In a year when Kohli’s slipping grip over the Indian cricket team became news, athletes became household names after the country’s remarkable performance at the Tokyo Olympics
For the first time in the history of the Olympics, the Games were postponed for a year in 2020 due to the Corona-19 virus. The Games, though, have seen three cancellations in the past, but they were all because of war.
Even though 2021 started off on a gloomy note, the one-year wait for Indians (after the International Olympic Committee postponed the 2020 Tokyo Games) was worth it as Neeraj Chopra’s javelin travelled 87.58 meters to end India’s 74-year-old wait for a track & field event gold.
It was 7 August 2021, when this 23-year-old son of a farmer became a national obsession in a land where cricket is treated like a religion. Neeraj also helped sports fans overcome the trauma where two-time Olympic champion and hero wrestler Sushil Kumar was put behind bars on charges of murdering another fellow wrestler, Sagar Dhankar.
Neeraj was not alone in creating history for India in Tokyo.
India finished with six more medals from five different disciplines. For a moment, the cricket-frenzied public of India even forgot how its depleted cricket team won a Test series Down Under after a great Brisbane chase.
The loss at Gabba was Australia’s first loss at the venue in 33 years. But more than their loss, it was remarkable for a team like India, who were bundled out for their lowest ever score of 36 in the series opener at Adelaide.
Coming back to the Olympic Games, it was not even Neeraj’s personal best effort (his personal best is 88.07 metres), but it did not matter as he became only the second Indian to win an individual gold medal in the Olympics after shooter Abhinav Bindra back in the 2008 Beijing Games. Neeraj reached Tokyo with less than top-class competition due to the pandemic and was not even a sure-shot medal contender.
Neeraj’s confidence and control over his nerves allowed him to dominate the field throughout his three final throws, giving India its first gold medal in 13 years and its second since men’s hockey triumphed at the 1980 Moscow Games.
It all started on Day One of the Games when a tiny weightlifter from Manipur, Mirabai Chanu, brought a silver medal to the Indian camp with a total lift of 202 kg (87 kg + 115 kg) in the 49 kg event. Chanu was India’s best bet in Tokyo because of her astounding success at the World Championships. Her performance also compensated for her 2016 Rio heartbreak, where she failed to lift even a single lift despite being the favourite.
Next, the focus was on star grapplers Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia. However, it was the surprise package Ravi Dahiya who mesmerised the Indian audience with his phoenix-like rise in the 57 kg semi-finals against Kazakhstan’s Nurislam Sanayev.
Ravi was trailing 2-9 with less than a minute to go. But with his icy aggression on the mat, he managed to pin his rival with immense physical power. Though he failed to produce similar magic in the final against Russia’s Zavur Uguev, he still managed to become a household name overnight.
After all, he was only the second Indian to fight for Olympic gold, after Sushil Kumar in London in 2012. Later on, Bajrang also stood on the podium, but much below the expectations of gold. He won India’s second medal in wrestling, a bronze.
Vinesh’s Olympic dream was once again shattered when she made an unexpected exit in the second round.
Assam’s women pugilist Lovlina Borgohain, however, clinched the welterweight (69 kg) bronze to ensure the boxers did not return empty-handed from Tokyo. Hailing from the small Baro Mukhia village in Assam, the 23-year-old became only the third Indian boxer to win an Olympic medal, after Vijender Singh and her senior partner MC Mary Kom.
Later on, it was the turn of badminton star PV Sindhu to grab her second Olympic medal, after 2016 Rio’s silver, with a third-place finish. She is now only the second Indian to have won two individual Olympic medals after Sushil.
Discus thrower Kamalpreet Kaur and golfer Aditi Ashok certainly deserve a special mention here as they came up with a gritty show in Tokyo. They, though, failed to win a medal, but won a billion hearts with their heartening performances!
Hockey is back
The 2021 Olympics will also be etched in the memory of every Indian as it ended a 41-year drought for a men’s hockey medal in the Olympics. The women’s team, however, missed the podium finish by a whisker.
A group of passionate hockey players won the bronze after receiving a 1-7 bashing at the hands of Australia. Despite winning against Spain, defending champions Argentina, Japan, and Great Britain, it was that heartbreaking loss to Belgium that stopped India from entering the gold-medal round.
The third-place match was no less than a cracker, as India emerged victorious over Germany by a whisker, 5-4.
On the other hand, the Rani Rampal-led women’s hockey team scripted its own success story by reaching the medal round despite a hat-trick of defeats in the beginning. The high point during this campaign was toppling the mighty Australian side in the quarter-finals.
In the bronze match, Great Britain took a 2-0 lead, but Indian women fought back to make it 2-2 with drag-flicker Gurjit’s brace. Vandana Katariya’s goal gave India a 3-2 lead, and when it seemed that Indian women were on course for a historic medal, the British team came up with two quick goals to take the match away with the final score of 3-4.
The year 2021 also propped up a new star in wrestling, Anshu Malik, who became the first-ever Indian woman to reach the World Championship final.
In the badminton arena, Kidambi Srikanth made a solid comeback to land a silver at the World Championships towards the end of the year.
During the year, the Indian senior men’s football team won a record-extending eighth SAFF Championship title, but for a nation seeking to relive its glory days of the 1950s and 60s, a triumph in a regional tournament is not something it would be contending with.
Veteran soccer star Sunil Chhetri went past the legendary Pele and equalled Lionel Messi when he scored India’s opening goal against Nepal in the SAFF Championship in October. This was Chhetri’s 80th goal of his career, only behind Cristiano Ronaldo.
Cricket on a sticky wicket
In 2021, India’s most successful captain, Virat Kohli’s watertight grip over Indian cricket loosened significantly after he was unceremoniously removed as one-day leader.
It all started with Kohli quitting the T20 international captaincy at the end of the World Cup. The 33-year-old, however, had no plans to leave the ODI captaincy. But India’s premature exit made Kohli vulnerable and he failed to read the writing on the wall.
As he was sacked as a white-ball skipper altogether, dirty linen was washed in public with BCCI president Sourav Ganguly and Kohli contradicting each other on the sequence of events that led to the skipper’s removal.
Not to mention that, in the absence of any powerful personalities in the Indian Cricket Board, Kohli has ruled Indian cricket since 2017, following the departure of chief coach Anil Kumble.
He, along with chief coach Ravi Shastri, ruled Indian cricket till the time he miscalculated his resignation as T20 skipper just before the start of the World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
Shastri, on the other hand, also had a controversial exit as he was held responsible for spreading the Covid-19 virus inside the team’s dressing room. The team’s chief coach was blamed for India not completing the summer tour of England because of him breaching the bio-bubble by attending his book launch.
Shastri caught the virus, and so did his coaching staff. As a result, Team India did not play the fifth and final Test against England in Manchester.
(Cover: Neeraj Chopra’s javelin throw of 87.58 meters ended India’s 74-year-old wait for a track & field event gold PHOTO: Getty)
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