One of India’s top Commonwealth Games weightlifters won a gold in Birmingham, but finished a whole 29 kg behind what would have earned him a bronze at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. The snatch and clean and jerk total for gold at Tokyo was a staggering 50 kg away from his reach. When a fast food chain offered to indulge the lifter’s post-Games craving for deep-fried chicken wings — to honour his gold with a well-deserved cheat day treat — one wondered if it was two years too early to, well, count the chickens.
Paris 2024 will be upon India’s freshly minted medalists in no time — although it was champion lifter Mirabai Chanu, who tugged at the timeline, bringing it even closer and signalling that the Tashkent World Championships this December would be the quickest reality check for lifters who raked in medals at Birmingham.
As seen in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings — which drew on Birmingham’s landscape for inspiration — it’s one thing to bear the precious ring, and quite another to carry it on the arduous journey to its culmination. Ask any of India’s Olympic medal-winning incumbents and they’ll tell you that the CWG and Asiad are only pit stops to the biggest Games medal. The climb to the peak of Mount Doom, where Olympic medals are forged out of countless struggles, begins where the CWG celebratory parades end.
Indian sport can put the happy headlines into any meaningful perspective only by firmly stating that the CWG successes are merely halfway markers to Paris. A necessary reboot from quietened ambitions for the likes of pugilist Amit Panghal or wrestler Vinesh Phogat after their Tokyo disappointments, the CWG gold was second wind for someone like Sakshi Malik, who had battled debilitating self-doubt post her bronze medal in Rio six years ago. For India’s jumpers — gold-winning Eldhose Paul, silver medallists Abdulla Aboobacker and Murali Sreeshankar and bronze winner Tejaswin Shankar — Birmingham reignited the flaming hope for a medal 20 years after Anju Bobby George had lit one twilight evening in Athens.
His CWG success extends the surreal journey of paddler Sharath Kamal. The limits of longevity and peak performance will be tested by the TT legend who will be an eye-popping 42 should he qualify for Paris. Birmingham scripted the tale of the indefatigable legend, who you hope desperately will succeed in his unreal pursuit of an Olympic medal. The CWG dented the invincibility of Kenyan dominance in steeplechase, and Avinash Sable’s silver will give India the crazy-sounding hope of a Paris encore. The Kenyan running trio were properly spooked by the track-chomping Indian; now he’s tasted blood, he wants a bite of the gold in two years’ time.
Srihari Nataraj thrice raced the biggies of backstroke for the swimming finals in the outer, unfancied lanes of the Sandwell Aquatics centre. There was no medal to show, but India is finally taking the holy dip into the mother sport of aquatics, with a serious push expected in Paris, following the breakthroughs for gymnastics in Rio, and track and field in Tokyo. Olympics medals in swimming are not even vaguely visible on the horizon. But the realisation that the sport is a mine of medals and India ought to get a move on in it should suffice as Paris starts to creep up.
Nikhat Zareen’s gold was another reassuring medal, not for the quality of competition she came up against, but because it’s important for fighters like her to make good their pre-Games claims, to walk the talk, to add wattage to the World Championship halo. Nikhat counts as one of India’s earliest medal hopes for Paris, though she knows she has miles to go and many tricks to internalise, before nailing down the big one.
India’s women’s hockey team continue to save their best for the best, Australia, and the loss notwithstanding, the bronze medal makes them the most exciting bunch of athletes to follow into Paris. The 7-0 drubbing suffered by the men in the final best signifies the wicked, weltering wizardry of the CWG: With two years to go for Paris, it is a fine reality check for what lies ahead. The bronze from Tokyo is the precious ring that’ll feel burdensome with each step towards 2024. Birmingham was where the joyless wretch Gollum crept up to them and stole their Tokyo cheer. It is now two years to Paris.