On the surface, India had a great outing at the two big multi-sport events of 2018. At the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, the Indian athletes accumulated their third highest number of gold medals while at the Asian Games later in the year, India’s tally of 69 medals was the highest ever that the country had won. But the surface is rarely enough while talking about sporting events in which numerous countries compete for glory across disciplines. The reality is, while there were plaudits, rightfully so, there were many whose performances invited brickbats.
Commonwealth Games, Gold Coast 2018
India finished with 66 medals of which 26 were gold. In terms of the number of gold medals, this was India’s third highest tally, trailing the 30 collected at Manchester 2002 and 38 at New Delhi in 2010. 22 of these medallists came from Haryana alone.
In 2018, India seemed to have chanced upon a treasure trove of talent in shooting and a part of this came to the fore in Gold Coast. 16 medals, including seven golds came from the shooting range but they would go on to take centre stage later in the year in Indonesia. Weightlifting and wrestling were also productive fields while a new frontier was opened with the Indian table tennis contingent toppling Singapore from the top of the table. Singapore have held undisputed sway over the sport at the CWG since it was introduced in 2002. Manika Batra alone won four medals, which prompted many to start saying ‘if she was a country then she would have been ranked…’
Many in the country woke up to the likes of Neeraj Chopra, and Bajrang Punia due to their performances at Gold Coast. However, the latter, and Indian wrestlers in general, had to take their victories with a pinch of salt due to the weakened competition that they get at the CWG. Punia himself was pretty dismissive of his gold medal, saying that the final, and indeed all of his bouts at Gold Coast, were “nothing compared” to what he does in training. Sakshi Malik won a bronze and her reaction to that medal was almost the opposite of the unfiltered glee at the 2016 Olympics.
India also broke the Malaysian hegemony over badminton. The women’s singles final was a mouth-watering clash between PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal, which the latter went on to dramatically win. The Indian boxers also won big, with three golds and as many silvers and bronzes each coming from the field.
The Indian men’s hockey team could not repeat the silver medal they won at Glasgow 2014. In fact, they came back without a medal and a coach with Sjoerd Marijne being sent back to the women’s team in a bizarre decision. The women’s team also finished fourth but that was an improvement on their performance in Glasgow.
Asian Games, Jakarta/Palembang 2018
In Jakarta/Palembang, India won 69 medals, out of which eight were gold. In terms of total medals won, this was India’s best ever performance, surpassing the previous best of 65 at Guangzhou 2010.
The standout was India’s performance in the athletics field: Out of 19 medals won, 7 were gold. This is an improvement on 13 and 2 respectively from Incheon 2014.
Indian athletes faced criticism in the past for failing to put in their best in big events but here, Neeraj Chopra, Hima Das, Dharun Ayyasamy and Tejinder Singh Toor all ended up setting national records. Swapna Barman battled the blinding pain arising from a tooth infection, an extra toe and the rigors of her lung-busting sport to win India’s first-ever gold medal in heptathlon.
In terms of numbers, by no means is this India’s best return in athletics – 34 medals had come in this field at the inaugural 1951 Games off which 10 were gold. But the difference in the level of competition between 1951 and 2018 is enough to put India’s performance in Jakarta on a higher pedestal.
Team events were scrapped from shooting for this year and it was there that India had won five out of the nine medals that came from the sport at Incheon 2014. So, the individuals (teenagers) stepped up to fill the gap. India won nine medals in shooting, including two golds and three of these were won by teenagers – Saurabh Chaudhary (gold, men’s 10m air pistol), Lakshay Sheoran (silver, men’s trap) and Shardul Vihan (silver, men’s double trap). Rahi Sarnobat (women’s 25m pistol) became the first Indian woman to win gold at the Asian Games.
Any skepticism that came with the Indian table tennis contingent’s success in Gold Coast was wiped off with the two bronze medals that they won in Jakarta. Among the wrestlers, Vinesh Phogat and Barang Punia – both of whom trained under foreign coaches outside the country – may have won gold but the rest hardly looked like contenders in the tournament. This is a matter of concern for India ahead of Tokyo 2020.
Women’s hockey was a competitive field with the likes of Japan, China and South Korea all competing. Despite this, India reached the final for the first time in 20 years. The men’s team turned in a schizophrenic performance. They scored truckloads of goals against lower ranked opposition, even beating Hong Kong by a record margin of 26-0, but crashed at the first sighting of competition. The 2014 champions settled for a bronze after losing the semifinal to Malaysia and then beating Pakistan.
A gold in men’s kabaddi is something that India used to take for granted at the Games before 2014 when Iran gave them a proper scare in the final. In 2018 the men’s team, filled with household names thanks to the glitzy Pro Kabaddi, lost a match for the very first time in the history of the Games. This defeat came in what turned out to be an inconsequential group stage game against South Korea. They went on to lose to Iran in the semi-final and this one had consequences. The loss meant that the Indian men’s team missed out on a gold for the first time in 28 years. The women’s team failed to win a hat-trick of gold medals by losing in the final to Iran.
The boxers went to Jakarta with a lot of expectations riding on them due to their performance at the CWG. They returned with just two medals, one of which was a gold won by Amit Panghal.
Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu were the torchbearers in what was otherwise a dark outing for the Indian badminton contingent. The sport has always been a tough field for India and dominated by the Chinese and South Koreans for nearly 36 years at the Asian Games. Sindhu became the first Indian woman to win a silver in badminton at the Asiad.
Archery was supposed to be a field that reaped rewards for India but the team continued its penchant for choking in the big tournaments. Two silvers came from compound archery. But its status as a non-Olympic discipline reduces its relevance significantly.