Earlier this month, Tokyo Olympics silver medallist Mirabai Chanu did not register a lift at the 2023 World Weightlifting Championships, a mandatory event to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
She had hoped that not competing at the Worlds in Riyadh would help her stay fit and fresh for the delayed 2022 Hangzhou Asian Games that start later this week. To be fair, the rules laid down by the International Weightlifting Federation did not require Chanu to make a lift, but simply show up for the weigh-ins to stay in contention for a Paris berth.
Bindyarani Devi, a silver medallist at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games, did the same thing.
Shubham Todkar, Achinta Sheuli, and N Ajith did successfully compete in Riyadh, but none are in the Indian contingent for the Asian Games.
Chanu and Devi are not the only Indian athletes to prioritise the multi-sports Asian Games over the more competitive World Championships.
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Wrestlers Bajrang Punia and Deepak Punia did not even attend the national trials for the ongoing 2023 World Wrestling Championships, the first 2024 Olympics qualification event in the sport.
In athletics, Tejaswin Shankar passed the opportunity to compete in high jump at the 2023 World Athletics Championships last month in favour of competing in the decathlon event at the Asian Games. So did race walker Priyanka Goswami and middle-distance runner KM Chanda.
Sreeshankar Murali let go of the opportunity to become the first Indian long jumper to compete in the Diamond League Final despite qualifying on merit. Steeplechaser Avinash Sable and triple jumper Praveen Chitravel too skipped the Diamond League Final in favour of the less competitive Asian Games.
Neeraj Chopra, one of India’s greatest athletes in recent times, has constantly reiterated the importance of his country’s athletes to compete against the best in tougher competitions such as the World Championships. When fit, Chopra rarely misses competing at an event that features his biggest rivals, as is evident from his 2023 season.
The tight scheduling, with tournaments held too close to each other, is just one part of the story. What cannot be overlooked is the way that the Indian sporting structure prioritises and rewards performances at events such as the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games.
Bajrang Punia, for example, was awarded Rs 3 crore for the gold medal he won at the 2018 Asian Games and Rs 1.5 crore for winning gold at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. For winning bronze at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships, however, he received only Rs 4 lakh from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports.
Deepak Punia was given Rs 7 lakh for his silver medal at the 2019 Worlds and went on to hit the jackpot with his gold in Birmingham.
Similarly, accolades at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games received more weightage than titles won in the respective sport’s biggest event. Rohan Bopanna, after winning the 2017 French Open mixed doubles title, was overlooked for the Arjuna Award that year in favour of Saketh Myneni, who had won a mixed doubles gold and men’s doubles silver at the 2014 Asian Games, where the field is less competitive than at a Grand Slam.
India is rising in the world of sports, but its priorities are misplaced at the moment.
In wrestling and weightlifting, for example, the Commonwealth Games are a much inferior competition than the World Championships. Yet the former is rewarded more than the latter.
The aim for athletes should be to compete on the biggest stages – and that is something the sports ministry must consider when dishing out rewards.