Participation in Mega Spectacle for 120 years
Kolkata’s Pritchard won first medal in 1900
Citizens of Tokyo and Japan, including their King are a worried lot. This is very unusual as the City is all set to host the mother of all sports events – the Olympic Games – from July 23. But there is only a sense of déjà vu as the Games are going to be hosted under the ‘New Normal’ of the coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) pandemic. Foreign fans have been banned from participating in the Olympics that surely shears away the joyous splendour of celebrating the victories or sympathising profusely with the losers. With the count down beginning with a sense of trepidation for an usual Games, Trinity Mirror will take a look back at India’s presence in the mega sporting event in a series of articles.
Despite a population of 135 crore people, India hasn’t been able to make a major mark in the medals tally and has been woefully lagging behind on the leaderboard. India, however, has marked its presence in the Olympics even during the pre-Independence days with athletes participating either under British or Commonwealth banner. In a way, India too can celebrate the fact that the name of the country has been imprinted in the sands of Olympic history 120 years ago with the first ‘Indian representative’ participating in the Paris Olympics. And yes, the honour goes to Anglo-Indian Norman Pritchard who was holidaying in France participated in the track events in the 1900 Paris Games. The Olympic Games had been revived in 1986 by French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin and the first version was held in Athens, Greece.
Pritchard, who was born in Alipore of Kolkata and spent some time in the jute plantations of Assam, and participated in the 60m, 100m, 200m, 110m and 200m hurdles, and ended up winning silver medals in 200m and 200m hurdles. In fact, he was the first Asian ever to win an Olympic medal. Subsequently in the 1920 Olympic Games, India was represented by a two-member team. Thanks to the efforts of philanthropists like Sir Dorabji Tata, the Indian team at the 1924 Olympics comprised eight athletes. However, India has been officially sending teams under the aegis of the Indian Olympic Association since 1928. In the 1932 Olympics at Los Angeles, Mervyn Sutton reached the semi-finals of the 110 metres hurdles and M.C. Dhawan finished 14th in the triple jump event by clearing a distance of 44 feet 9 3/4 inches.
Henry Rebello, a self-coached ‘triple jump’ ace, was unfortunately denied a gold in the 1948 London Olympic Games. Rebello, who had set a new national mark of 50 feet and two inches and had automatically qualified for the Olympics, had just before the Games proved that he could stretch his jump up to 52 feet. However, in the Olympic Games, after having qualified easily in the preliminaries, Rebello was disturbed as he was about to take his jump in the final and asked to wait till a victory ceremony was completed. Unaccustomed to the cold and windy conditions, he ran into all sorts of problems and when he finally took his turn collapsed on the pit with writhing pain as he had pulled a hamstring muscle and had to be carried away on a stretcher.
Though India’s gold medal haul has been pathetic in individual events, hockey till 1964 had been proving to be a great silver lining in the dark clouds. Led by the indomitable Dhyan Chand, India began their hockey gold quest in the Olympics in right earnest from 1928. In the eight Olympic Games from 1928 to 1964, the Indians won the gold seven times including six consecutive victories from 1928 to 1956. In the 1960 Rome Olympics, India lost the gold to Pakistan, but regained the same in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. India again had to wait till 1980 in win a gold in the Moscow Olympics, which was boycotted by several leading nations of the world led by the US. The changing trends in hockey, especially with the introduction of Astroturf surfaces, India has lost that edge in hockey too. Having won a gold medal in 1964 Olympic Games, will the present squad make it an encore, only time will tell!
WIZARD OF HOCKEY
Major Dhyan Chand (August 29, 1905–December 3, 1979) was an Indian field hockey player widely regarded as the greatest in the history of the sport. He was known for his extraordinary goal-scoring feats, in addition to earning three Olympic gold medals in 1928, 1932 and 1936 during an era where India dominated field hockey. His influence extended beyond these victories, as India won the field hockey event in seven out of eight Olympics from 1928 to 1964.
Known as The Wizard or The Magician of hockey for his superb ball control, Chand played internationally from 1926 to 1949; he scored 570 goals in 185 matches according to his autobiography, Goal. The Government of India awarded Chand India’s third highest civilian honour of Padma Bhushan in 1956. His birthday, August 29, is celebrated as National Sports Day in India every year.
