Kathakali has been a journalist for a decade and a half, working previously with The Telegraph and Times of India. An MA in political science and a Chevening Fellow, she writes on various themes--the business of sports, pop culture, startups, innovation--and co-produces the video series, From the Field. She is also part of the desk, editing, rewriting and putting the print edition to bed. Kathakali is a sports nut and collects autographs as a hobby. She enjoys travelling and music, and you'll often find her humming completely out of tune.
(L to R) Avinash Sable, Parul Chaudhary and Neeraj Chopra
It’s perhaps telling that Neeraj Chopra, who became the world champion and won the gold medal at the Asian Games as well, isn’t even India’s biggest sports story this year.
You can attribute it partly to the benchmarks that the champion javelin-thrower has set for himself—winning the Olympics in 2021 and the coveted Diamond League in 2022—where anything less qualifies as an upset and not vice-versa. But it’s equally the spate of other achievements emerging through the year that have signalled India’s growing might as a sports nation.
Consider that Chopra’s compatriots Kishore Jena and DP Manu qualified for the finals of the World Athletics Championship in Budapest, Hungary, making it a historic first in which three Indians made it to the top eight. Jena also won the silver in the Asian Games, finishing second only to Chopra, and qualifying for the 2024 Olympics, along with the reigning champion.
Both the elite tournaments saw fireworks from other Indian athletes as well, with the India men’s 4x400m relay team leading from the front—the quartet comprising Md Anas Yahiya, Amoj Jacob, Muhammad Ajmal and Rajesh Ramesh qualified for the final of the world championships for the first time, and also won a gold at the Asiad.
In fact, at the Hangzhou Asiad, India breached the 100-medal mark for the first time in history—its 107 medals eclipsed its previous highest haul of 70, from the Jakarta Games in 2018. While athletics accounted for the richest haul with 29, the numbers have been pushed northwards with heroics from the likes of men’s hockey, women’s cricket and equestrian. The latter overcame a 10-hour competition to bring home the first ever team dressage gold and the first equestrian gold in 41 years.
The charge in the Asiad has also been led by the likes of middle-distance runner Avinash Sable, who won the gold in 3,000m steeplechase and a silver in 5,000m, while Parul Chaudhary became the first Indian woman to win an Asian Games gold in 5,000m. Both qualified for the 2024 Olympics.
“It’s one of the most progressive years for Indian sport, with many reasons to celebrate,” says Vijay Lokapally, senior journalist and author. “The year 2023 proved that the investments made by the government, and also a few private corporates, in talent scouting, training programmes, identification of the right coaches etc, are praiseworthy and are bearing fruit. The year 2024 will be an exciting year to look forward to.”
In a recent interview to Forbes India, Chopra, too, had attributed their medal-winning performances in highly competitive global events like the Asian Games and the world championships to “training in the right direction”. “The facilities have improved, more sponsors are coming in, help is pouring in from all quarters. All these inspire us to work better,” he had said.
Like Chopra, the World No. 1 in his field, men’s badminton doubles pair Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, too briefly became the top-ranked players after winning a gold at the Asiad, before ending the year as World No. 2—en route they became the first Indian pair to win a marquee Super 1000 event, at the Indonesia Open.
Meanwhile, grandmaster D Gukesh hit the Holy Grail of rankings when the teenage chess prodigy became India’s No. 1 player, toppling five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand for the first time in 36 years. The sport produced other riches as well, as youngsters R Praggnanandhaa, the runner-up in the 2023 World Cup, and Vidit Gujrathi, the winner of the Fide grand Swiss at the Isle of Man, qualified for the prestigious Candidates 2024 from where the challenger for the World Championship match is selected. Praggnanandhaa’s sister R Vaishali matched her brother’s lofty feats by not only becoming a grandmaster, India’s 84th, but also qualifying for the Candidates women’s category.
The fact that the first 600-odd words in an annual sports round-up don’t mention cricket is a statement on how India is spreading its wings as a multi-sports nation, also evidenced by an august gathering of the who’s who of global sports at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) session conducted in Mumbai in October. This was only the second time that the session was hosted by India, and it was replete with seminal announcements, the first being Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement on India’s intention to bid for the 2036 Olympics.
At the session, the IOC also formally voted to induct cricket into the Games, allowing a six-nation T20 competition at the Los Angeles Games in 2028. It’s a win-win for both the Olympics and the sport as it opens up a billion-plus following in the subcontinent for the former, while giving the latter a platform to go global.
The announcement serendipitously came at a time the cricketing glitterati had converged in the country for the ongoing ICC Men’s ODI World Cup. The tournament saw the dominance of the host country with 10 consecutive wins before tripping on the final hurdle—in the final against Australia.
But despite that hiccup in a sport that is considered the national religion, 2023 has set Indian sports on a strong foundation for 2024—a year that has the crucial Paris Olympics and both the men’s and women’s T20 World Cups. Through the year, the cricketing landscape has seen the rise of young cricketers like Titas Sadhu, Shweta Sehrawat and Saika Ishaque for the women’s team, and Shubman Gill, Yashashvi Jaiswal, Tilak Varma and Rinku Singh for the men. Spinner Ravi Bishnoi, 23 and barely 20 months old in international cricket, is already the No. 1 T20 bowler in the ICC rankings.
“I expect this team to be at its best in the coming World Cup. This team will be fearless and daring, irrespective of whether Virat Kohli or Rohit Sharma are part of the setup, because they play without the fear of failure,” says Lokapally. “I expect them to do what the 2007 team, young but bold and led by MS Dhoni did—win the tournament.”