Forward march!

Overview

Indian athletes’ spectacular performances in the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games dominated most of 2018. The success stories of young and unheralded champions warmed the hearts of a country starved of sporting excellence. Ahead of the 2020 Olympics, their achievements have raised hopes and expectations.

With the two major multi-sport events on the calendar, the year was tough for the athletes, but rewarding too. The rise of youngsters on the big stages captured the imagination of the nation. Be it javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, teenaged quarter-miler Hima Das, paddler Manika Batra, or shooting prodigies Manu Bhaker, Anish Bhanwala, Mehuli Ghosh, Saurabh Chaudhary and Elavenil Valarivan, their thrilling feats kept Indian sports chugging all year round.

In the first multi-sport event of the year, Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, India finished third with 66 medals that included 26 gold. The medal haul was India’s best since 2010, when it hosted the event. In the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, India bagged 15 golds in a record haul of 69 medals.

For many, the two events became a turning point in their careers. Manika Batra announced her arrival with a superb performance in the Commonwealth Games, where she bagged medals in all four events in the competition, finishing with 2 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze. Her gold in the individual event was the first by an Indian woman. She also shocked world number four and triple Olympic medallist, Feng Tianwei of Singapore twice in the tournament. Indian paddlers bagged a rich haul of eight medals.

It was, though, just the start of a historic year for table tennis. India, who had never won a medal in Asian Games, returned with two bronze medals in the men’s team event and in the mixed doubles event-featuring Sharath Kamal and Manika. Manika rounded off the year by becoming the first Indian to win the Breakthrough Star award at the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) awards in Incheon.

If table tennis broke perceptions, Indian athletics enhanced its reputation in the Asian Games with seven gold in a total of 19 medals, which was the most in any sport by the nation. Leading the Indian charge was javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, who became the first athlete since Milkha Singh to win a gold at the Commonwealth Games as well as the Asian Games. 

His throw of 88.06m at the Asiad was a new national record while the 20-year-old also finished fourth in the prestigious Diamond League Series by accumulating 17 points, the first Indian to achieve the feat.

The 18-year-old Hima Das grabbed the spotlight with an unprecedented show. Hailing from an obscure district of Dhing in Assam, Hima became the first Indian to win a track gold in the World Under-20 Championships. She clocked 51.46 seconds in a scintillating run in the women’s 400m final to enter the history books.

Hima kept up her performances in the Asiad where she won two silver and a gold. Like Hima, the tale of young Swapna Barman from Jalpaiguri, too touched the hearts. The 22-year-old became the first Indian to win the gold in women’s heptathlon in the Asiad despite a strained right hamstring and a terrible toothache. Also making waves was triple jumper Arpinder Singh, who emerged the first Indian to clinch a medal in the IAAF Continental Cup with a bronze. There were also national records by the likes of Dutee Chand (women’s 100m), Mohd Anas (men’s 400m), Jinson Johnson (men’s 1500m) and M Sreeshanker (men’s long jump).

Cases of doping continued to rock Indian sport with Asian champion quarter-miler Nirmala Sheoran among those returning positives for banned substances.

It was a year of high for wrestlers, highlighted by the sparkling performance of Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat, who won gold medals in both CWG and Asian Games. Vinesh missed out on the World Championships due to injury while Bajrang fought his way to a silver and ended the season as the World No 1. Pooja Dhanda, who won a silver in CWG, continued her good show with a bronze in Worlds.

Shooting rediscovered itself through teenaged talents, who kept delivering at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the Youth Olympic Games. Indeed, the march of the young brigade was the tale of the year even as seniors like Heena Sidhu, Rahi Sarnobat and Sanjeev Rajput came up with steady performances.

Shubhankar Sharma kept Indian golf in the news by breaking new ground. The 22-year-old won the Maybank Championship in Malaysia before going on to notch two top-20s on the PGA Tour including a creditable T-9 at the WGC-Mexico Championship. He then made history by competing in all four Majors in on his debut year and was named the Rookie of the Year on European Tour.

Champion cueist Pankaj Advani too enhanced his stature by extending his overall tally of world titles to 21.

Boxers notched their best ever show in CWG while in Asiad, Amit Panghal grabbed the eyeballs by winning the gold by defeating reigning Olympic champ and World Championship silver medalist Hasanboy Dusmatov in men’s 49 kg. However, it was Mary Kom who eclipsed all the boxing feats by clinching her sixth World medal in front of her home crowd. The 35-year-old Magnificent Mary had also clinched the gold in the CWG.

Success stories were hard to come by in badminton. While Kidambi Srikanth created history by becoming World No 1 for a brief period, Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu scripted new success stories even as titles remained out of reach in many events. Saina showed she was far from finished when she beat Sindhu to win the CWG gold medal.

Saina also won bronze in the Asiad, where Sindhu won the silver to become the first Indian to do so. After another silver at the World Championships, Sindhu finally ended the ‘finals’ jinx’ to clinch gold at the World Tour Finals.

In tennis, Rohan Bopanna finally struck gold at the Asian Games, partnering Divij Sharan in men’s doubles. Also, Leander Paes became the most successful doubles player in Davis Cup history by winning his 43rd match in the competition.

Chess saw the birth of a new star in 12-year-old Praggnanandhaa, who became the world’s second youngest Grandmaster in June.

It was a disappointing year for Indian men’s hockey. They didn’t win a medal at the Commonwealth Games and settled for a bronze in the Asiad, where they were the defending champions. Their shock defeat to Malaysia in the Asian Games semifinals blew up the golden chance of direct Olympic qualification. India, who had reached the final of the Champions Trophy earlier in the year, then made a quarterfinal exit in the World Cup staged at home last month. The women’s team, on the other hand, returned with a bronze in CWG and a silver in the Asiad. They, however, finished eighth in the World Cup.

Despite these setbacks, it was an encouraging year for Indian sport ahead of the all-important 2020 Olympics. 

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