Born in Allahabad in 1905, Dhyan Singh (as he was named) used to practice a lot during the night after his duty hours, he used to wait for the moon to come out so that the visibility on the field (during his era there were no flood lights) improved. He was hence called “Chand” by his fellow players, as his practice sessions at night invariably coincided with the coming out of the moon.
Many statues and a national stadium have been built in his memory. There is also a Dhyan Chand Award named after him, which is India’s highest award for lifetime achievement in sports. The Indian hockey team’s affair with the Olympic gold medal started in Amsterdam, when Dhyan Chand scored a hat-trick against the Netherlands in the final. They became the first team to be listed as Indian Olympic winners.
INDIA’S OWN FLYING SIKH
Milkha Singh (November 20, 1929-June 18, 2021) was Independent India’s first individual sports star, who dominated Indian track and field for over a decade with his speed and spirit, creating multiple records and winning numerous medals in his career.
Representing India at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, the 1960 Olympics in Rome and the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Milkha Singh remained the greatest Olympian from India for decades with his phenomenal displays.
Born on 20 November 1929 into a Sikh family in Govindpura, which is now a part of Pakistan, Milkha Singh was introduced to the sport only after he had fled to India post the partition and joined the Indian Army.
It was in the army where he sharpened his running skills. After he finished sixth in a cross-country race that had around 400 more soldiers running, he was handpicked for further training. That laid the foundation for what would be an impressive career.
His first Olympic Games came at Melbourne 1956, where an inexperienced Milkha Singh didn’t progress beyond the heat stages in either the 200m or 400m, but a meeting with champion Charles Jenkins proved to be the source of much inspiration.
A resolute Milkha Singh left Melbourne determined to, in his words, turn himself into “a running machine”.
That desire resulted in Singh becoming the first gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games from independent India in 1958, remaining the only Indian male to have an individual athletics Commonwealth Games gold for 56 years before discus thrower Vikas Gowda in the 2014 edition.
By the time of the Rome 1960 Olympics, Singh was widely known as “the Flying Sikh” and came within a photo finish of reaching the heights of an Olympic podium.
Running in the 400m, Milkha Singh was leading till the 200m mark when he had decided to ease off, a mistake that allowed others to overtake him. The race had seen numerous records being broken and eventually needed a photo finish to adjudge the result.
While United States of America’s Otis Davis had won the race after leading Germany’s Carl Kaufmann by one-hundredth of a second, Milkha Singh had finished fourth with a timing of 45.73s – a national record that stood for 40 years.
Tokyo 1964 was the swansong for Milkha Singh, as he led the Indian team in the 4x400m relay before hanging up his running shoes.
Years later, Singh – with help from his daughter Sonia Sanwalka – would share memories from his incredible career in his autobiography titled “The Race of My Life”, published in July 2013.
The book was later turned into a biopic, namely Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, which was directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and had actor Farhan Akhtar playing Milkha Singh.
BLAZING THE COURTS
Leander Peas (June 17, 1973) is another well-known and popular name! He is one of the best doubles and mixed doubles player in Tennis. He was the sole athlete who won in 1996, when he grabbed bronze medal. He also won French open and Wimbledon in doubles with his tennis partner Mahesh Bhupathi.
When it comes to Indian tennis, few names come close to touching the legend of Leander Paes, who is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished doubles players in the world.
Leander Paes’ achievements on the global stage, headlined by the bronze medal-effort at the 1996 Olympic Games, spurred on future Indian doubles stars like Divij Sharan, Rohan Bopanna and Purav Raja to take up the sport and try to emulate the ‘Indian Express’.
Leander Paes was born in Kolkata to parents who were both accomplished athletes in their own right. His father Vece Paes was part of the men’s hockey team who won the bronze medal at the Munich 1972 Olympics, while mother Jennifer Paes led India’s 1980 Asian Basketball Championship team. Sport and the Olympics were in his blood.
He had his first rendezvous with the Games at Barcelona 1992 at the age of 18. He crashed out in the first round of the singles event but strung together some impressive displays alongside partner Ramesh Krishnan, to reach the quarter-finals in the men’s doubles.
