The Rio Olympics, of course, will go down as a colossal disappointment in Indian sports history. It was to be an improvement on previous editions, but the contingent came away with just two medals, and no golds. But then again, as (dramatized) films like Dangal seem to convey, the system isn’t quite built up to manufacture world-class athletes. Most of the struggles begin from home, and national facilities don’t really measure up to the best abroad. This applies to every sport other than cricket.
So it’s no surprise that the nation’s best moments this year came during those two weeks, in addition to a smatter of other achievements through the year. Let’s take a closer look:
Sakshi Malik (Rio Olympics)
The first female Indian wrestler ever to win a medal at the Olympics, Malik charged through the repechage round after being defeated early on in the 58 kg category. Despite being down 0-5 at one point in the medal round against the Asian champion, she won 8-5. It doesn’t get better than her comeback, giving India its first medal of a disappointing Games, and one to cherish.
PV Sindhu (Rio Olympics)
India’s no. 2 became their darling, as Pusarla Venkata Sindhu added another feather in India’s great badminton cap, after Saina Nehwal carried the nation on her now-injured shoulders for half a decade. It had been a disappointing season for Nehwal, but Sindhu, age 21, stepped up under the mentorship of who else but P. Gopichand (and his famous academy), storming through to the final – a first in Indian history. Even Nehwal had won a bronze, and this time Sindhu could go for gold. She won the first game against Spanish favourite and world no. 1 Carolina Marin, before losing the next two to the slightly superior opponent. Sindhu won the country’s only silver medal, and had a nation at the edge of its seat for most of her matches. Her final was perhaps the most watched non-cricket event of the year.
Dipa Karmakar (Gymnastics)
Arguably India’s greatest moment of the year and the Games, despite no medal involved. The Commonwealth bronze medalist broke the glass ceiling of a sport virtually never heard before in her own country, finishing a heroic fourth in the finals of the women’s vault after landing only the fifth ever Produnova vault (a term that every Indian became familiar with) in the history of the sport. The diminutive girl from Agartala had even fellow medalists and champions celebrating her achievement. A whisker short of the bronze didn’t diminish what many still consider to be perhaps India’s bravest and finest modern performance at the Games.
Virat Kohli (World T20)
He did score runs through the year in a record-breaking season. But arguably nothing could top his single-minded performance in the World T20 in India, where his team reached the semis before crashing out to eventual champions, West Indies. India’s batting line-up consistently flattered to deceive, with only Kohli dragging them through with heroic individual performances against Pakistan, Australia and West Indies. India had been bowled out for 79 against New Zealand and almost lost the T20 match to Bangladesh (won by 1 run), but many were convinced this would be an Indian batsman’s finest hour, since Sachin Tendulkar’s Sharjah storm back in 1998, and the best one-man show since Diego Maradona’s 1986 World Cup. However, India couldn’t win the tournament, but it only made Kohli hungrier, as he went on to score three Test double centuries after this, as well as a record-shattering 973 runs in an IPL season. India also became no. 1 in Test cricket again for the first time since 2012, under Virat Kohli’s captaincy, as they are currently on an undefeated streak of 18 Test matches, dating back to July 2015.
Indian Men’s Hockey Team
Despite only managing a quarterfinal finish in the Olympics, and losing the SAF Cup final (to Pakistan again) and Azlan Shah Cup final to Australia, the hockey team bounced back under the tutelage of Dutch coach Roelant Oltmans, winning a historic silver in the Champions Trophy (losing to Australia again) and a gold in Asian Champions Trophy. The juniors topped off a progressive year by reclaiming the Junior World Cup by beating Belgium in the final.
Kabaddi World Cup Champions
It was all about Ajay Thakur, as the raider took India once again to the top in the one sport they still dominate. Despite falling to a shock defeat to the republic of Korea in their first game, India rebounded to destroy everyone in their path, and won a close final against perennial second bests Iran, winning their third regular World Cup in a row against the same opponent.
The Indian Paralympic athletes came back with a stunning two golds (the High Jump final of Mariyappan Thangavelu went viral; Devendra Jhajharia’s javelin gold was a world record), one silver and one bronze, in a performance that taught us a thing or two about the determination and ability of differently abled athletes in a country dismissive of the “category”.