2018 saw the emergence of talented, young sportspersons from across the country. We take a look at the faces and stories that were ahead of the game.
If 2017 was about the fairytale rise of Indian women’s cricket, which saw the team reach the finals of the coveted ICC World Cup for the first time, 2018 was about podium finishes in non-cricket sports, and the emergence of talented, young sportspersons from remote corners of the country.
This year witnessed two marquee sporting events – the Commonwealth Games held in Gold Coast, Australia, and the Asian Games that took place in Indonesia.
India finished third at the Commonwealth Games with 66 medals (26 Gold, 20 Silver and 20 Bronze) in what was its third best display in the history of the Games. At the Asian Games, India’s medal tally stood at 69 (15 Gold, 24 Silver and 30 Bronze). It was the country’s best-ever haul in the history of the Games. India also equalled its highest-ever gold tally of 15 metals.
Many performers across many events — wrestling, shooting, boxing, javelin throw, table tennis, weightlifting, athletics, etc. — grabbed eyeballs for their grit and determination that took them past the finishing line. But, some stood out and went on to become hashtags on Twitter and cover faces of magazines – both measures of their expanding presence in public consciousness.
Hima Das (athletics)
Eighteen-year-old Hima Das made history at the Asian Games when she finished her 400m race in 50.79 seconds to win Gold. (This is also a national record now.) Prior to that, in July, she became the first Indian athlete to win Gold at a track event at the IAAF World U20 Championships. What made her achievement all the more stunning was the fact that for the most part of the sprint, she ran slow, picking up pace only in the final 100m and overtaking three opponents to breeze past the finishing line. ‘She can see the line. She can see history’ beamed the on-air commentator as Hima became the first Indian – man or woman – to win gold in a track event at the world level.
She has now been appointed as Assam’s (her home state) brand ambassador for sports. She was also conferred with the Arjuna Award in September. In November, UNICEF appointed her as India’s first ever Youth Ambassador. In this role, Hima would be working towards raising awareness about children’s rights. She was recently featured on the cover of Vogue India’s Women of the Year 2018 too.
Neeraj Chopra (javelin throw)
Twenty-year-old Neeraj Chopra became the first Indian javelin thrower to win Gold at the Asian Games when he set a national record of 88.06m. He became only the second Indian to win a medal in javelin throw in the history of the Asian Games (Gurtej Singh had won bronze in 1982). Neeraj was also the flag-bearer for India at the opening ceremony of the Games. At the Commonwealth Games too earlier in the year he’d bagged gold.
He has been described as a “once-in-a-generation talent” by his former coach Garry Calvert, and someone India is pinning medal hopes on for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Neeraj, who hails from a Haryana village, also happens to be a Junior Commissioned Officer in the Indian Army. He has held the rank of Naib Subedar since 2016.
Swapna Barman (heptathlon)
Swapna Barman’s tale is as poignant as it is brilliant. The 21-year-old heptathlete battled a knee injury, a disc bulge, and a tooth infection, to win gold at the Women’s Heptathlon event at Asian Games 2018 – the first Indian to do so. She notched up 6,026 points in the seven events, winning high jump and javelin throw, and finishing second in long jump and shot put.
Soon after her Gold medal, stories of her struggles with six toes and ill-fitting shoes made news. Swapna, who hails from the hill town of Jalpaiguri in Bengal, had to work in a tea garden to make ends meet. Hence, getting customised shoes made for her athletic pursuits remained an unfulfilled dream. In August, after her historic success at the Asian Games, the Bengal government awarded her a cash prize of Rs 10 lakh and a job. Swapna is now supported by the GoSports Foundation through the Rahul Dravid Athlete Mentorship Programme.
Manika Batra (table tennis)
Manika Batra became the first Indian woman to win gold in the women’s singles table tennis at the Commonwealth Games when she lorded over her Singaporean opponent in straight sets. This victory came just a day after Manika had won silver in the women’s doubles event. The 23-year-old paddler holds the distinction of picking up a medal in every single event she was a part of at CWG 2018, adding majorly to India’s rich tally of table tennis medals.
Later, at the Asian Games in Jakarta, she won Bronze in the Mixed Doubles category. Delhi-based Manika is currently the top-ranked women’s table tennis player in India, and made it to the cover of Femina in July. In September, she was conferred the Arjuna Award.
Anish Bhanwala (shooting)
Fifteen-year-old Anish Bhanwala became India’s youngest-ever Gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games, when he won the men’s 25m rapid fire pistol event. Haryana-bred Anish has been a part of the Indian Shooting Team since 2017, and has represented the country at the ISSF Junior World Championship 2017 (where he won five individual medals), the ISSF Junior World Cup 2018, and so on. Anish, touted as the “pistol sensation”, has made it to five senior teams already.
Besides his international achievements, he has won 15 National Championship medals, including 10 golds, in all three age-groups – youth, junior and senior.
Dutee Chand (athletics)
Dutee Chand ended India’s 20-year-long wait for a medal in women’s 100m sprint when she picked up silver at the 2018 Asian Games. The 22-year-old athlete from Odisha has had a chequered past. She was suspended by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in 2014 on grounds of hyperandrogenism (a medical condition where excess male hormones are secreted in a woman’s body) that made her ineligible to compete as a female athlete. Dutee fought a successful battle in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and was cleared for participation in 2015.
Dutee went on to represent India at the 2016 Rio Olympics, becoming only the third woman from the country to participate in the women’s 100m race. At the 2018 Asian Games, she also won a silver in the 200m sprint. Dutee is presently employed as an executive officer in the State-owned Odisha Mining Corporation.
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