Asian Games 2018: India had historic outing in Indonesia, but now is time to reflect on what remains to be achieved

From javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra’s truly world class effort and a surprising but well-deserved bronze medals from the table tennis squad headlined the most successful Indian campaign in Asian Games history

G Rajaraman September 03, 2018 17:25:56 IST
Asian Games 2018: India had historic outing in Indonesia, but now is time to reflect on what remains to be achieved

A lump rose in the throat as the Asian Games Flame was extinguished at the GBK Main Stadium on a rainy Sunday evening. As irony would have it, thunder and lightning ushered in the sound and light show to bring the curtain down on the 18th edition of the continental festival of sport; it was just as emotional to watch Rani Rampal carry the Tricolour at the athletes’ parade.

Even as the colourful closing ceremony wound a memorable Games down, the Indians in the audience chose their own freeze-frames to latch on to. From javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra’s truly world class effort and a surprising but well-deserved bronze medals from the table tennis squad headlined the most successful Indian campaign in Asian Games history.

Yet to think of this as an indication of India becoming a sporting nation would be to miss the woods for the trees. There is a lot of work left to be done to achieve that, even if the country has been moving in the direction of its choice. Some have seen this as the emergence of India as a sporting powerhouse. Suffice to say that India is eighth on the Asian Games medals table.

Asian Games 2018 India had historic outing in Indonesia but now is time to reflect on what remains to be achieved

Gold medallist India's Neeraj Chopra celebrates during the victory ceremony for the men's javelin throw athletics event during the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. AFP

The flame was extinguished, but the experience of the Asian Games will have ignited many fires among those who came to Indonesia but missed out on medals. Yet, if the past fortnight has sparked many more dreams among younger Indians, eager to embark on the difficult but endearing journey to excellence, the campaign will have succeeded beyond the 69 medals that India won.

The track and field team topped the charge with 7 gold, 10 silver and 2 bronze medals while shooting gave India its youngest gold medallist in 10m air pistol shooter Saurabh Chaudhary, 15, and its first gold medal winning woman in Rahi Sarnobat accounted for 40 per cent of India’s 69 medals from 18 different disciplines and more than half its 15 gold medals.

Some traditional sports have taken a solid beating, not the least being kabaddi. For a nation that claims to have invented it, India lost its grip on Asian Games gold medals to Iran, the men losing 18-27 in the semifinals and the women being beaten 24-27 in their final. Team selection and the choice of the support staff were questioned before the Games, raising some doubts.

Even if they gave India its first and last gold medals at the Asian Games in Indonesia, wrestling and boxing will concede that they need to get their focus sharper if they are to win more medals in the Asian Games. Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phoghat lived up to expectations as India’s leading freestyle grapplers while Amit Panghal surprised a few in winning the 49kg boxing gold.

It can be said that weightlifting was not expected to pick up any medals after world champion Mirabai Chanu decided to pull out owing to a recurring back problem. Rakhi Halder was expected to put India on the charts with a good effort in the women’s 63kg class but came a cropper at her opening weight (93kg) in snatch and ended up with a DNF against her name.

There is no question that the handball teams should not have been cleared by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. The men’s squad finished 12th of the 15 teams, winning matches of little consequence against Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia, and the women losing all their matches to be 10th and last.

The show-jumping team did little to justify the Equestrian Federation of India’s determined bid to convince the IOA to re-consider its decision to not clear that squad. And, while the Indian Kayaking and Canoeing Association secured entries for the Traditional Boat teams after the last date for entries by name had passed, the athletes did not exactly cover themselves with glory.

The National Sports Federations running Gymnastics, Taekwondo, Archery and Golf are not recognised by the Ministry and hence the IOA had to be seen as overseeing the selection process in association with the Sports Authority of India. These sports delivered two silver medals, both won by the compound archery teams.

Curiously, Akshay Kumar (over 80kg class) and Kashish Malik (women’s 57kg class) who moved the Delhi High Court and convinced a one-man committee – Rahul Bhatnagar, Secretary Sports, MYAS – that they had the credentials to do well in the Games were the only Indians who won at least a round and made it to the quarterfinals of their respective divisions.

There has to be some introspection in badminton and hockey as well. But there appears a marked reluctance to venture into that domain. The-matches-could-have-gone-either-way refrain kept echoing each time an attempt was made to solicit answers from those who have run Indian badminton for some years now.

PV Sindhu’s silver and Saina Nehwal’s bronze in women’s badminton singles is all that the 20-member squad had to show. The teams as well the men’s singles stars Srikanth Kidambi and HS Prannoy fell at the first serious hurdle they face. Of the doubles pairs, Ashwini Ponappa and Sikki Reddy extended their stay till the quarterfinals in the women’s draw.

The men’s hockey team was shocked by Malaysia in a semifinal that should never have got into a shootout, especially with India leading 2-1 with less than two minutes to go for the hooter. The victory over Pakistan, achieved 48 hours later in the bronze medal play-off, was perhaps one way to salvage some pride. The women did well to get to the final where they lost to Japan.

Asian Games 2018 India had historic outing in Indonesia but now is time to reflect on what remains to be achieved

Malaysia's team jubilate after winning agaisnt India during their men's hockey semi-final match at the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta. Reuters

For teams that had set out as favourites for the crown on the basis of their recent form – the men had finished runner-up in the FIH Champions Trophy while the women’s team had raised hoped after making it to the quarterfinals – they return home with less precious metal than they were expected to secure. Given Hockey India’s own recent form, you can expect a review soon.

Enough of the disappointments? Okay, let us then look at India’s big gains from the Asian Games.

The nation must value the two table tennis bronze medals higher than silver or even gold earned in some disciplines. The men’s team, led by Gnansekharan Sathiyan and the ageless Achanta Sharat Kamal, beat Japan to get into the semifinals while the the Sharat Kamal-Manika Batra duo beat South Korean and North Korean pairs to win mixed doubles bronze

The two medals from kurash through Pinky Balhara (silver in women’s 52kg) and Malaprabha Jadhav (bronze in the same class) would have surprised a few. Swimmers Virdhawal Khade and Srihari Nataraj got no medals but showed that it is possible for both the experienced and the young to be motivated and driven to keep improving even where the competition was very intense.

Let’s park such emotions for a moment and reflect a bit.

When the celebratory mood and the feeling of euphoria dissipate, it would be appropriate for the Ministry, IOA and NSFs to come together in the next three months and lay down selection criteria and policy for the next Asian Games. It will allow the Government to channelise the funding of athletes and teams that have a realistic chance of doing the nation proud.

It will eliminate even whispers of horse-trading doing the round in the weeks before the Games, not so speak of horse-trading itself. The Asian Games athlete tag brings along immeasurable value; medals in sport with a handful of participants become eligible for National Sports Awards. All efforts must be made to ensure that only the deserving get these and everything that comes along.

It will help to gain the right perspective and nurture sports in which India has a genuine chance.

The last four months have shown yet again that while Indians can rule in the Commonwealth Games, they remain only in the periphery in the Asian Games. It is important, therefore, for everyone to recognise this disparity and treat the tougher of the two challenges as the benchmark for rewards and awards in each sport. That will keep the fires in bellies stoked.

That is what we saw in freestyle wrestlers Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat. They set off the quest for gold that saw India finish with its best haul of 15 gold medals (matching that of the Indians in the 1951 Asian Games which had six disciplines) and better the Guangzhou 2010 showing of 65 medals by getting 69 this time. We saw that in 49kg class boxer 22-year-old Amit Panghal.

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