Sports constitute an irreplaceable and significant part of the lives of us Indians. India, in fact, has a very long sports history. The history of sports in India is believed to be 8000 years old and can be traced back to the Vedic Age. Besides being a medium of recreation and entertainment, as well as boosting the financial and economic condition of the nation. Sports have become an important part of the culture and tradition of the people. India’s wide diversity is directly reflected in the different varieties of sporting disciplines that exist in different parts of the country. As a consequence, to date, both indigenous games (such as Tug of War, Kho-Kho, Kabaddi, Gilli Danda and Boat Racing) and games originating overseas (such as  Tennis, Football, Badminton, Boxing and of course, Cricket) continue to be played in India.

Here are a few mind-stimulating facts about the status of sports in 21st-century India. Quite interestingly, India does not have a national sport which is officially recognised by the Government in power. India is home to the largest stadium in the world, a Cricket stadium called the Narendra Modi Stadium, formerly known as the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium, in Ahmedabad. The Modern Era (referring to the 20th century) primarily witnessed the rise of Hockey, Cricket, Badminton, Wrestling, Boxing, and Shooting, in India.

Supporters of the Indian National Cricket Team in the Eden Gardens Cricket Stadium in Kolkata, on 12th January 2023

India emerged as a Hockey superpower from its Olympic debut in 1928. The Indian Hockey Team continued to dominate for nearly six decades henceforth, and brought home the Gold medal on eight occasions. At the Olympics, the Indian Hockey Team has created a record of winning six consecutive Gold medals. When it comes to the Hockey field, it can be accurately surmised that no other team in the world has managed to rival such massive dominance. The Indian soil has given the world legendary Hockey players such as Major Dhyan Chand, Sr. Balbir Singh, Udham Singh, and Gurbux Singh, among others.

Major Dhyan Chand is referred to as the “Father of Sports” in India. Honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 1956, his birthday, 29th August, is celebrated as National Sports Day in India every year. India’s highest sporting achievement award, the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award, is named after his legacy.

Major Dhyan Chand in action against France at the 1936 Olympic Semi-finals

Cricket is undoubtedly the most popular sport in India which is not only popular as a spectator sport but also as a recreational sport. Cricket is, in fact, in several ways, an emotion; a religion that unites all Indians. It has emerged as an integral part of popular culture. The BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) and the IPL (Indian Premier League) are the richest Cricket-governing body and Cricket league in the world, respectively. This year, India will host the 2023 Cricket World Cup. Interestingly, the downfall of Hockey in the country in the latter part of the 20th century almost coincided with the rise of Cricket, as if the fall of the former were paving the way for the rise of the latter.

After India’s last Olympic Gold medal in Hockey in 1980, the Cricket mania enveloped the nation when Kapil Dev brought home the Cricket World Cup in 1983 in the Lord’s Stadium. The third edition of the Cricket World Cup tournament at the Lord’s Cricket Ground in London became the beginning of a never-ending fever in India that was called “Cricket”. Since 1983, the Indian National Cricket Team won the T20 World Cup in 2007 and another Cricket World Cup in 2011, among numerous other honours. The country has produced notable cricketing icons such as Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev, Anil Kumble, M. S. Dhoni, Sourav Ganguly, and Virat Kohli, to name a few.

Under Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s captaincy, India has won the maximum number of ICC trophies

Kapil Dev brings home the Cricket World Cup in 1983, in the Lord’s Cricket Ground

The legendary Prakash Padukone became the first Indian to win the All-England Open Badminton Championships in 1980. In 2001, Pullela Gopichand won the same honour. Badminton also gradually began to gain popularity in India; however, it became the “New Cricket” only after the 22-year-old Saina Nehwal won a Bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. In India’s sporting history, that moment is considered as the turning point for the popularity of Badminton in the country. Saina Nehwal was a significant contribution of Gopichand and his Badminton Academy to India as well as to the world. Another icon who joined the Badminton hall of fame in India is Pusarla Venkata Sindhu who has won several tournaments such as the Olympic Games, and on the BWF Circuit, including a Gold at the 2019 World Championships.