Building on the experience of his debut Olympics, Leander Paes drew up a plan for Atlanta 1996 and worked diligently for success. With the tennis events scheduled at the Stone Mountain Tennis Centre, a hard-court venue some 500m above sea level, Leander Paes took time off from the pro tour to play in specific tournaments played at similar altitudes to condition himself for Atlanta.
A wild card entry to the 1996 Olympics, the initial draw pitted Leander Paes against the then ATP world no. 1, Pete Sampras, in the first round. However, Sampras was forced to withdraw due to injury, leaving the Indian to face another USA player in Richey Reneberg. After losing the first set, he bounced back to take the second before Reneberg was forced to withdraw due to an injury in the third, thus handing Leander Paes his first win at the Olympic stage.
He then beat Nicolas Pereira, Thomas Enqvist and Renzo Furlan, each in straight sets, in the following rounds setting up a semi-final clash against another American tennis legend and the eventual gold medallist in Atlanta – Andre Agassi.
In a gruelling contest, Leander Paes lost 6-7, 3-6 but the then 22-year-old inexperienced Indian’s gritty stand made a lasting impression.
Unfortunately, the hard-fought contest left its mark on Leander Paes as well, as he ruptured a few tendons in his wrist heading into the bronze medal match-up against Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni.
He lost the first set 3-6, but powered through the pain to take the next two sets 6-2, 6-4 to bring home the historic bronze.
Long after the match, Paes would admit that he recalled little of the encounter, so focused was he in the moment. “I got into what we athletes call ‘the zone’ where you don’t really remember what happened for a 45-minute period” Paes said.
In those lost minutes, he had etched himself in Indian tennis history. Paes had become India’s first individual medal-winner since K.D. Jadhav clinched bronze in wrestling at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.
His Olympic moment was the springboard to further success, alongside his illustrious long-time doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi.
Paes also participated in the men’s doubles competition at Rio 2016, a Games that would be his seventh consecutive appearance at an Olympics – a feat unmatched by any other Indian or indeed any fellow tennis player. Before the postponement of Tokyo 2020 due to the coronavirus outbreak, Paes had expressed his intention to try and qualify for an eighth Olympics before retiring.
THE KING OF THE RING
Vijender Singh Beniwal (October 29, 1985) is an Indian professional boxer and politician. As an amateur, he won bronze medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 2009 World Championships and the 2010 Commonwealth Games, as well as silver medals at the 2006 and 2014 Commonwealth Games, all in the middleweight division.
In June 2015, Vijender Singh turned professional and signed a multi-year agreement with Queensberry Promotions through IOS Sports and Entertainment. This ruled him out of 2016 Olympics which would have been his fourth.
Vijender Singh was born in Kaluwas village, 5 kilometres from Bhiwani in Haryana. His father, Mahipal Singh Beniwal, is a bus driver with the Haryana Roadways, while his mother is a homemaker. His father drove extra hours for overtime pay, for Vijender and his elder brother Manoj’s education. Vijender did his primary schooling in Kaluwas, secondary schooling in Bhiwani, finally receiving a bachelor’s degree from Vaish College, Bhiwani. He married Archana Singh in 2011. They have two sons, Abir Singh and Amrik Singh.
In order to ensure a better life for their poor family, Vijender decided to learn boxing. Vijender was inspired by his elder brother Manoj, a former boxer himself, to join the sport of boxing. After Manoj succeeded in entering the Indian Army in 1998 with his boxing credentials, he decided to support Vijender financially so he could continue his boxing training. Vijender’s parents decided to not pressurise him to continue his studies, as they felt that he had a talent and passion for boxing. For Vijender, boxing quickly grew from an interest and passion to a career choice. Alongside boxing and working part-time, he tried his hand at modelling to financially support his training.
Singh cites the likes of boxers Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali, boxing promoter Don King, and the character Rocky Balboa from the Rocky film series among his influences.
He trained at the Bhiwani Boxing Club, where former national-level boxer and Jagdish Singh recognised his talent. The first recognition for Vijender came when he won a bout in the state level competition. Vijender won a silver medal in his first sub-junior nationals in 1997 and went on to bag his first gold medal at the 2000 Nationals. In 2003, he became the all-India youth boxing champion. The turning point, however, came in the 2003 Afro-Asian Games. Despite being a junior boxer, Vijender took part in the selection trials and was picked for the meet where he fought valiantly to win a silver medal. Singh cites boxers Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali, boxing promoter Don King, and Rocky character Rocky Balbao among his influences.
