Birmingham Games: Big Surprises and Turning Point for Indian Athletes
India failed to cross the Gold Coast tally but with 61 medals from several traditional and unexpected quarters the contingent has galloped to glory in Birmingham. In the absence of shooting, athletics, wrestling, weightlifting and lawn bowls emerged as the stars of Indias 2022 campaign.
The NEC Arena in Birmingham was the busiest hub on the final day. A forty five minute drive from the city centre, it had the badminton and table tennis halls packed at 8:50 am on Monday morning. The schools on vacation meant mothers were bringing in their children to sporting arenas. As my train from Birmingham New Street wheeled out, I met two Scottish boys of 7 and 9 and their mother, busy scanning the schedule of the day. There was no Scotland on the final day, but Ben Thomson and Jason Thomson wanted to catch PV Sindhu in action, so had their mother buy tickets for 85 Pounds for each of them.
PV Sindhu was the biggest draw on the final day of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. NEC, that was hosting Table Tennis and badminton had a footfall of over 72,000 on Monday the 8th.
Venue manager at NEC, Chris Evanley tells me, ‘Indians have been the biggest draw on all days of the Games. There is a large expat population in Birmingham. It also is one of the youngest cities in Europe. A lot of people who are working in the IT and infrastructure have disposable income.'
By the time the train reached NEC, Ben and Jason had their plan charted- Sindhu, Lakshya and then, Sharath Kamal.
NEC was the hub for Badminton, Table Tennis, Boxing and Weightlifting during the Games and the first two fixtures- Sindhu vs Michelle Li in the Gold medal match and Lakshya Sen vs Ng Tze Yong drew massive crowds. India was already assured of medals; the fight was to secure the Gold. A group of 19 fans of Indian origin, draped in tri-colour had travelled from Manchester. “We chose Sindhu's match over Hockey because we were sure that she would strike Gold. We wanted to go to Hockey as well, but since the matches were overlapping and the venues too far, did not seem reasonable to travel,” said 29-year old Ritesh Bajaj. To make their monies worth, both Sindhu and Lakshya won Gold.
This was not the only day Bajaj had travelled to Midlands to see India's march in Birmingham. With four of his friends he had reached Lemington Spa the day the ladies fours teams won Gold in Lawn Bowls. “It was truly historic and the excitement was palpable. Those ladies gave a sport an identity. Who would have spoken about Lawn Bowls before? Lemington was also the prettiest of the CWG venues in Birmingham'.
It was not just the women but the men's fours team also added a historic silver medal to India's tally.
By the time Ben and Jason were leaving NEC they had seen a historic 4 medal haul- 3 Golds, by Sharath Kamal in Table Tennis. He told me later “I am playing the best table tennis of my life at 40'. His efforts were duly rewarded with the duty of the flag bearer during the closing ceremony.
The other star of the show was the athletics contingent. When Tejashwin Shankar struck the bronze, the weightlifters had kept the media contingent busy. Very few from the Indian media were present to see the historic medal in high jump. Tejaswin though enjoyed the company of 30,000 spectators at the Alexander Stadium. His was a sensational story- fighting a court battle for selection in the team and then winning a medal. What came out after the medal was his toil with 3 stray dogs as spectators in one of Delhi's stadiums. A favourable court order had given him the chance to fly to Birmingham. A medal, that India had almost lost due to the system, was secured.
Tejaswin says, ‘I was prepared to land a medal, the moment I landed in Birmingham. I had put the mental struggle behind'.
That win opened the floodgates- Sreeshankar Murali, Avinash Sable, Eldhose Paul, Abdullah Aboobackar, Annu Rani, Sandeep Kumar, Priyanka Goswami.
“8 medals from the Indian athletics squad should be the highlight of the Birmingham performance,” says BBC's Joe Wilson.
But it was the wrestling team that won 12 out of 12, with 6 Gold medals. The wrestlers wrestled in front of a packed audience. Over 2 days at the Coventry stadium the crowds- essentially Indians from all across UK, Canada, Europe, Singapore had gathered to see them. Wrestlers feel the responsibility of dragging in larger number of fans to the turnstiles of the sport because there are talks of it being dropped from multi-discipline games in the future. There were some categories that had 4 to 5 entries. ‘We need to win and entertain, get crowds in, get more people to watch us on TV. That is the only way the sport will remain in Games like these. In the wrestling community there is already a lot of talk on this,' says Olympic medal winner Bajrang Punia.
While stars were born in Birmingham Games, some had a fresh lease of life. Olympic medal winner Sakshi Malik had told herself, if she failed here, would call it quits. The Gold medal in Birmingham will be a turning point in her career. Vinesh Phogat came through a great deal of mental struggles and injury post Tokyo. Winning Gold in the 2022 Games restored her confidence and faith in her abilities. The story of boxer Amit Panghal is similar. The boxing contingent bagged 3 Gold medals on the penultimate day.
This was the first Games that brought in a concept of Mixed zones and I- zones (informal zones) for players' interactions with the media. The players had to pass through the zones and the journalists had to request for interviews, sound bites. Unlike in Cricket events, this arrangement of informal zones was friendlier.
After the medal ceremony PV Sindhu interacted with the journalists in the mixed zone (including the host broadcasters), then she requested for a break from us and went away for mandatory dope test. Meanwhile we watched Lakshya Sen win Gold, Sindhu came back with a big smile 2 hours later, ready for all the questions. What was the significance of this medal for her? ‘I have completed the cycle of bronze, silver and gold at CWG'
India won several other significant medals like Sourav Ghoshal's bronze in Men's singles in squash.
The Games were gratifying for the fans and tiring too. Spread over Birmingham, Cannock Chase, Coventry, Royal Leamington Spa, Sandwell, Solihull, Warwick, Wolverhampton, and London, travel was draining. The Victoria Games in 2026, in 5 cities will not get any better either, but rest assured the Indian squad will remain one of the biggest draws Down Under as well.
NDTV at CWG 2022