2022 started as the last two years had ended - the world and the country under the cloud of COVID-19. Masks on, sport continued to exist inside bubbles before the virus (seemingly) relented and the world opened up again. Friends and family were visited, stadiums were filled, sport was finally played out to the one soundtrack that fully captures its essence: the collective serenading of its fans.
It was a solid year for Indian sport on the field; the ideal chaser to the stiff drink of hope and joy that was the Olympic year that preceded it. And as has been the case for a while, it was India's women who led the charge.
Nikhat Zareen became a World Champion. And then a Commonwealth Games champion. Her fingernails decorated in the tricolour and a dash of gold, she skipped into the shoes of an all-time great who had once dismissed her for the affront of challenging for the throne, and claimed it for her own with a nonchalance that bordered on the absurd.
"Listen up world, India's gonna win it all."
Mirabai Chanu, five foot nothing and with a smile that could light up the country, swept the CWG like it meant nothing. "A close competition," they called it. "As long as you discount the Indian." A few months later she'd fly to the other side of the world, and left wrist wrapped in tape, she'd win World Championship silver. Vinesh Phogat overcame demons from within and unrelenting pressure from without to win CWG gold and World Championship bronze. PV Sindhu had a quiet year by her standards, but it was one that included a CWG gold. A crown won while - now we know - nursing a broken foot. Pain? What is that in the face of glory?
Savita Punia, all heart and silent strength, wept after heartbreak in the CWG semifinal... before pulling out another superstar performance to win her team bronze. It was the first medal of any kind for this vintage, a team of women who had inspired India to dream; a bronze that meant so much more. A tournament that could have ended with nothing, a year that could have become a great failure, was closed out to a beautifully off-key chorus of 'suno gaur se duniya walo... sabse aage honge Hindustani'. Listen up world, India's gonna win it all.
In that way, the Commonwealth Games -- an event that was started for the mighty British Empire to show off the power it had once exercised over the world -- served as a reminder of how far Independent India has come. In a sporting sense, at least. Even without shooting, India won 61 medals.
In the athletics stadium, Avinash Sable broke through Kenyan dominance in the steeplechase, Eldhose Paul and Abdulla Aboobacker stood tall on the top two steps of the triple jump podium, and Sreeshankar Murali trusted his father when no one else did and saw that take him to long jump silver. Tejaswin Shankar -- there only because a court of law decided common sense outweighed bureaucratic ego -- won high jump bronze, And then said something that would make any self-respecting middle-class Indian parent weep in joy... he would be taking up a 9-5 job at a big company (Deloitte) outside India (the U.S).
India stunned India by winning lawn bowls gold: four unassuming women propelling themselves and their sport into the national spotlight, smashing stereotypes and perceived prejudices along the way.
40-year-young Sharath Kamal won three golds and a silver as the team he had built hurtled to the top of the CWG tree. In squash, Sourav Ghoshal's tears lay bare a lifetime of emotion, while Dipika Pallikal, a mother now, medalled yet again. In men's hockey, an absolute hiding in the final dulled the gleam of silver, but it was a medal that shone of the progress this team has been making, consistently.
"It's only silver."
Mirabai led a weightlifting team that won 10 medals, Nikhat a boxing squad that won seven and Sindhu a badminton unit that won six medals across five of the six events held.
In wrestling, India won 12 out of 12 possible medals, and came back disappointed because only half were gold. "It was not a great show," said the federation. They didn't need to say it, though, the faces of the athletes who didn't wear yellow spoke a thousand words. Just as disappointed were the Judokas who won 2 silver and 1 bronze - their best ever tally at a Games. The biggest name in the squad, Sushila Devi, looked blankly at this writer after he congratulated her, before saying "It's only silver."
It was a sentiment echoed by Neeraj Chopra, the poster boy of non-cricket Indian sport. He missed the CWG due to injury, but won a historic silver at the World Championships. No Indian has ever done better. But it wasn't enough for the Olympic champion. Great achievement and all that, but.... "It wasn't gold."
How far Indian sport has come.
Before the CWG, before the World Championships, came the Thomas Cup, and India making history in Thailand. Almost the entire men's division of Indian badminton had been written off for a while now, but they rose as one to roar back in style. Lakshya Sen bore great punishment but laid the foundation for everything that came after. Sat-Chi danced and sang and cheered and then played their hearts out. Leading the team, though, were two experienced athletes who had often been mocked for flaking when it mattered most. HS Prannoy and Kidambi Srikanth took responsibility, and boy did they show up.
"As we stand on the cusp of 2023, Indian sport has rarely been as well placed as it is now."
As a tale of redemption, there were few better sporting stories out there.
India's franchise leagues carried on carrying on. The Prime Volleyball League took its first baby steps, rising from the ashes of administrative hubris. Kolkata Thunderbolts won the inaugural edition, but the effects of this league could be further reaching than any short-term acclaim. Months after the PVL, Kerala's best players, ostracised by the federation for taking part in the private league, went to court and won the right to represent their state in the National Games. And then won gold. The thought of bullies getting bullied has its own special appeal.