ANOTHER MAT STAR RISES
Sushil Kumar Tehlan Solanki (May 26, 1983) is an Indian sportsmen participating in the game of wrestling and got a chance to represent India in 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Olympics. In 2012 Olympics he won Silver Medal in 66 kg men’s freestyle wrestling category. He also had bagged gold medal in 2010 FILA World Wrestling Championships and bronze medal in 66 kg Freestyle Wrestling event in 2008 Olympics
He was born on in Baprola in Najafgarh in Delhi. His father is Diwan Singh, bus driver and his mother is Kamla Devi. His cousin Sandeep and his father are wrestlers and they inspired him. He got his training at Akhada Wrestling School in Chhatrasal Stadium. He is employed as Assistant Commercial Manager in Indian Railways. He married Savi Kumar in 2011.
He shot into limelight when he won the gold medal in the World Cadet Games in 1998. He went on to win his next gold in the Asian Junior Wrestling Championship in 2000. He won the bronze medal at Asian Wrestling Championships in 2003 and gold at the Commonwealth Wrestling Championships. However, his poor performance in the 2004 Athens Olympics gave him a bad name and the media started ignoring him.
On August 20,2008, he got a bronze medal in Beijing Olympics defeating Spiridonov. He fared well at the FILA 2010 World Wrestling Championships and got the honour of being the first Indian to win the gold medal on September 12, 2010. His success continued in 2010 Commonwealth Games held at Delhi and he bagged gold on October 10, 2010.
He was honoured Arjuna Award in 2005, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award in 2008 and Padma Shri Award in 2011 by the Government of India. Apart from them, he also received many cash awards and promotion in his employment when he won bronze medal at 2008 Beijing Olympics.
MAKING THE BIRD TALK
Saina Nehwal (March 17, 1990) is the first-ever badminton player from India to clinch an Olympic medal. The Indian shuttler created history when she won the bronze medal at the London 2012 Games.
The Haryana shuttler started turning heads very early on in her career when she won the BWF World Junior Championships in 2008. The same year she made her first Olympics appearance in Beijing, but it was only at London 2012 that she gained worldwide fame.
Saina Nehwal started playing badminton at the age of eight after her family moved from Haryana to Hyderabad. Her initiation into the game was primarily because she didn’t know the local language well and she wanted to further the dream of her mother, who was a state-level badminton player herself. The Indian shuttler successfully did that by representing India at the highest level in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics.
En route to becoming the first Indian woman to reach the last eight of Olympic quarter-finals, a young Saina Nehwal defeated the then world number five Wang Chen of Hong Kong before losing to Indonesia’s Maria Kristin Yulianti in the quarter-finals of Beijing 2008.
The promise that a 20-year-old Saina Nehwal showed was hugely applauded back home as she was conferred with the Arjuna award in 2009 and the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award in 2010.
Under the tutelage of coach Pullela Gopichand, a 22-year-old Saina Nehwal then wrote a new chapter in Indian badminton at the London 2012 Olympics.
Seeded fourth for the Games, Nehwal beat Netherlands’ Jie Yao and Denmark’s Tine Baun to reach the semi-finals.
However, her top-seeded opponent in the last four was China’s Wang Yihan, who completed a straight games win.
That set up a play-off against another Chinese opponent, Wang Xin, for the bronze medal. Their encounter though would be a curtailed one as Wang was forced to retire through injury at the start of the second game. Nehwal had secured India’s first Olympic badminton medal.
Nehwal’s burgeoning reputation was enhanced over the coming years as she went on to win the Australian Open twice, the India Open and the China Open over the next three years. Nehwal married fellow badminton Parupalli Kashyap in a private ceremony in Hyderabad in 2018.
FIRST WOMAN MAT MEDAL
Sakshi Malik (September 3, 1992) is an Olympic bronze medallist and a pioneer in more ways than one. Aside from becoming the very first Indian women wrestler to win a medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics, she changed perceptions and became a role model to future generations of female wrestlers.
That bronze medal at the Olympics was the culmination of a number of impressive achievements that defined her impressive career in wrestling.
Sakshi Malik was born on September 3, 1992, in the village of Mokhra in the Rohtak district of Haryana.
