These Indian athletes made their country proud

It has simply not been cricket over the past few weeks. The national obsession has turned into national shame as cricket’s dark underbelly surfaced in the recently concluded IPL. But even as the likes of S Sreesanth and Gurunath Meiyappan brought the nation’s undisputed ‘religion’ down to its knees, digging up memories of Hansie Cronje and Mohammed Azharuddin, there were sportspersons in India who went about doing what they should — playing their sport and making the country proud.

The column space in newspapers and the sound bytes on television channels devoted to those achievements can never really be compared to the cricket scandal. But there have been achievements that need to be acknowledged and cherished. While a lot has been said about cricket’s domination in the national psyche, it is also true that a real achievement in any field of sport has rarely gone unnoticed. It may have been harder for them to reach their pinnacle of glory but a Mary Kom, a Saina Nehwal, a Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, or a Viswanathan Anand have all been able to carve out their rightful place.

It was the best of times and the worst of times...
The year 2012 was a great time but also a terrible time for Indian Olympians. While London saw India come out with their best ever performance in history, soon after, the Indian Olympic Association was banned by the International Olympic Committee. Corruption, political interference and the greed to hanker after power had led to India losing face in the Olympic movement, but the sportspersons still tried to stay above controversies.

Twenty-six year old Arunima Sinha, from  Uttar Pradesh, who lost a leg after being thrown from a moving train two years ago, became the first female amputee to climb Mount Everest on May 21. Pic/AFP

The struggle to get the ban lifted is on so that the dreams of those hoping to make it to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 are not shattered. But what is heartening is the fact that sportspersons have not stopped dreaming. From young weightlifters to a woman conquering Mount Everest on prosthetic legs — this May has seen true grit and determination. For Indian badminton, it was the time for PV Sindhu to shine. Living up to expectations, the Hyderabadi won the Malaysian Grand Prix in Kuala Lumpur on May 4.

India's Somdev Devvarman serves to Switzerland's Roger Federer during their French Tennis Open match at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, on May 29. PIC/ AFP

Hyderabad has now become the go-to place for aspiring badminton players of India. Saina Nehwal’s resilience and talent is mirrored in the 17-year-old Sindhu, who comes from the same stable of Pullela Gopichand. The top-seeded Indian got the better of Singapore’s fifth-seed Juan Gu 21-17 17-21 21-19 in a nerve-wracking final. She was almost on the verge of defeat, but was able to dig deep into her reserves to wrap up the title. Ranked 11th in the world now, she however, disappointed in the Sudirman Cup, but with the Malaysian Open title she has signaled her arrival as the rising star of Indian badminton.

The last few days of May saw an avalanche of medals for India in Doha. At the Asian Youth Championship the Indian weightlifting team won a whopping 27 medals. The eight boys and seven girls won 13 gold, seven silver and seven bronze. According to the officials of the Weightlifting Federation of India, this was a rare feat and a first in the history of Indian weightlifting. Akshay B Gaikwad, Lalu Taku, Chandrika Tarafdar or Dipali Gursale may not really be household names, but they did have their moment of glory when they performed to take India ahead in an international platform.

A tribute to true grit
If one has to salute the human spirit and the inspiration that sports can give, then there is no need to look beyond Arunima Sinha at the moment. On May 21, a woman conquered Mount Everest. But what was significant was the fact that Sinha made it to the top of the world on prosthetic legs. Her story is one which shows the best and worst of India. It was in 2011 that her life changed. The national-level volleyball player was on her way to New Delhi from Lucknow to appear for an examination to join the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF). 

Nigerian striker Edeh Chedi (in red) scored a hat trick and helped East Bengal create history by reaching the AFC Cup quarter finals for the second time on May 15

But she was pushed out of the train by robbers and lost her leg in the accident. While recovering at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) she resolved not to give up hope and wanted to climb Mt Everest. She came in contact with the legendary Bachendri Pal and the rest as they say, is history.
Sinha is the first woman amputee in the world to achieve this feat. The 26-year-old’s success comes 60 years after the iconic Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered the peak for the first time.