"Administrators continue to administrate, furiously."
If you looked beyond the curtain of sporting success, though, you would see what Indian sports has tried to hide away in its closet. There were administrative debacles, petty power struggles and a common theme of looking-out-for-oneself.
There were exceptions, of course. Some federations appeared to have taken their gig seriously: The shooting body, for instance, went through a deep introspection and took that rarest of rare decisions: forego short-term success with an eye on what truly matters. The number of World Cup medals went down drastically as India realigned its focus, but the hope is that, in a couple of years, this finally leads to the Olympic haul India's shooters have been teasing for a while now.
In most other sports, though, administrators continued to administrate, furiously.
The year started with the fiasco of the AFC Women's Asian Cup. A meticulously prepared bio-bubble burst, but only for the host team. The Indian federation blamed the Asian one, the Asian one threw the India team out of the tournament, and in the end the only loss was to a squad of women who had had glory in sight. India's best chance at being present at a World Cup in the near future nixed abruptly, cruelly.
This wasn't even their worst transgression, though. Just before they were to compete in the biggest events of their lives, the U-17 women's football team saw their assistant coach, Alex Ambrose, sacked. The man in charge of the AIFF at the time tweeted that it was for "sexual misconduct." Ambrose had been with the team since their inception.
Alex Ambrose, Asstt Head Coach of Under 17 Women's team has been sacked for sexual misconduct. Further action under process.
- Dr. S.Y. Quraishi (@DrSYQuraishi) July 3, 2022
Since the sacking, there hasn't been a word from either the AIFF or the police about any further action against Ambrose. The federation had bigger problems to deal with, after all: a power struggle between the old power brokers, a set of court appointed administrators and the world governing body, FIFA..
It was an altogether avoidable tussle that did little but cost Gokulam Kerala's women a chance to compete for top Asian honours. Collateral damage, they must have called it in the corridors of power. With the hosting of the U-17 FIFA Women's World Cup on the line, the highest offices in the country intervened with what amounted to a basic "listen to FIFA, all of you." They listened, the FIFA ban lasted just 11 days, India hosted the World Cup, and a thoroughly undercooked team were beaten in all three of their games.
Meanwhile, the National Games were held, after a gap of seven years - coming at the far end of the sporting season, though, it felt like an undercooked afterthought.
The boundary wall at the long jump pit was a bit too close for comfort at IIT Gandhinagar - the National Games venue for athletics. For the men's long event cushions were placed at the fencing to avoid injury. pic.twitter.com/EUzfZZ2a6k
- Andrew (@AndrewAmsan) October 4, 2022
A national championship bout was stopped by the president of the Wrestling federation as he sought the blessings of a local seer in Ayodhya. 400m runners in Chennai had to wait at the starting blocks of their National Championship final as they waited for a state minister to finish a lengthy sermon on his government's brilliance. A whole swathe of athletes were regularly thrown out of a Delhi stadium to allow an IAS officer to walk his dog in peace. Priorities.
The guru of modern cycling in India, RK Sharma, was accused of, and dismissed for, sexual misconduct. As in the norm, nothing has been said about it since...
"It was a scandal that should have shook this sporting ecosystem to its very roots, upending everything and everyone. A leaf has barely hit the ground."
The Athletics federation were taken to court over selection issues, as were the Table Tennis federation. The AIFF was one of seven sports federations placed under court-appointed administrators after it was found they used the National Sports Code more as a paperweight than a guideline of governance. It would have been eight, but since the 2022 Chess Olympiad was being hosted in Chennai, that body was let off the hook.
Three of these federations got public reprimands (atleast) from their respective world bodies. One of those, the Indian Olympic Association was slammed for not holding elections, then for having factions take over separately staking their claims. As they bickered, at least eight athletes (officially named) were found guilty of doping. In the end, though, we saw the rise of a woman, one of India's greatest ever sportspersons, to the highest post in Indian sports outside the BCCI and the central ministry. Well in, PT Usha. It remains to be seen if this is just the appointment of a figurehead or a sign of real change.
As we stand on the cusp of 2023, Indian sport has rarely been as well placed as it is now. There are champions from a greater cross-section of society than ever before, an interest in games other than cricket growing exponentially, and more than one administrative body seems to have understood the need for course correction. A timely men's hockey world cup in the first month of the new year could help India well and truly rediscover its oldest sporting love.
Just as optimism builds, though, just as hope rises for a potentially heart-warming 2023... so does fear. A feeling of dread that a potential Ambrose or an RK Sharma lurks around every corner; one that stems from the utter lack of transparency in what should have been high-profile public-facing investigations and a lack of faith that safeguards are being implemented at any level. All the glory and the medals, the headlines and the spotlight... none of it really matters if we can't address this.
It's a question, a hope, a prayer that should define 2023: This year, can we finally make our sporting world safe enough that a girl can go out and express herself the way she wants to, without fear, without worry?
It really is her game too, you know.