It’s not always that a promotional campaign turns out to be on the money, but credit where it’s due.
The 661-strong Indian contingent in Hangzhou finished with a record 107 medals—more than enough to make the ‘ abki baar 100 paar’ (100 medals this time) campaign by official broadcaster Sony Sports Network a reality.
The medal haul is a 52.8 percent improvement on the country’s previous best (70 at the 2018 Games in Jakarta). It has vaulted India to fourth place on the medal table—its best finish ever at the Asian Games since the 1951 edition, where the host finished second among 11 participating nations.
Look past the shower of gold, silver, and bronze medals, and a more realistic picture emerges. While India has indeed performed remarkably well, it’s best not to extrapolate this performance to the Olympic Games coming up in less than a year’s time.
Of the 28 gold medals India has won, less than half (12) have come in events that will feature in the Olympics. Some gold medals have come in team events in shooting, which, although not part of the Olympic programme, are testament to India’s bench strength. However, nine gold medals have come in events like kabaddi, cricket, and compound archery that are not part of the Olympic roster.
Of the 12 gold, that have come in Olympic events, nine are measurable events (sports like shooting and athletics, where an athlete’s attempt can be quantified in mathematical units). Of them, just three—Sift Kaur Samra’s performance in the women’s 50m rifle 3 position event, Palak Gulia in the women’s 10m air pistol, and Neeraj Chopra’s javelin throw gold—are marks that are competitive at the world level.
Sift smashed the world record in the final, while Palak shot a 577 in qualifying, which would have just about made the final at the Tokyo Olympics before shooting a Games record score in the final. Chopra’s 88.88m throw to win gold would have also taken gold at the World Championships. In most of the gold medals won by India, this is not the case.
While it isn’t a measurable result, the historic first-ever badminton men’s doubles gold won by Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty will have to feature as a world-class performance. A badminton gold at the Asian Games is arguably harder since all Asian countries are allowed to field two teams, as opposed to the Olympics, where two teams can only be fielded if they are both ranked in the top 8 of the World Rankings.
Furthermore, India’s performance in other medal-rich sports has been just about par. The Indian wrestling team won two medals at the Tokyo Olympics, three years after winning two gold and a bronze at the Jakarta Asian Games. In Hangzhou, the medal haul is larger, but the colour is inferior; there are six medals, five of which are bronze and one is silver.
Unlike in Jakarta, there are no gold medals in boxing either, while once again the medal haul is bigger. If there were one gold and one bronze each in 2018, Hangzhou brought one silver and four bronze medals. Only Lovlina Borgohain made it to the final, with two-time world champion Nikhat Zareen losing in the semifinals and men’s world medallists Deepak Bhoria and Nishant Dev both losing early.
There is a caveat to be made here, though. The boxing competition saw the host getting a disproportionately high percentage of favourable decisions to go with a generous draw for their boxers.
Just like in Jakarta, India remains waiting to break through in medal rich sports like swimming, gymnastics or cycling.
While there was a record haul in athletics, just a handful—Neeraj and Kishore Jena’s performance in men’s javelin, Annu Rani’s gold medal-winning effort in the women’s javelin, and Murali Sreeshankar’s 8.19m long jump—are marks that will be competitive in Paris.
There’s plenty to be proud of, of course. Some of India’s most promising results have brought with them lesser medals. HS Prannoy’s badminton singles medal is only the second by an Indian man since Syed Modi at the 1982 Asian Games. While Satwik-Chirag were always favourites for gold, beating the 2022 world champions from Malaysia, is impressive. Sutirtha Mukherjee and Ayhika Mukherjee might have only won bronze, but their astounding win over the reigning world champions will mark them out as a prospect for next year’s Games. Kishore Kumar Jena, too, has added his name to the list of contenders for the javelin podium in a year’s time with a personal best for silver.
There were plenty of heartening performances elsewhere as well. Avinash Sable got a well-deserved international gold that should boost his confidence at the end of the season, as did the Indian men’s 4x400m team. But while both Sable and the relay team won gold, their timings were some way off their personal best. Both will have to be a lot faster if they have to be competitive at the World level.
These are performances that should give India confidence going into a challenging year. But it’s best not to take these results as a guarantee of future success.