Prakash Padukone wins the All-England Open Badminton Championships in 1980

Saina Nehwal wins a Bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics

Over the following years, Gopichand went on to produce peerless talents such as P. V. Sindhu, Srikanth Kidambi, and Parupalli Kashyap. Hyderabad became the hub of Badminton in India. In 2016, P. V. Sindhu won a Badminton Silver at the Rio Olympics, thereby becoming the first female Indian to ever achieve the feat. Thereafter, scores of young shuttlers like Lakshya Sen, Anura Prabhudesai, and Sameer Verma, are expected to take the baton forward in the future.

Wrestling is believed to have evolved in ancient Greece and Roman Empires; however, there is concrete evidence that wrestling was practised and contested widely in ancient India as well. Back then, it was called ‘Malla-Yuddha’. Wrestling or ‘Pehlwani’ emerged as India’s new Olympic stronghold in the late 2000s. Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav, a native Satara, was one of the first and most notable athletes to popularise Wrestling as a professional sport in India. He rewrote the pages of history when he won a Bronze Medal at the Olympic Games in 1952. He was the first Olympic medal winner of Independent India, individually. Unfortunately, he left behind no significant successor who would take forward the legacy of Wrestling in India, and there was a big void in the field of Wrestling in India, for the next half a century.

Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav, Independent India’s first individual Olympic medalist

Now, things have begun to look brighter. Sushil Kumar, a seasoned wrestler, won a Bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Sushil Kumar again and Yogeshwar Dutt won a Silver and a Bronze, respectively, at the 2012 London Olympics. In 2018, Bajrang Punia won a Silver medal at the World Wrestling Championships, furthering their legacy.

Even women have not been far behind in the sport of Wrestling. The revolution for women’s Wrestling was pioneered by the Phogat household or the Phogat sisters. Notable among the six Phogat sisters from Haryana, all of whom are wrestlers, are Geeta Phogat and Babita Phogat. Geeta Phogat became the first Indian to win a Gold medal in Wrestling at the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Sakshi Malik became the first Indian to win a Bronze medal at the Olympic Games in 2016. Vinesh Phogat, a Gold medalist at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and her likes, are the prospective athletes who will take Wrestling in India to the next level in the years upcoming.

Geeta Phogat becomes the first Indian to win a Gold medal in Wrestling at the Commonwealth Games in 2010

Boxing is a sport that has seen a late but steady rise in popularity in the country. Women in India have been the real flag-bearers when it comes to the evolution of Boxing. Manipur’s Mary Kom, a legend par excellence, won her first World Championship Gold medal in 2002. She set a world record by winning the yellow metal in Wrestling on six occasions. She won a Bronze at the 2012 Olympics and a Gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Mary Kom’s smile shines as brightly as her medal

Vijender Singh, among men, has earned a position of prominence in the world of Boxing. A professional boxer, Singh managed to win the Olympic podium finish on two occasions. The future of Boxing in India now lies in the hands of matchless talents like Sonia Chahal and Lovlina Borgohain.

The popularity of Sports Shooting has been shooting higher than ever in recent times. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore started the legacy of Shooting in India by winning a Silver at the 2004 Olympic Games. Abhinav Bindra upped the game with a Gold medal in the following competition. Talented shooters such as Gagan Narang, Jitu Rai, and Heena Sidhu, ably supported him.

Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore (Sports Shooting) inspired Vijender Singh (Boxing) to win an Olympic medal. (left to right)

Young icons like Manu Bhaker, Saurabh Chaudhary, and Mehuli Ghosh, won medals at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games for Shooting. They kept the hopes of the people high with their meritorious performances in the 2020 Olympic Games as well. These names and their likes are huge figures of inspiration for the athletes of the future who will keep alive the spirit of sports in India.

In the era of digitalisation, spectators can easily access tournaments and matches on their mobile phones, thereby making any kind of sport an integral part of popular culture. Sports are depicted in various movies, documentaries, and in literature in the form of books. Popular films have been made on Cricket, Badminton, Boxing, Football, Rugby, and even Athletics. Documentary films have also been made on Cricket and Tennis. Books on Cricket and Football have been written in the form of autobiographies as well as sports journals. Making sports a part of popular culture by integrating them with mediums of entertainment brings them closer to the public in general, at a personal level.

  • Reneeka Chatterjee

F.Y. B.Sc.

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