He finished in fifth place in his event at the last National Games, held in 2015 in Thiruvananthapuram, but embodies the reason why there is so much interest this time around in the latest edition of the games that begin on Thursday and will be held across six cities in Gujarat.
Since those games, Indian athletes have gone on to win medals on the world stage, including in track & field. At the recent Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, India won 61 medals including eight in athletics. And the young man who came fifth in his event last time won a gold in the Diamond League, and a gold in the Tokyo Olympics 2020 (held in 2021); he also won a silver in the World Championships.
Neeraj Chopra is one of the reasons for the uncharacteristic frisson of excitement among the public over the National Games. To be sure, Chopra himself will miss the games; he participated in the Diamond League final with a groin injury.
But there are more star athletes now — and people are excited at the opportunity to see, for instance, Avinash Sable, arguably the best middle-distance runner India has ever produced (he has a silver in steeplechase at Birmingham to show for it). Or, for instance, Murali Sreeshankar, who won the long jump silver, also at CWG, but has said that the contest will be no cakewalk, featuring as it does Jeswin Aldrin and Mohammed Anis.
Back in 2015, Indian athletes were competing at the international level; now they are winning medals (and if they are not, are there in the mix). All the track & field events will be held in Gujarat capital Gandhinagar.
Apart from the track & field sensations, there are the weightlifters and the shooters, who have done well for India on the international arena.
Former track star Anju Bobby George, now involved in administration and coaching, said the National Games is easily the biggest sporting event in India — one befitting its stature. “Now results from our long-term planning has started to show. It is due to the collective effort of the government, Sports Authority of India, federations and senior athletes. At the Commonwealth Games this time, we won in events we had never won in before. Earlier, we used to win one or two medals,” she said.
Indian sport has been transformed since the last National Games, especially in the last two years.
For one, India went from two medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics to eight in Tokyo.With support from the government and its flagship Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), the athletes overcame Covid restrictions to prepare for the Tokyo Games, and that momentum was then carried into the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July, where India finished fourth in the medal tally despite shooting, usually a discipline India dominates , and archery not being included among the competitions.
Instead, the medals game in judo and athletics — India won a record eight medals in track & field, including breakthroughs in the 3000m steeplechase, long jump, and high jump events. This indicated progress of the kind that pushes a sporting culture forward.
And as the medals rolled in, so did the buzz on social media. An important indicator of popularity in the internet age is what is “trending”. Less than a decade ago, Olympic sports would almost never make the cut. They were niche sports which were almost always dwarfed by cricket. Little was known about them, or the athletes. But now, cricket often takes a back-seat to these sports.
India now tracks Chopra and other athletes as they traverse the European circuit, where they compete against the best in the world. Badminton has been a success story for a while, but wrestling, weightlifting, and boxing are building a fan base by dint of sheer hard work.
To make sport succeed, you need medals; you need glory; you need stars whose performances you want to ape. The current National Games will feature weightlifter Mirabai Chanu , an Olympic silver and CWG gold medallist and boxer Lovlina Borgohain, an Olympic bronze medallist. Then there is Sable (who will line up for Services); the 3,000m steeplechaser who won the hearts of the nation after his sensational finish in the Commonwealth Games, missing out on gold by just 0.05 seconds while clinching silver and breaking Kenya’s monopoly of medals in the event. Young Lakshya Sen won a World Championships bronze and then starred in India’s Thomas Cup final triumph, mirroring the rise of men’s badminton in the last few years. These are the kind of athletes who draw fans to the stadium.
The 36th National Games — they are being held in Gujarat for the first time — will go on till October 12. Around 7,000 athletes will participate in the Games that will be spread across Ahmedabad, Gandhinagar, Surat, Vadodara, Rajkot and Bhavnagar in the state. Cycling will be the only discipline hosted outside the state — at the New Delhi velodrome. It is a chance to make a splash and make sports fans in India sit up and take notice.
There is another competitive subtext here. India nurses ambitions of staging the Olympics and Gujarat, as things stand, might be a frontrunner. The National Games could very well provide a mini test run.
India’s Olympic sports have undergone a sea change in the seven years since the last National Games. Indian athletes are now serious competitors across disciplines, and as Chopra’s own example has shown — he was noticed during the last games; then nurtured and supported — it is an opportunity for national scouts to spot the next Olympic medallists from India.
Let the games begin.