After watching her grandfather Subir Malik, also a wrestler, Sakshi Malik was inspired to take up the sport that would go on to define her career.
At just 12, she began training under Ishwar Dahiya and five years later, she experienced her first taste of success with a silver medal in the 2009 Asian Junior World Championships in 59kg freestyle, which was followed by a bronze medal at the 2010 World Junior Championships.
After winning bronze at the 2013 Commonwealth Championships, Sakshi Malik contested her first Commonwealth Games the following year in Glasgow and came away with a silver medal after stumbling against Nigeria’s Aminat Adeniyi in the 58kg final. She would go on to bag her second and final Commonwealth Games medal in 2018 with a bronze in the 62kg category.
However, Sakshi Malik’s biggest achievement till date will remain the Olympic bronze medal she won at the Rio 2016 Olympics in the 58 kg weight category.
After Geeta Phogat was provisionally suspended following the forfeiture of her repechage round in Mongolia, the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) picked up Sakshi Malik, who went on to secure her Olympic berth by defeating Zhang Lan of China in the 58kg semi-final of the Olympic World Qualifying Tournament.
Her exploits have served as inspiration for the next generation of female wrestlers, and no example illustrates that clearer than Sonam Malik, who edged Sakshi Malik in the first national women’s wrestling trials back in January to make the Indian team for the Asian Olympic qualifiers and is pegged by many as one of India’s Tokyo Olympics hopefuls.
Currently employed by the Indian Railways and also a part of the JSW Sports Excellence Programme, Sakshi Malik is now married and settled down with fellow Indian wrestler Satyawart Kadian in her hometown of Rohtak. She continues to inspire the younger generation.
OPPONENTS ON THE MAT
Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav (January 15, 1926–August 14, 1984) hailed from a family of wrestlers. He started as a local wrestler and reached the peak bye winning a bronze medal at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. After Norman Pritchard, who won two silver medals in athletics in 1900 under colonial India, Khashaba was the first individual athlete from independent India to win a medal at the Olympics. He is the only Indian Olympic medallist who never received a Padma Award. Khashaba was extremely nimble on his feet, which made him different from other wrestlers of his time. English coach Rees Gardner saw this trait in him and trained him prior to the 1948 Olympic Games.
Born in a village called Goleshwar in Karad taluka of District Satara in Maharashtra State, Jadhav was the youngest of five sons of a renowned wrestler Dadasaheb Jadhav. He did his schooling in Tilak High School in Karad district between 1940–1947. He participated in the Quit India Movement providing shelter and a hiding place to the revolutionaries, circulating letters against the British were some of his contributions to the movement.
Jadhav’s first feel of the big stage was at the 1948 London Olympics; his journey was funded by the Maharaja of Kolhapur. During his stay in London, he was trained by Rees Gardner, a former lightweight World champion from the United States. It was Gardner’s guidance that saw Jadhav finish sixth in the flyweight section, despite being unfamiliar with wrestling on the mat. He stunned the audience by defeating Australian wrestler Bert Harris in the first few minutes of the bout. He went on to defeat Billy Jernigan of the US, but lost to Mansour Raeisi of Iran, to be eliminated from the Games. He had a tough draw in the 1952 Helisnki and after some valiant wins he lost to Soviet Union’s Rashid Mammadbeyov. As per the rules a rest of at least 30 minutes were required between bouts, but no Indian official was available to press his case and a tired Jadhav failed to inspire against Mammadbeyov. However, wins against wrestlers from Canada, Mexico and Germany ensured a bronze medal on July 23, 1952 thereby creating history.
PAYYOLI EXPRESS CHUGS
P.T. Usha (June 27, 1964) – Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha to use her full name – is one of India’s greatest athletes, often called the country’s “queen of track and field”. A graceful sprinter with long strides, she dominated Asian track-and-field events for most of the 1980s, winning 23 medals in all, 14 of which were gold, a crowd favourite wherever she raced.
Born in the village of Kuttali in Kerala, PT Usha studied in nearby Payyoli – which later gave rise to her nickname ‘The Payyoli Express’ – and her natural talent was discovered when she was nine.
At a school race, the fourth-grade student effortlessly went on to beat the school champion, three years her senior. It astonished the teachers and her abilities over the next few years earned her a place in one of the first batches of sport-oriented schools the Kerala government had set up.
