CWG after creating his season’s best record of 86.47 metres at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
"It is a very important medal for me, I wanted to touch my personal best but I missed it by a centimetre. In my desperation for that, I tried so hard that I tumbled over in my last two attempts. But I am very happy and I have a lot of competitions this year to achieve (my) personal best," Neeraj said after his gold feat, reported PTI.
Jinson Johnson strikes gold at Asiad 2018
Breaking the 42-year-old record of the legendary Sriram Singh during the National Inter-State Championships in Guwahati had set the ball rolling for this Kerala athlete. Coming into Asiad 2018, in fact, Jinson Johnson was one of the favourites to win the 800m event. However, it was his compatriot Manjit Singh, who leapfrogged him to the gold in that event.
Johnson made the most of his opportunity in the 1500m event, which was next, as he clocked a brilliant 3 minute 44.72 seconds to complete the distance and land the gold. His tactical masterclass was seen in his bursting finish, where he covered the last 80m stretch in a flash, leaving behind Iran’s Amir Moradi (3:45.62) and Bahrain's Mohammed Tiouali (3:45.88), while Manjit finished fourth with a time of 3:46.57.
Speaking about the difference between running 1500m in the Olympics and other competitions, Johnson explained after the win, “Two things are there. One, this kind of races are tactical races and often timings of top athletes in big events like the Olympics or World Championships may be below par. So, it is not appropriate to compare these timings.
"Secondly, when you run in an Olympic final race, you don't think about timings, you think about winning gold or other medals. If timing is good in the process, that is well and good. If you see the timing of the semifinals (in 1500m in Rio Olympics), the timings were world class, around 3 minutes 40 seconds," said Johnson, reported India Today.
No stopping Mary Kom
The world had already given up seeking any more superlatives for the Indian boxing legend, when “Magnificent Mary” sent them into further disarray by becoming the most successful boxer in the history of Women's World Championships.
Disregarding her age, MC Mary Kom had entered the competition in her preferred 48kg category after already winning it five times previously in 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010. And while she had taken refuge only in talent on previous occasions, this time she had both time and understanding on her side.
Her final match against Ukraine's Hanna Okhota ended 5-0 in the Indian’s favour as she matched Cuban men's legend Felix Savon to become the joint most successful pugilist (men and women) in the event’s history. The last time she had won the event was back in 2010 in Bridgetown, Barbados.
Mirabai Chanu weight-lifts maiden gold
An extremely talented weightlifter, Mirabai Chanu had shown massive promise since the day she broke onto the scene by winning a silver medal in the 48kg weight category at the Glasgow edition of the Commonwealth Games. In fact, ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Manipur weightlifter was one of India’s biggest hopes to clinch a medal.
However, she could hardly do justice to her talent in Rio, failing to even finish the event as she was unsuccessful in all her three attempts in clean and jerk section. It almost took another full year before she could reach her full potential and win one of the gold medals that had been evading her for years.
Dipa Karmakar's heroics at 2014 CWG
Before entering the elite club of only five gymnasts to have perfectly executed the “vault of death” or the Produnova at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Agartala-born flat-footer had also become only the second Indian after Ashish Kumar to win a historic Commonwealth Games medal in artistic gymnastics.
Competing in the tournament, the then 20-year-old
Dipa Karmakar had a poor start in Vault 1 where she could only put up a score of 13.633 points, which was the lowest of all the eight competitors in the final. However, she recovered marvellously scoring 15.100 in Vault 2 that was the highest of the lot.
The brave attempt could only bring up her average score to 14.366 as England's Claudia Fragapane topped the list to win the gold medal with an average score of 14.633 and Canadian Elsabeth Black finished second averaging 14.433.
The uprising of Indian marksmen
Apart from cricket, if there’s one sport in India that could boast of a perfectly-planned grassroots structure that has been designed to produce talents consistently, it has to be shooting. And at the Commonwealth Games in 2018, the Indian shooting contingent met expectations almost impeccably.
The 2014 Commonwealth Games had seen the shooters contributing nearly one-third of the nation’s medal tally, 17 out of the 64 medals India had won. The 2018 edition saw 27 shooters winning as many as 16 medals - seven of which were gold and as many as seven CWG records were broken.
In the upcoming Summer Olympics next year, India already have 15 shooters sealing quota places across 10 events with eight of them men and seven women. And given the sheer dominance that the likes of
Manu Bhaker, Saurabh Chaudhary, Apurvi Chandela, and others have exhibited in the recent ISSF World Cups, they are expected to be India’s trump card in Tokyo.