India’s 1.38 billion people are brimming with pride.
On Saturday, Neeraj Chopra won a historic gold medal in the men’s javelin event in Tokyo, bringing the country’s Olympic performance to a spectacular conclusion.
The 22-year-old athlete’s gold medal, India’s first in a track and field event since gaining independence from Britain, capped off the country’s best-ever performance at the Games, which included seven medals.
When Chopra arrived in New Delhi, India’s capital, on Monday afternoon, a crowd flocked to the airport to see their new national hero. Huge crowds encircling the athlete have come to symbolize what his victory means for the world’s second most populous country.
“The Haryana boy has left his mark,” the Chief Minister of Haryana, where Chopra is from, told reporters at a news conference on Saturday. India’s historic medal haul comes as the country is still reeling from the aftermath of a devastating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to data from Johns Hopkins University, the country has seen over 428,000 Covid-19 deaths and nearly 32 million infections, putting hospitals on the verge of collapse and overwhelming the country’s healthcare system.
Against this backdrop, Indian athletes have managed to rekindle a sense of national pride in a country that is still in mourning.
India won bronze in men’s field hockey, its first medal in the sport in 41 years, after defeating Germany. Despite losing to Britain in the bronze medal match, the women’s team earned praise and respect from millions across the country. In five other events, the country received silver or bronze medals.
India’s success has drawn attention to the country’s comparatively poor sporting infrastructure, as well as the numerous disadvantages that Indian athletes face, including the fact that many are not full-time athletes.
According to Nalin Mehta, co-author of “Dreams of a Billion: India and the Olympic Games,” India experienced a “small turning point” in 2008 when air rifle shooter Abhinav Bindra won the country’s first gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.
“There was serious intent at a government level to put more money into sports,” he said. “There was a sense that this could be a winner. A new sense of nationalism that would elevate India globally.”
The government has increased its efforts to raise the country’s sporting profile on a global scale. Four years later, the country won six Olympic medals in London, making it the country’s second most successful Olympic medal haul.
The country’s poor performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics (one silver and one bronze medal) prompted authorities to increase funding.
Two years later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched ‘Khelo India,’ or ‘Let’s Play India,’ a nationwide program to “revitalize India’s sports culture,” with the goal of identifying and funding promising young talent.
According to annual reports from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, the government spent $297.7 million on sports in 2019, up nearly $90.7 million from 2016. There are now 61 National Sports Federations recognized by India’s Department of Sports, up from 48 in 2017. Basketball, netball, and equestrian sports are among the new additions.
Mehta also mentions the rise of non-profit organizations, such as the Olympics Gold Quest, which was co-founded by billiards player Geet Sethi after noticing “a general sense of dejection” among Indian athletes. It has aided top athletes such as Mary Kom, a boxer, and P.V. Singh, a badminton player. Sindhu is an Olympic gold medalist.