Usha continued to dominate state and national meets and at 16 years old, became the then youngest athlete to represent India at the Olympics, when she was included in the contingent for the 1980 Games in Moscow.
Usha did not qualify for the final then but in the 1982 Asian Games, broke through to the conscience of Indian audiences when she won silver in both 100m and 200m.
She brought home the 200m silver at the 1983 Asian Championships and when she won gold in the 400m, her lifelong coach O.M. Nambiar suggested that she try out the 400m hurdles.
It would bring about one of India’s most memorable Olympic moments on the track.
At Los Angeles 1984, a fitter, better-trained PT Usha was a force to be reckoned with. Having breezed into the 400m hurdles final with impressive performances in qualifying, Usha missed out on the bronze medal by just one hundredth of a second.
After overcoming a false start, the Indian ran the final stretch like a 100m sprint and remembers that though her leg was ahead of eventual bronze winner Cristieana Cojocaru, she had not dipped her chest into the finish line.
It was a moment that brought Usha on the cusp of sporting glory and made her a household name in the country at just 20 years of age. More importantly, the feat ensured that the nation discovered the fascinating world of athletics.
The 1985 Asian Championships at Jakarta saw Usha win five gold medals and a bronze in a span of five days, her last two golds coming within a half-hour of each other.
At Seoul in the 1986 Asian Games, she went on to win four golds, each in Asian record time, and a silver. She would also take back the chants of her name in both the Asian capitals.
However, two years later at the Seoul ’88 Olympics, Usha could not replicate her exploits of four years previous – slipping out early of the reckoning after finishing seventh in her opening heat.
“I am satisfied with what I have achieved. All what I aimed for, except for the Olympic medal, I achieved. I now want to ensure that one of my students wins one!” The legendary athlete had stated in an interview referring to the ‘Usha School of Athletics’. Her academy in Kozhikode, Kerala today guides young athletics hopefuls and hones their skills. It’s an endeavour aimed at ensuring India’s future athletic stars can reach the same heights that she did.
LIFTS SPIRIT OF NATION
Karnam Malleswari (June 1, 1975) Karnam Malleswari holds the distinguished honour of being the first woman from India to win a medal at the Olympics.
Her career’s crowning achievement came at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Lifting 110kg and 130kg in the ‘snatch’ and ‘clean and jerk’ categories respectively to total 240kg, Karnam Malleswari became the first Indian woman to win a prestigious Olympic bronze medal.
The historic achievement made her an instant household name and the masses named her ‘The Iron Lady’. She remains, till date, the only Indian woman weightlifter to have won an Olympic medal.
“This medal didn’t feel my own, but the whole country’s,” she says. “Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called me later that day. He congratulated me and called me ‘Bharat ki beti’ (daughter of India).”
Born in Andhra Pradesh’s Voosavanipeta hamlet, Karnam Malleswari began her training in the sport at the age of 12.Before long, success came calling. Karnam Malleswari placed third in the World Championships in 1993 and then followed up with consecutive 54kg world titles in 1994 and 1995, before bookending her run with another third-place effort in 1996.
On two occasions, in 1994 and 1998, Karnam Malleswari narrowly missed on Asian Games gold medals, having to settle for silver instead.
The success built up momentum as she headed to Sydney for the Olympics. While she did her country proud by earning a bronze, Karnam Malleswari had mixed feelings. She felt she missed out on a gold due to a miscalculation within the Indian camp that suggested that she had to lift more than she needed for the top spot on the podium.
Malleswari was planning to make a comeback at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. However, the unfortunate demise of her father put paid to those plans.
She devised another return, at the 2004 Olympics in Greece, but uninspiring results made her finally call it a career.
Along the way, she was conferred with numerous prestigious awards by the Indian government, including the Arjuna Award (1994), Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna (1999) and the Padma Shri (1999).
Karnam Malleswari got married to fellow Indian weightlifter Rajesh Tyagi in 1997, and the couple were blessed with a son in 2001. Karnam Malleswari also founded the Karnam Malleswari Foundation, a first-of-its-kind weightlifting and powerlifting academy in an effort to see her beloved sport flourish in India.
FIRST AMONG EQUALS
Abhinav Bindra (September 28, 1982) will forever hold a place in sporting history as India’s first individual gold medallist at the Olympics.
