It needed a Shah Rukh Khan film (Chak De! India, 2007) to put the focus on Suraj Lata Devi and Mamta Kharab — five years after India’s 2002 Commonwealth Games (CWG) gold in women’s hockey. India had beaten England for the CWG gold then, defeating Australia in the semifinals, and it wasn’t a lightweight achievement.
Except, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) boss, Narinder Batra, now calls the Commonwealth Games a “waste of time” because “the level of competition isn’t high”. His grouse is that India wins anything between 70 and 100 medals at the CWG, but just two at the Olympics — so the conversion is abysmal. India won 57 medals at the Asiad before the 2016 Rio Olympics, but no one talks of dumping that one.
The Indian men’s hockey team has never won a CWG gold. Because, as Batra will notice, Australia tends to be very high competition. The event is not a waste if it has unearthed gems like Ashish Kumar and Dipa Karmakar in gymnastics. Saina Nehwal, Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa’s first flush of finals’ success also came at the CWG, followed by the World Championship and Olympic medals. Manika Batra, with her twin gold performance in table tennis, was a revelation at the CWG Gold Coast. Clearly, the gains — if not squandered — can convert to Olympic success, if everyone concerned maintains perspective.
Here is where Batra’s views are coming from: Sports like shooting, wrestling, weightlifting, and even badminton and table tennis, are low-hanging fruit at the CWG. They rake in a bunch of medals for India, though the player still has to make the effort of actually plucking that fruit.
What needs to be painfully pointed out to the IOA, is that India has had little success to show in what are acknowledged as the Big 3 of sports — track & field, swimming and gymnastics. Hockey has repeatedly exposed India’s weaknesses against high competition and a boxing medal isn’t exactly a cakewalk. India chooses to stay blind to team sports like netball, basketball, beach volleyball and Rugby sevens. But that points to their blinkers, not the low competition available.
India goes medal-grabbing against low competition at the Asian Games too, hoarding gold medals by the dozen there, especially in athletics, and then zero at the Olympics. The takeaway can’t be that we stop competing, especially when — except in badminton and tennis — Indian athletes are competition-shy throughout the year, and will even avoid trials if they can. Kabaddi used to be India’s stomping ground against the low competition until Iran decided they’ll have a mighty chuckle last year: It’ll be foolish to say India should stop going to Asiad.
At the heart of this outrageous idea of junking CWG altogether is the 2022 Birmingham CWG’s decision to drop shooting from the programme, and India throwing a fit — offended that it’ll drop down in the medals tally. “Colonial things” like having no Indian on 13 CWG committees are being mooted as possible reasons to evict a sport that does tend to be clunky and expensive with its infrastructure and, frankly, not quite a darling of television.
Glasgow, where Andy Murray was born, dropped tennis from its 2014 CWG programme, though it is the host nation’s prerogative to pick their sports.
But it is in India’s completely cynical reaction to the shooting being dropped — attributing racism and colonialism to the decision — that the debate got really muddied. It might still be some brinkmanship ahead of the Commonwealth Games Federation chief’s India visit in November, but it appears a plan is being made to basically sit at home with a mighty sulk.
Great sporting nations don’t sulk. They get cracking on the new rules of the game and prove a point on the sports field. This might be a good opportunity to make up for all the years of lagging behind in swimming, gymnastics and athletics — where high standards are available at the CWG; start building teams in more mainstream and popular sports; and, not remain myopic and hung up on medals that won’t come this time around from shooting.
For non-Olympic squash players like Dipika Pallikal, Joshna Chinappa and Saurav Ghosal, the CWG is as big as it gets. And, the IOA might want to leave it to the likes of Rani Rampaul and Lalremsiami in hockey and cricketers like Harmanpreet Kaur, Jemimah Rodrigues to get on with their unfinished business with England.
The hockey players have high standards — set 20 years ago by Suraj Lata’s team — to match. And the cricketers (Women’s T20 is set to debut at Birmingham) would want a shot at the inaugural CWG title, beating England in the finals hopefully. If Batra would only notice, India’s men and women tend to be good at “colonial things” like settling scores on the field: Parupalli Kashyap was playing out of his skin against England’s Rajeev Ouseph in the semifinals at Glasgow in 2014, before going on to win the finals. The IOA, meanwhile, was famously trying to secure the release of some reckless Indian officials who were caught by Scotland police authorities for some allegedly embarrassing activities. CWG is for the athletes.
This article was first published on September 28, 2019 in the print edition under the title ‘Of sour grapes’. firstname.lastname@example.org
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines