Over the last decade, Indian media has tried to make up for its supposed ignorance of sports other than cricket. As a result, we see Olympic medallists and top performers from other disciplines getting a lot of airtime and attention. But there remains a major problem with coverage of non-cricket sports in India. Many seem to presume that success in these games is a new phenomenon and the history is completely blank.
India may never have been a major force in Olympics but there were many important players in the past who blazed the trail for the country in their respective sports. These people are hardly mentioned in the electronic media and remain unknown to the large masses of young people in the country. These men and women earned considerable success but due to lack of coverage in the present times, are not given their due share of attention. Let's look at five such personalities.
Boxing's popularity in India soared after Vijender Singh and Akhil Kumar's exploits in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Pro boxing events are now taking place in front of packed houses in the country. But the original star of Indian boxing shone into limelight after winning gold medal at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games. Ngangom Dingko Singh comes from the sportingly rich state of Manipur and his triumph at that Asiad made him a star in the country. Unfortunately, at that time, the country didn't have the kind of sporting eco-system that could help the star progress further. That gold in Bangkok remained his biggest achievement. In 2017, he found himself battling cancer and fought it bravely. Now, a Bollywood biopic on him is in the works. That should bring the champion much-deserved recognition.
Talk of women's tennis in India and the first, most likely the only, name that comes to mind is Sania Mirza. While the lady from Hyderabad has achieved considerable success in her career, few people know about the person who became the Asian women's champion way back in 1965 at the age of 17. Nirupama Mankad (original name Vasant) holds this distinction. She belongs to an illustrious sporting family. Her father was a top tennis player himself while her brother has been a leading coach. She got married to Ashok Mankad, a Test cricketer and son of Indian cricket legend Vinoo Mankad. Her son, Harsh, carried forward the family tradition by becoming a leading doubles player of the country. But the exploits of Mankad remain unmatched and she is, arguably, the greatest female tennis player the country has produced.
Gurbachan Singh Randhawa
Two names are held in high esteem when Indian athletics is discussed – Milkha Singh and PT Usha. While the former's exploits have even received celluloid treatment thanks to a Bollywood biopic, Usha is also well known and may have her own biopic soon. But few know about Gurbachan Singh Randhawa. He was a decathlete but 110 meter hurdles was his strongest suit. He captured the gold in 1962 Jakarta Asian games in decathlon but, even more impressively, Randhawa not only qualified for the final of 110 meter hurdles event at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics but finished fifth in the race. Considering how weak India has been in sprinting, Randhawa needs to be celebrated for his achievement a lot more than he has been.
There has been a flood of biopics, already released or planned, of sportspersons in Bollywood. But the man who probably deserves one more than anybody is Limba Ram. Most Indians are completely unaware of this champion archer and his exploits. To be fair, archers even today receive much lesser attention than sportspersons from other fields though the likes of Deepika Kumari Abhishek Varma have gained some recognition. But the most amazing archer the country has produced is definitely Limba Ram. Belonging to a poor tribal family of Rajasthan, Ram learned the basics of archery while shooting birds for food. He was then noticed by authorities and learned professional archery under regular coaches. He went on to become the Asian champion in 1992 by shooting a world-record score. The diminutive archer also came tantalisingly close to Bronze at Barcelona Olympics of the same year but just missed it. These are only the biggest achievements in what was a career full of great feats. Alas, these days, this great hero is hardly mentioned by anyone.
Badminton has gained great popularity in recent times due to the exploits of Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu. Prior to that, stars like Pullela Gopichand, Prakash Padukone and Syed Modi were well-known names. But the person who originally brought high-level success to India was Dinesh Khanna. He was the first, and to this day, the only India to win gold at the Asian Championships. This feat was achieved by the shuttler from Punjab in the 1965 championships at Lucknow. Prakash Padukone emerged as the leading shuttler in 1970s and then Modi took over in the 80s. But it was Khanna who was the original star. Even now, he has remained close to the game and played a key role in improving the standard of Indian badminton by providing inputs to Badminton Association of India.