The gold medal in the men’s 10m air rifle at Beijing 2008 was the crowning glory in Abhinav Bindra’s stellar sporting career, which includes a World Championship gold and multiple medals at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games.
Born on 28 September 1982 in Dehradun, the future Olympic champion began his sporting journey after taking inspiration from the shooters he saw on television.
Success soon came his way. The Indian shooter went to the 1998 Commonwealth Games as a 15-year-old and then travelled to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 as the youngest Indian participant.
It was a breakthrough year as he won six gold medals at various events and won bronze at the World Cup, setting a then-junior record score. He then won gold in the 10m air rifle pairs and silver in the singles at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
Abhinav Bindra set a new Olympic record in the 10m air rifle event during the qualification round at the Athens 2004 Olympics, but could not find his best form in the finals and finished outside of the podium places.
After an enforced layoff with a back injury, Bindra returned with a bang in 2006, winning gold at the ISSF World Championships.
But his finest moment was still yet to come.
In a gripping finale to the men’s 10m air rifle finals at the Beijing Games, Bindra was tied with Finland’s Henri Hakkinen at the top of the standings with one shot remaining.
Bindra held his nerve, scoring 10.8 with his last attempt – his highest score of the finals – to see off the challenge of Hakkinen and secure victory.
“I ended up shooting the best 10 shots in my life,” he would recall. “The way I responded, the timing, the technique… they were the 10 best shots of my life.”
He was bestowed with the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian honour, as recognition for his efforts in 2009.
Expectations were naturally high as he aimed to defend his Olympic crown at London 2012, but Bindra could not advance from the qualification round.
Instead the proud Indian could take solace in seeing Gagan Narang, Vijay Kumar, Sushil Kumar, Mary Kom and Saina Nehwal’s bring home Olympic medals.
The 2014 Commonwealth Games yielded him yet another gold before his Olympic swansong at Rio 2016.
The Indian flagbearer for the Rio Games, Bindra – perhaps surprisingly – cites his farewell in Brazil as his most cherished Olympic memory.
Bindra missed a podium spot by a tenth of a point after losing a shoot-off for the top three, but has said that Rio 2016 was the Olympics in which he was most satisfied with his performance.
After hanging up his rifle for good, Bindra turned his attention to the field of business as he obtained a BBA degree from the University of Colorado and was awarded two honorary doctorate degrees in literature and philosophy by the SRM and Kaziranga Universities.
He started a non-profit organisation called the Abhinav Bindra Foundation, an initiative whose aim was to make athletes stronger and more aware using sports science and technology.
He has even released his autobiography titled ‘A Shot at History: My Obsessive Journey to Olympic Gold’ detailing his training methods and constant drive which eventually landed him where no Indian had gone before.
SHE FLITS LIKE BUTTERFLY
Mary Kom (November 24, 1982) is an Olympic Indian boxer hailing from the Kom-Kuki tribe in Manipur. Mary Kom is an Indian boxer who has the distinction of being a five-time World Amateur Boxing champion.
Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom is also revered as Magnificent Mary or popularly known as Mary Kom. Her parents earned their livelihood by working in jhum fields. Growing up, Mary used to help her parents both on and off the fields- cutting wood, making charcoal, fishing and babysitting her siblings.
Right from her early childhood she displayed skills in athletics but did not have the support system required to nourish such talent. Her first public victory in boxing came in 2000 when she won the Manipur state women’s boxing championship. From thereon she made her international debut at the first AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championship in the United States, where she won a silver medal in the 48 kg weight category. This was followed up with a gold medal in the 45 kg class at the second AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championship in Turkey in 2002.
In 2003, she took home another medal at the Asian Women’s Boxing Championship in India, and was awarded the national Arjuna Award for outstanding sporting achievement. She has won gold medals in three consecutive years (2004-2006) at separate international boxing events. Two years later she won the fourth successive gold medal at the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championship in China, followed by a fifth one at the 2009 Asian Indoor Games in Vietnam. In 2010, Kom won the gold medal at the Asian Women’s Boxing Championship in Kazakhstan and her fifth consecutive gold at the AIBA championship.
