Clash of the titans: Rudraneil Sengupta, on India at the Asian Games
More athletes, in more disciplines, have shown that they belong at the elite level. Could this be our best outing at the Games yet?
The Asian Games, which opened on Saturday, hold the promise of much excitement. This is a stage on which Indian athletes have historically done well. Given this year’s contingent, the Games in Hangzhou could prove to be India’s best-ever.
More athletes from India, in more disciplines than before, have shown that they belong at the elite global level, heading into these Games. If we have always done well in shooting, add javelin as well. If 400m sprints were a forte, now we can hope for long jump and steeplechase gold too. Chess is making a comeback at the Asiad after a gap of 13 years, and we have some of the world’s best players. Cricket is making its debut and not too many Asian countries can hope to beat us there.
Another sport in which we can dominate is women’s boxing. At the World Championships earlier this year, India won an unprecedented four gold medals. The Indian women’s boxing squad at the Asian Games thus features reigning two-time world-champion Nikhat Zareen; Olympic medallist and reigning world champion Lovlina Borgohain; and a world championship bronze medallist who is also the reigning Asian champion, Parveen Hooda. All will be looking to qualify for the Paris Olympics, adding another level of anticipation to these Games.
While much of the focus will be on Zareen and Borgohain, expect some of India’s lesser-known, up-and-coming talent, to shine too. It is a testament to the massive strides India’s women boxers have made that Hooda qualifies as “lesser-known”.
The lean, baby-faced boxer from Haryana with great reach and a stinging jab doesn’t mind. “I’m just happy to be here, to be part of such a great team,” she says. “I convinced myself that I could win an Olympic medal when I saw Mary Kom didi win one in 2012. I still believe I can. The Asian Games is a step towards that dream.”
Hooda, 22, says her life changed with the first bout she ever watched, in her village of Rurki in Rohtak, in 2011. The then sarpanch Sudhir Hooda had begun to conduct boxing classes at the local stadium. She watched a session, she says, and fell in love.
“Fighting looked like so much fun. I got into fights in school anyway, often with boys in my class, so I thought, ‘I’ll learn this, and go beat those boys up.’”
Instead, she stopped fighting in school altogether. As she trained with Sudhir Hooda, and began to win, she had new battles to contend with, including the hurdle of explaining to relatives and neighbours why she chose her sport; dealing with the fact that her village had no other sportspeople; and that its women traditionally did not work outside the home, let alone travel to fight.
“My parents were under a lot of pressure from neighbours, who told them a girl in sports would never be marriage-worthy,” she says. “My father sometimes believed them. But my mother was always on my side. She made sure I was not stopped.”
Parveen Hooda is now seen as a pioneer in Rurki, where, she says, “at least 70 girls are training in different sports and there are two more girls who have made it to the national boxing camp”. She, meanwhile, is aiming for gold at the Asiad. “And then I will turn all my focus to my Olympic dream,” she says.