So paltry is India’s medal return at the summer Olympics – 28 from a total of 24 games in which Indians have participated – that it is difficult to put a statistical spin of satisfaction on it. There are sports, however, in which India had won medals in two consecutive Games prior to Rio 2016 – hockey, shooting, boxing and wrestling.
Rio has added another sport to the list, highlighting India’s competitiveness in it at the world level. While Saina Nehwal had won a bronze in 2012 behind two Chinese finalists, silver medallist PV Sindhu, along with gold-winner Carolina Marin of Spain, broke the Chinese stranglehold atop the women’s game in 2016.
For years, India has been bursting at the seams with talented shuttlers waiting for their breakthroughs at the global stage. The seven-member contingent that India sent to Rio was its biggest ever since the sport was introduced as a medal discipline in 1992.
Consistency at the Games
India's badminton story at Rio was in many ways similar to the one at London in 2012: a medal win in women's singles, and a quarter-final entry in men's singles. After Parupalli Kashyap became the first Indian man to reach the quarters in the Olympics, losing to eventual silver medallist Lee Chong Wei, Srikanth Kidambi almost went one better in Rio.
The 23-year-old Kidambi was within three points of defeating the legendary and two-time Olympic gold medallist Lin Dan (World No. 3) and causing the biggest upset of the Games. Sindhu’s victories over three higher-ranked opponents, along with Kidambi’s win over Jan O Jorgensen (World No. 5), proved that these two will be more than a force to reckon with. Along with Saina Nehwal, these three will obviously lead the Indian charge at Tokyo 2020.
But they may not be the only ones.
No dearth of talent
The next step for India is to produce not one, but several contenders, so that medal hopes don’t rest on one or two individuals alone. While Nehwal and Sindhu made it only the second time India had two contenders in a single badminton event at the Olympics – the last time was Abhinn Shyam Gupta and Nikhil Kanetkar in the men's singles at Athens in 2004 – 2015 did see six Indian players in the top 50 of men’s singles rankings.
The current rankings have five male shuttlers in the top 50, with Srikanth, ranked 11th in the world, followed by Ajay Jayaram (22), HS Prannoy (28), B Sai Praneeth (36) and Sameer Varma (38).
Praneeth burst into the scene at the 2016 All-England Championships when he stunned current World No. 1 Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia. Prannoy is not too far behind Kidambi either, as the 24-year old has recorded wins over Jorgensen, Indonesian Taufik Hidayat (now retired) and Lin Dan already.
These five, along with London Olympian Kashyap, make for a very strong Indian presence in the top 100, with a total of nine shuttlers. The women are led by the World No. 5 Nehwal and Sindhu, currently No. 10, along with three other women who are all ranked below 100 – Tanvi Lad (79), Gadde Ruthvika Shivani (84) and Saili Rane (94).
This emerging pack will ensure that the top players are kept on their toes as battles for ranking places get tougher. With a restricted number of places per Olympic Committee for the main draws of badminton events, India’s three singles shuttlers from Rio face a tough test not just from the rest of the world, but also from within.
The Premier Badminton League, held in January earlier this year, saw the youngsters get a chance to play against not only local heroes but the stars of the world game, including Lee Chong Wei. For these aspiring stars to rub shoulders with global badminton luminaries is an opportunity definitely worth repeating every year.
Centre for excellence already in place
The best part of badminton’s emergence is that its rise in stature has been parallel with that of India’s very own centre for badminton excellence, the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA) started by the former All-England Champion and Olympian.
The expansion of the PGBA from a nine court facility to a 17-court one and its spread to various cities – Gwalior, Tanuka in Andhra Pradesh, Vadodara and Salem in Tamil Nadu, and, soon, Greater Noida in the National Capital Region has meant that Gopichand has laid the foundations for world-class infrastructure. The centres can now concentrate on adding more top coaches and specialists in nutrition, diet and strength training.
Started in 2008, the academy has been home to the two medallists and almost all of the aforementioned talent. The man responsible for the facility’s huge output of talented shuttlers is Gopichand himself, supported by his wife and former Olympian, PVV Lakshmi. But now it needs scaling up, which in turn means more funds.
The academy – and Gopichand as coach – is poised to produce at least one badminton gold-medallist at Tokyo 2020. If ever there was a reason to provide impetus to a sport, this is it.
There are still hurdles to negotiate, including the building of doubles teams, but the early signs are positive, and the pairing of youngsters Manu Atree and Sumeeth Reddy is capable of going all the way.
Globally, there is a sort of decline in the Chinese hegemony over badminton. The opportunity is all the more ripe for that reason. India should aspire to being world leaders in at least one sport, and badminton provides just that opportunity.
After all, cricket, played by a dozen or so countries, isn't really a world game, no matter how many times India wins the World Cup.