On the football field, Kolkata Maidan giants East Bengal created history by reaching the AFC Cup quarter finals for the second time, on May 15. The nearly packed Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata saw East Bengal fans erupt in joy as their team went on to thrash Yangon United of Myanmar 5-1. Edeh Chidi, the Nigerian striker who has become synonymous with success in Indian club football, scored a hat trick while Penn Orji and captain Mehtab Hossain completed the tally. This will be the second time that East Bengal will play in the quarter finals of Asia’s Tier-II event. With professionalism becoming the key word in Indian football, success at international club tournaments can hold the key in helping football re-emerging as one of the most popular sports in the country.

A Toast to team spirit
India bagged two silver medals and seven bronze in the Commonwealth Table Tennis meet that took place In New Delhi in early May. The hue of the medals should have been brighter as the hosts were able to reach six semi-finals. With players such as Achantha Sharath Kamal and Subhajit Saha in the fray, a gold was perhaps possible, but both returned with bronze medals. The month, however, ended on a golden hue as the Indian girls table tennis team won the Slovak Junior Open in Senec, Slovakia.

Deepika Kumari, still struggling to come to terms with her disappointing show in the London Olympics, won two silver medals (one with Jayanta Talukdar) in the Archery World Cup (Stage 1) in Shanghai. PIC/ Bipin Kokate

Sutirtha Mukherjee led Indian girls to a gold medal finish while the boys had to settle for a silver in the team championship. In the fight for the title, the girls defeated Serbia ‘A’ 3-2, but the boys were swept aside by Czech Republic ‘A’ 3-1. Sutirtha, Manika Batra and Reeth Tennison held their own to add a golden feather to their fledgling career. A mid-May silver lining came in archery as Deepika Kumari, still struggling to come to terms with her disappointing show in the London Olympics, won two silver medals (one with Jayanta Talukdar) in the Archery World Cup (Stage 1) in Shanghai. India finished fourth in the meet.

Ranked No 3 in the world, Deepika is undoubtedly the face of women’s archery now, with Dola Bannerjee past her prime. She was a little disappointed in herself though, as she failed to add to her World Cup gold that she had won in Antalya  in 2012. In Shanghai Korean Ok-Hee Yun put a spoke in her dreams and reserved the gold for herself with a 6-4 win. In the recurve mixed team final, Kumari and Talukdar won the silver, losing in the final to the US duo of Brady Ellison and Khatuna Lorig 146-154.

Ananya Gupta won a bronze medal in the World School Chess champion ship held from May 6-15 in Greece 

The Indian women also saw their first-ever World Cup medal in the compound section, when Trisha Deb, Gagandeep Kaur and Lily Chanu P beat their Italian opponents in the bronze medal play-off.  The bronze hue shone bright when a nine-year-old from Mumbai claimed the medal in World School Chess championship held at Haldikki in Greece. Ananya Gupta, a product of South Mumbai Chess Academy, had an ELO ranking of 1564 in the tournament held in May. Ananya won seven out of nine games to bag the bronze.

It’s not just about winning
In the French Open, it was not really a matter of winning. But the very fact that Somdev Devvarman made it to the second round in the men’s singles and then had to bow out to none other than Roger Federer was a milestone in itself. No one really expected the Indian to win against Federer and there was no drama involved in the ruthlessly one-sided match. But for tennis aficionados, an Indian playing on the Suzanne Lenglen court in a singles encounter is news enough.

PV Sindhu won the Malaysian Grand Prix in Kuala Lumpur on May 4

Also, this was Devvarman’s best- ever showing at Roland Garros as he reached the second round defeating Spaniard Daniel Munoz-De La Nava 6-3, 6-3, 7-5. It is tough to be a sportsperson in India. Most of our stars have reached highs despite the system and not because of any help from the government. They have fought against apathy, corruption, lack of infrastructure, paucity of funds and only then have they been able to meet their opponents on field. The anger towards cheats who have demeaned cricket and every true sportsman is real and justified. There is no harm in a sportsperson making money, but it has to be done right.

On a high
May was one of the best months for Indian sports in recent years

# PV Sindhu wins Malaysian GP, rises to world no 11 in badminton
# East Bengal qualifies for the AFC Cup quarters
# Deepika Kumari wins two silvers in archery World Cup
# Indian weightlifters win 27 medals in the Asian Youth Championships in Doha
# Amputee athlete Arunima Sinha conquers Mt Everest
# Indian womens TT team wins Slovak Open gold 

Elora Sen is a Kolkata-based senior sports journalist 

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