The year was 1958 and India had never won gold at the CWG, in the previous three editions they had participated in. The only medal was a bronze medal from wrestler Rashid Anwar in 1934. Two decades later, Milkha Singh burst onto the scene and certainly had the potential to face the best in the world.
That’s exactly what happened in the iconic 440m final at the Cardiff Games, where the ‘Flying Sikh’ won India’s first gold medal at the event, coming out on top. about South Africa’s Malcolm Spence, who two years later beat Singh to the bronze medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Just looking at the level of competition at the CWG at the time, naturally, it was one of the greatest sporting achievements of independent India, one that is celebrated till now. It could also have gone a long way in instilling in Indian athletes, across all sports, a belief in winning at least at the CWG level, which can be seen in the results we are generating these days at the Games.
Then there was youngster Prakash Padukone, who put India on the badminton map with his 1978 victory over World Championship silver medalist Derek Talbot in the final. 1982 saw Syed Modi repeat Padukone’s feat, to win gold again in men’s singles, kicking off a sports culture in India, the successes of which we build on to this day.
The contribution of the CWG to the development of the sport of shooting cannot be forgotten either, as it was only after Ashok Pandit’s first ever gold medal at the Brisbane Games that India became a powerhouse, at least among the former British colonies, adding 62 golds. after that, just behind Australia’s total of 70. It was only after winning several medals here that people like Rajyavardhan Rathore, Abhinav BindraGagan Narang and Vijay Kumar won their respective Olympic medals.
But since all good things don’t last forever, at least in sports, the development or boost that CWG gave to Indian athletes up until about the last decade is nowhere to be found now. Regardless of the sport, Indian champions at CWG level often struggle to take their form to Olympic level, one would wonder why. It just gives rise to a debate whether and if Indian athletes and fans should attach any significance to the global event.
Let’s resume filming. In the 2018 edition, India won seven gold, four silver and five bronze medals in the sport, surpassing the medal tally. But this performance was for naught in the 2020 Olympics as none of the Indian shooters won a medal there. In fact, none of the medalists from other countries have won the Olympics, which raises some questions about the level of competition we envision. The 2014 CWG was no different, in terms of results for Indian shooters, having won medals in heaps and then failing to grab eyeballs at the Rio Olympics two years later. The Glasgow Games produced only one Olympic medalist two years later, England’s Steven Scott in the men’s trapping event.
It’s a separate story, that the shot is omitted from the 2022 and 2026 editions, but India fighting for its inclusion only shows our fixation on medals being worthless. In the past, AIO General Secretary Rajeev Mehta and former Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju had both threatened to withdraw from the Games, if shooting was not included. All this, for a sport where there is enough competition for Indian shooters to compete against the best shooters, in a tougher environment than the CWG.
Another sport, boxing turns out to be a bigger disappointment. 2020 was the year boxing fans nationwide thought 2018 CWG medalists like Amit Panghal, Manish Kaushik, Vikas Krishan and Manoj Kumar would impress at the Olympics, but they didn’t. In the women’s section, Mary Kom couldn’t do much either. 2014 CWG led to an even bigger flop at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Shiva Thapa lost in the round of 16 at the CWG, Manoj in the quarterfinals and Vikas in the preliminary quarters, made it to the Olympics and, of course, didn’t do enough there either. Meanwhile, 2014 medalists — Vijender Singh, Mandeep Jangraand Devendro didn’t make the India squad in 2016.
It just shows the level of competition that currently exists at the CWG level (the sports in which India has a greater presence) and how (hope that’s not true) we are happy to win the medals here. While in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the sport and winning medals at the Olympics, the actions have not quite matched the intention displayed by the authorities. Huge rewards for winning a CWG medal may have only taken the appetite out of athletes to do well and go for the Olympics. In 2018, the government of Haryana had announced a cash prize of INR 1 cr for gold medalists, 50 lakh for silver and 25 lakh for bronze; no less than 22 athletes have benefited from this program, and later only Neeraj Chopra and Bajrang Punia won medals at the 2020 Olympics, from this list (excluding players from the men’s hockey team) .
While India are usually ranked in the top 5 nations in the CWG medal tally, again that means next to nothing… Australia practically send a ‘B’ team, as do England, and yet for our best athletes, the Games are nothing less than a festival, where even sometimes beating these players becomes a task. 2010 Delhi CWG, India finished with 101 medals, second only to Australia, which made many of us believe that a major change was imminent, with the government pouring money into infrastructure, players and other important keys to success.
But 12 years later, where are we, that’s the question we have to ask ourselves. Swimming is a classic case. Countries like Zimbabwe, Papua New Guinea and Kenya each have one gold medal, while Jamaica has three silver medals and as many bronze. Where is India — just a bronze medal from Prasanta Karmakar at the 2010 Games, in the S9 category of the 50m freestyle.
In recent editions, the CWG has also seen some of the best players in the world skip the competition for different reasons. Some of the names that easily come to mind are Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake skip the 2010 Games, except for the likes of Mo Farah, Andy Murray and Lleyton Hewitt. While in 2014, Bolt once again decided to stay off the track in his favorite events, and focused solely on the 4x100m relay, to avoid injury. It just shows the mindset of foreign athletes towards the CWG and decide to skip the event, to maybe culminate in other big events. Undoubtedly, something similar should also be on the minds of our athletes.
Taking a cue from what top CWG nations are doing, Indians are also expected to focus on developing sports where vast improvements are needed. In fact, excluding shooting and wrestling in future events, there should be a push for sports like swimming, gymnastics, and track and field. And if no noticeable improvement is seen in the last three editions, in the next two editions, someone will have to answer, “if the Commonwealth Games are really necessary”?
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