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Sports Day report card: Bumper year for India, A+ for athletes, F- for federations

On August 24, a few days before 2023 National Sports Day, Indian sport news aligned to describe quite accurately the state of affairs.

On one hand, Praggnandhaa won a momentous silver medal at the Chess World Cup – the youngest finalist at 18 years old and the first Indian to reach the stage since Viswanathan Anand back in 2002 – after pushing Magnus Carlsen to the tiebreaks.

On the other, the Wrestling Federation of India was suspended by the sport’s world body for not conducting its elections in time. This was due to a multitude of legal delays, even as suspended former chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, accused of sexual harassment by India’s top wrestlers, continues to be on bail.

Just another day for followers of Indian sports – the spectrum spanning high and low. A reminder that for every trophy, every new record set and every big medal won globally, there is a federation suspended and court-appointed committee needed to enforce the National Sports Code on administrators. For every champion flying the tricolour high, there are mistreated athletes fighting to be heard.

Neeraj Chopra is one of us, but he’s also the best of us

The year since the last National Sports Day, sandwiched between India’s Commonwealth Games 2022 success and the upcoming Asian Games, there has been much to celebrate for Indian sports fans.

In the past week, alongside Praggnanandhaa, Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra became the first Indian world champion in athletics, completing his set of major gold medals at 25. The Indian men’s relay team shocked Great Britain to reach the final of the World Championship with a sub-3-minute run. HS Prannoy won the first major individual medal of his career – a bronze at the badminton World Championship – at the age of 31, beating the best player of this generation Viktor Axelsen.

That, too, is the spectrum of Indian sport.

The Indian men’s football team lifting three trophies, with Sunil Chhetri’s countdown to 100 international goals becoming a talking point beyond just the footballing circles.

Men’s doubles stars Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty becoming Asian champions and winning India’s first-ever Super 1000 title, in touching distance of the world No 1 ranking. Four Indian world champions in women’s boxing, with Nikhat Zareen defending her crown at home. Four out of the eight quarterfinalists at the FIDE World Cup were Indian, the anticipated boom of young Grandmasters taking centre stage globally.

Antim Panghal defending her U-20 world champion title, the first Indian woman to do so, weeks after the physical and mental toll of Asian Games trials and court cases over her non-selection. Sania Mirza, playing her last Grand Slam, reaching the Australian Open final with fellow Indian Rohan Bopanna. The 43-year-old Bopanna then becoming the oldest player to win an ATP Masters with the doubles title at Indian Wells in a very successful year.

Sania Mirza: The girl who fought for the right things

Jyoti Chouhan and Manisha Kalyan playing in European football leagues, a new hope for women’s football. Compound archers breaking new ground – India’s first world champions in the sport; three gold medals, one by a 17-year-old Aditi Swamy. New names, more teens winning medals and Olympic quota places at the shooting World Championship.

But all this success cannot hide the different ways in which athletes have been let down. Any look back on the year 2023 will prominently feature the disturbing images of India’s top wrestlers, winners of Olympic and world championship medals, sitting in protest, being manhandled by the police, and sobbing on the banks of the Ganga River.

The wrestlers’ protests began in January, were swept away by the promise of an investigation that yielded nothing, resumed with new vigour in April and ended with a chargesheet against a powerful figure of both sporting and political authority. The fact that athletes’ voices made a difference was supposed to be a win but inaction from other sporting bodies (read the Indian Olympic Association and its ad-hoc committee) devolved the situation into chaos.

Wrestling was not even the first as-yet unresolved case of sexual misconduct at the top level of Indian sport in the recent past. Last year, the Indian women’s U17 football team’s assistant coach was sacked and was supposed to be investigated. There have been no concrete updates on that as yet.

Meanwhile, other Indian women footballers in the Indian Women’s League played in abominable conditions, even as contradictory plans and roadmaps for their future are being set.

And while we celebrated the compound archers’ historic medals, we were alerted to their precarious situation. Asked about what change the sport needs, Jyothi Surekha Vennam, India’s most successful compound archer, had this to say: “Just because compound archery is not included in the Olympics, we don’t receive any support. Olympic athletes receive a lot of support be it from private organization or any other, but we don’t.”

The medals and trophies shouldn’t hide the mess, they shine a light on it instead.

As Indian sport’s profile continues to grow with every new achievement and firsts, so must the support system for these sportspersons. Be it financial like for compound archery, judicial safeguards like in the sexual harassment cases of football and wrestling, or good old fandom, from the regular Indian citizen.

The hope is that one day, in the not-so-distant future, one can say simple things like an Indian athlete has succeeded with the system or that a sportswoman felt safe in a male-dominated environment. In a year of firsts for Indian sport, this hope shouldn’t be far-fetched.

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