IMAGE: Star javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra became only the second Indian to win an individual gold in the Olympics, out-performing the field by quite a distance to notch up the first track-and-field Games medal for the country at the Tokyo Games. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images.
Neeraj Chopra’s javelin flew high and did not come down until it had travelled enough to provide a golden touch to India’s best-ever Olympic campaign at the Tokyo Games in a momentous 2021 which also witnessed the fall of the great Sushil Kumar.
The manner in which Chopra bossed the field with his 87.58m throw fulfilled the aspirations of a billion-plus nation that had not seen a track and field Olympic champion in its 74-year old sporting history since Independence.
It sent the country into a state of frenzy and turned Chopra into a phenomenon, and it was quite appropriate, too. After all, it was an accomplishment that fuelled the hopes of a nation that has been starving for success at sport’s grandest stage.
It gave the current and future generation of athletes the belief that becoming an Olympic champion was indeed a possibility for Indians if the right kind of training, exposure and timely financial support is provided.
The second-most populous region of the world rejoiced only its second individual Olympic gold medal since shooter Abhinav Bindra’s spectacular show at the 2008 Beijing Games.
The 24-year-old son of a farmer was not alone in creating a moment of reckoning. India signed off with six more medals, won by athletes who did not have much in common geographically but had common traits of perseverance, grit and a burning passion to excel.
IMAGE: The Indian Hockey Team pose for a picture after winning the Men’s Bronze medal match of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
A sheen of silver was provided on the opening day itself by a chuckling Mirabai Chanu.
The Manipuri weightlifter carried on her small yet strong shoulders high hopes after her astounding success at the World Championship, and delivered with a stunning lift of 202kg (87kg+115kg) in the 49kg event in Tokyo.
The performance more than compensated for her Rio Olympics heartbreak when she could not make a single legal lift.
A bunch of passionate hockey players, largely from humble backgrounds, reignited the love for the national sport with their bronze medal that felt like gold after a 41-year wait to see an Indian hockey team on the Olympic podium.
Skipper Manpreet Singh, a livewire on the field, the ever-smiling P Sreejesh and a fierce Rupinder Pal Singh all of them came together to shrug off the 1-7 bashing at the hands of Australia to trample Spain, defending champions Argentina, Japan and Great Britain en route to the semi-finals.
Belgium broke a billion hearts by stopping the Indian team from entering the final but the players did not disappoint in the bronze medal play-off against Germany.
Putting years of physical and mental training to work, the players soaked in the pressure of a high-stake game to emerge deserving 5-4 winners, ensuring that the game of hockey would not slip into oblivion.
IMAGE: India’s Ravi Kumar Dahiya poses with his silver medal from the men’s 57kg Olympics Freestyle wrestling during the victory ceremony at the Tokyo Olympics. Photograph: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
The Indian women’s hockey team, led by Rani Rampal, scripted its own success story by reaching the medal round despite a hat-trick of defeats in the beginning.
The campaign did not culminate in a medal but the courageous fourth-place finish, after toppling mighty Australia in the quarterfinals, was no mean achievement. It earned the players plaudits and respect.
If Tokyo Olympics was about hockey’s revival, the sport of wrestling continued to offer medals at the biggest stage, underlining its consistent growth.
The focus was on star grapplers Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia but away from the limelight, it was Ravi Dahiya who left a lasting impact on the psyche of Indian sports lovers with his phoenix-like rise in the 57kg semi-finals against Kazakhstan’s Nurislam Sanayev.
Trailing 2-9 with less than a minute to go, Ravi managed to pin his rival, showing immense physical prowess and mental toughness.
He could not repeat his success in the final against Russia’s Zavur Uguev but it was enough to make him an overnight star. After all, he was only the second Indian, who was competing for an Olympic gold, after Sushil Kumar.
While Bajrang too stood on the podium, a bronze medal did not feel like an achievement as he was expected to reach at least the final, given the expectations and hype around him.
IMAGE: Sushil Kumar (in red t-shirt) with Delhi police personnel. Photograph: ANI/Twitter
Vinesh’s Olympic dream, though, was shattered once again with her unexpected second round exit after entering the event as a title contender.
There was embarrassment in store for the game when two-time Olympic medallist Sushil landed in Tihar Jail after being accused of murder of a fellow wrestler, Sagar Dhankar.
The way the 38-year-old Sushil, the only Indian wrestler to have won two Olympic medals and a world title, played hide and seek with the police before being arrested exposed the murky underbelly of Indian wrestling.
The year also propped up a new star in Anshu Malik who entered the history books as the first ever Indian woman to reach the World Championship final.
Badminton star PV Sindhu’s legend grew with a second Olympic medal as she grabbed a bronze despite not being in top form. She is now only the second Indian to have won two individual Olympic medals.
Kidambi Srikanth regained his touch with a historic World championship silver and young Lakshya Sen continued to dazzle but the listless performance in team events was a significant low for Indian badminton in a topsy-turvy year.
Lovlina Borgohain clinched the welterweight (69kg) 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 the legendary MC Mary Kom.
The Indian men’s campaign came to a screeching halt after Satish Kumar (+91kg) went down to world champion Bakohodir Jalolov in the quarter-finals. The other four male boxers bowed out after opening-round defeats while Mary Kom (51kg) and Poja Rani (75kg) also bowed out early.
IMAGE: The Indian cricket team were knocked out of the first round of the T20 World Cup after early losses to Pakistan and New Zealand in the group stages. Photograph: Francois Nel/Getty Images
While the country got new heroes to idolise, established cricket star Virat Kohli lost a bit of his aura, even as the team cherished a historic success in Australia and came close to winning a Test series in England.
Kohli quit T20 captaincy at the end of the World Cup and had no plans to leave the ODI captaincy but India’s premature exit from the tournament led to the inevitable and the mighty Kohli did not see that BCCI bombshell coming.
Following his sacking as 50-over skipper, dirty linen was washed in public with Kohli and BCCI President Sourav Ganguly contradicting each other on the sequence of events that led to the former’s removal.
The early exit at the T20 World Cup was a big disappointment but it marked the end of a successful era under Kohli and Ravi Shastri, especially in the longest format.
The win at Gabba by a second-string side will be remembered for long as Indian cricket enters a new era under Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid.
IMAGE: Sunil Chhetri is fourth in the list of leading scorers among active footballers, behind Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (111), Argentina’s Lionel Messi (79) and UAE’s Ali Mabkhout (77), after finding the net against Bangladesh, in the SAFF Championship. Photograph: AIFF Media
During the year, the Indian senior men’s football team won a record-extending eighth SAFF Championship title but for a nation seeking to relieve its glory days of the 1950s-60s, a triumph in a regional tournament is not something it would be contend with.
Veteran Sunil Chhetri went past the legendary Pele and equalled Lionel Messi when he scored the team’s opener — and his 80th goal — against Nepal in the summit clash of the SAFF Championships in October.
The Indian shooters failed miserably at the Games, where they had gone with a lot of hype and expectations. They produced outstanding results throughout the year but when it mattered the most, they faltered.
Discus thrower Kamalpreet Kaur and golfer Aditi Ashok, though, came up with gritty show. They did not win medals but certainly new fans.
An important factor in India’s stupendous success in 2021 was the way the government opened its coffers to support athletes.