India’s lesson from CWG: Diversify sports. The eight medals in athletics is a landmark moment

The gold sweep in badminton on the final day marked the beginning of India’s dominance in the sport at the CWG, ending Malaysia’s decades-long stranglehold. The other big splash – even though there were no medals – came in the pool, where Srihari Nataraj’s twin backstroke final appearances point to a promising future. But the most significant gain of all was seen in athletics.

The one gold, four silver and three bronze medals is India’s best showing in CWG track and field on foreign soil. And much like Neeraj Chopra’s gold at the Tokyo Olympics, the performance on the bright blue tracks and lush green fields of the Alexander Stadium will be India’s biggest takeaway from Birmingham.

The eight athletics medals might be half of what shooting – India’s golden goose at the CWG – fetched four years ago, but they seem no less in worth. Unlike shooting, athletics is one of the few sports at the CWG with a high competition level – the entry list is littered with names of athletes who are either world or continental champions.

Watched it on loop over and over again. What a champion, Avinash Sable. Hats off for a remarkable race.
That’s the reason where he gave a mighty scare to the all-conquering Kenyans – is more significant than, say, a Ravi Dahiya gold medal in wrestling, a sport where the level of competition is much higher at the trials to select the Indian team for the CWG than the Games themselves.

The success in athletics will also serve as another reminder for India to keep diversifying into more sports rather than putting all their eggs in one or two baskets, especially at the CWG. The Commonwealth Games programme is evolving faster than even the Olympic one, with some radical changes proposed for the next edition in Victoria, Australia.

Its consequence is that along with shooting, wrestling – a sport in which India won 12 medals, including 6 golds, in Birmingham – too finds itself on the chopping block for the 2026 Games. In such a scenario, India will have to identify other sources for medals to match their current tally, let alone surpass it.

Speaking to before the Commonwealth Games, player-turned-administrator Manisha Malhotra had underlined the need for India to start looking beyond shooting and wrestling for medals. “You can’t keep sticking only to shooting, wrestling, archery for medals,” she had said. “You’ll never pass the medal tally you aspire to if you don’t look at new sports and infuse money into new sports.”

Malhotra had a point. Athletics, swimming, cycling, gymnastics, wrestling, and canoeing, between them, account for 171 gold medals, 50 percent of the total medals on offer at the Olympics. The US, China, Russia and other top Olympic nations follow a strategy to channel all their energy into these heavy-medal sports for a major chunk of their tallies. Of the six, India can only claim to be a serious player globally in wrestling.

In this context, the medals in track and field make one rub their hands in anticipation. Eldhose Paul’s giant leap of 17.03m to win the triple jump gold could’ve seen him finish sixth at the Tokyo Games. If he adds half a metre to his personal best, he could well be among the medals at the World Championships or the Olympics.

The showman that he is, by declaring that he’ll compete in decathlon at next year’s Asian Games rather than the high jump, an event in which he won India’s first-ever medal at the CWG. That will open another door for India’s athletes.

And it isn’t just at the CWG. At the under-20 World Championships, which ran parallelly in Cali, Colombia, the coming-of-age performances of the junior athletes have given a glimpse into what the future might hold. The days when India’s athletes turned up at major events to be embarrassingly poor seem to be a thing of the past.

Although it will remain as the overarching storyline, Birmingham 2022 wasn’t just about India’s track and field exploits.

The last 10 days were about a peerless Sharath Kamal continuing to pocket gold medals 16 years after winning his first; they were about a ragtag bunch of athletes – police constables, government officers and teachers – making the entire country sit up and take notice of a sport, lawn bowls, that was largely dismissed as a relic of the Commonwealth; they were also about some timely reassurances, like the one provided by the women’s hockey team, whose bronze medal showed they remain on the right path since taking off at the Tokyo Olympics despite recent bumps.

Looking at the bigger picture, vis-à-vis the Olympics, it’s these little gains that actually count. And from that point of view, the 61 medals may be five fewer than in 2018 but the 22 gold, 16 silver and 23 bronze medals mark progression, rather than regression, from the previous Games.

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