In 2012, she competed in the women’s boxing event in the Summer Olympics, coming in third and garnering her first Olympic medal. SportsPro has rated Mary Kom as the 38th most remarkable athlete in the world. In order to honour the boxer, the lane routing to Manipur Sports Village has been named as Mary Kom Road.
Mary Kom, who will turn 39 in November, has not given up hopes of an Olympic gold medal. She has been training hard and preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with the dream of an Olympic gold medal.
Mary is a strong believer in her own ability and a winner as she once said, “I was the David who took on the Goliaths in the boxing ring – and I won, most of the time.”
SILVER LINING IN RIO
Pusarla Venkata Sindhu (July 5, 1995) is arguably the most prolific Indian badminton star of the 21st century. As the first Indian woman to win a silver medal at the Olympics and gold at the BWF World Championships, the World Champion is in a class by herself when it comes to Indian badminton in the 21st century.
Along with fellow badminton player Saina Nehwal and boxer Mary Kom, she has been one of the shining beacons for sportswomen in India. Currently ranked at world number seven, shuttler Sindhu remains as one of India’s biggest hopes in badminton as the nation gears up for Tokyo 2020.
Sindhu was born in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh to parents who were both volleyball players at the national level, with her father P.V. Ramana winning the bronze medal at the 1986 Seoul Asian Games. As a result, sport already coursed through her veins from the start.
While her parents may have been volleyball players, badminton caught Sindhu’s fancy after watching Pullela Gopichand in action, and by the age of eight, she was a regular at the sport.
The tables were soon turned, however, as Gopichand was the one in awe after watching the young Sindhu in action, who had joined the academy bearing his name.
One of the peculiarities about Sindhu’s career graph is her steady improvement at annual events year-by-year. This was first apparent at the 2012 Asian Junior Championships when she won the gold medal after scoring a bronze the year prior.
This pattern was repeated at the prestigious World Championships too. After two bronze and two silver medals between 2013 and 2018, she finally held the yellow metal in 2019 after comprehensively beating Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara 21-7, 21-7.
In her first Commonwealth Games (CWG) in 2014, PV Sindhu won bronze in women’s singles. Four years later, at the 2018 CWG in Gold Coast, she followed it up with a silver and a gold medal in the singles and mixed team badminton event respectively.
Her biggest achievement till date, however, remains the silver medal at Rio 2016. After eliminating Tai Tzu Ying in the round-of-16, she disposed of the second-seeded Wang Yihan and Japanese star Nozumi Okuhara in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively. That left her only to have to get by Spain’s Carolina Marin to win the ultimate prize. While the Indian shuttler bowed down to the Spaniard’s form in all three sets, her silver medal was nonetheless an immense achievement for the nation.
THE OLYMPIC TORCH
SO NEAR YET SO FAR IN GYMNASTICS; HOPE REMAINS
Dipa Karmakar (August 9, 1993) in her bare feet may only stand 4 feet 11-inches tall – but the girl from Tripura is a figure of huge stature for Indian gymnastics. At Rio 2016, Dipa Karmakar became the first woman gymnast to represent the country at an Olympic Games, and inspired many with her huge-hearted performances that left her a whisker away from stepping onto the podium.
Born with a flat foot, a postural deformity considered to be a big detriment for any gymnast, India’s very own ‘Small Wonder’ – as her biography is titled – has always battled to overcome the odds and defy expectations.
Dipa started her formal training in gymnastics when she was just six. Despite having to train at inadequately-equipped gyms growing up, by the age of 14, she had won the Junior Nationals with her eyes firmly set on the international stage.
A part of India’s gymnastics contingent at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, a teenage Dipa had a close-up view of Ashish Kumar’s displays which captured India’s first-ever gymnastics medals at the Commonwealth Games.
From this point Dipa began to earn a reputation not only as a vault specialist, but as someone able to successfully land the most renowned – and feared – vaults of all: the Produnova. Also known as the ‘vault of death’, the Produnova is considered one of the most difficult moves to execute in gymnastics and involves a handspring followed by two and half somersaults.
The risk – and reward – comes because it takes such effort to gain sufficient height in order to land the vault cleanly.
Indeed, Dipa Karmakar is one of only five women ever to have executed it successfully, with the vault launching her onto the podium at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow as she won bronze.
Her Olympic exploits saw her return home a hero, honoured with the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award and the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian award.