A decade of reinvention and revolution

PV Sindhu became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic silver medal, in 2016 Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

A typical weekly editorial meeting at ESPN India involves a tri-city conversation, several call drops and half a dozen arguments.

PV Sindhu over Mary Kom as Athlete of the Decade between 2010 and 2019? Recency bias... you've got to be joking.

What has Sushil Kumar done from 2014 to 2019 other than make Narsingh Yadav punch holes into walls in untrammelled fury? Hello, so a second Olympic medal is nothing? The only Indian to win two after Ye Grande Olde hockey team.

Going gaga over Jeakson Singh's goal at the Under-17 World Cup is a sign of old age or utter delusion. Just because we are not footy giants doesn't mean that Sunil Chhetri cannot spark a sport.

Oh please.

When seen through rheumy eyes, this landscape of Indian sport contains happy multitudes. To have those choices itself from Indian sport is like being immersed in a wave pool. You have to revel in being drenched. In the decade that has whizzed by - 2010 to 2019 - Indian sport has left us undeniably inundated. Sure, the decade's Olympic medal count - eight medals, zero golds, out of 220 competitors in London and Rio - is more drought-alert than flash flood. As a result of which, the party mood may appear somewhat OTT.

Yet, since Olympic medals float your boat, let's do the math. Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 produced four medals - one gold, one silver and two bronzes - from 140 competitors. If you're number-crunching, that's one medal for every 35 Indian athletes.

This decade the number has dropped to 27.5.

The US had the highest turnover from Rio: one medal for every 4.5 athletes competing. Great Britain at No. 2 was 5.46. China's number was 5.94. GB's cost per medal was GBP 4.1m (just under INR 38 crore per medal). See how silly it is to be to even be crunching these kinds of numbers?

Let's assess Indian sport over this decade beyond its medal tallies and turn it into PV Sindhu instead.

Her. With a capital 'Aich'. Indian badminton's boundary-breaking, future-shaper.

Sindhu's progression over the last ten years has been in sync with the odyssey of Indian sport itself.

Think evolution, reinvention and revolution.


Sindhu's development from World Junior Championship quarter-finalist in 2010 to World Champion in 2019 is the career path that athletes dream about. It took calculated, high-quality expertise, thoughtful planning, more method, less madness and the beating heart of a believer to make it possible.

This is where Indian sport is placed in the second decade of the 21st century, in transit between breakthrough successes and taking full flight. The athletes of today are the descendants of the Pioneers, our First Decade World Travelers. They were beneficiaries of India's economic liberalisation, with eyes that saw further ahead.

The years 2000 to 2009 produced a parade of Indian Numero Unos - the first in an eight-spot Olympic shooting final, the first Olympic individual gold, silver and women medallists, the first Olympic medals in boxing and wrestling, the first medallist at a World Athletics Championship, the first Indian in the WTA singles top 30, the first on the American golf tour, the first squash professional, the first in Formula One.

Their achievements kindled ambitions that were tested and worked over in this decade.

From Gopichand's 2001 All England title came his Hyderabad badminton factory and the sport's starburst - Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikkanth and thousands of kids who today want to be Them. Olympic medallists, World No.1s and now, with Sindhu, even World Champions.

If any Indian athlete has stayed committed and relevant during both these decades, it is MC Mary Kom, MP.

Her London 2012 medal could so easily have become her farewell after an already successful career, with four World Championship titles between 2000 and 2009.

But Mary Kom doesn't stop.

Post 2012, despite the hosannas, three babies and her own Bollywood biopic, she has won golds in the Asian and Commonwealth Games, and upped her World Championship gold tally to six. Not only has she set the standard for women boxers across weight categories, Mary Kom remains, at 36, the fighter who needs to be unequivocally beaten for any upcoming contender to prove their worth. Indian women's boxing does needs a successor and a new star. But first she will have to stop Mary Kom.

In other combat sports, India's first gold out of the World Wrestling Championships came from Sushil Kumar in 2010, their first silver (after 1967) in 2013, followed by two more silvers from the last two editions. After Vijender Singh's bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there was a period of administrative chaos, and India would find its first men's World Boxing Championship finalist in Amit Panghal only this year. Four of India's five women's World Wrestling medals belong to the post-2010 CWG period.

Between 2010 and 2019, Indian sport has shifted the needle so far along the dial that standing still or going backwards is not an option. The athletes won't have any of it.


On her way to Olympic silver and beyond, Sindhu transformed herself between who she fundamentally was and how she played. The determined but self-contained competitor tapped into her afterburner, stretched her game, left herself, body smash and raw emotions out on court. It was to take her to an Olympic final and two painful World Championship final defeats, before she won the third with emphatic vengeance.

The sport that tapped into the decade's zeitgeist of reinvention was kabaddi. The Pro Kabaddi League, launched in 2014, remodeled and repackaged a working-class sport of town and country into a watchable, viable, urban TV audience-magnet.

It morphed an indigenous, physically-demanding game (which the New York Times said "looks too simple to be a professional sport") into a marketing success story. As the second-most watched sports league in India after cricket, PKL has become a template for transformation.

It happened due to a willingness to tweak rules, accept change, take on a shinier, louder avatar and create its own new industry. Other than the IPL, no other franchise league in Indian sport has succeeded like the PKL and its lessons are simple: cede obsessive control, listen to external professional advice, hold on to what is true, fight the right kind of battles. This is in stark contrast to volleyball, whose ruling body binned the Pro Volleyball League despite finding reasonable success in season one, because of their pursuit of old domination over contemporary innovation.

Of all Indian sports trying to find their way through medieval administration, a changing fan base and the demands of the 21st century, it is football which stands to gain the most in the next decade.

The sport is virtually being hustled into reinvention. The advent of the ISL has changed how Indian football looks on television and how it can be marketed. The formation of the Bengaluru Football Club (BFC) is the model for how professional clubs work and can succeed. Still, it was the old-style clubs, born of community, sequestered in the I-League due to tighter purses, that reminded us of Indian football's romantic folklore. (Aizwal FC's I-League victory and Real Kashmir's elevation were proof.)

The difference in on-field standards between the ISL and I-League, we are reminded every year, is by no means vast. Out of this baffling double-headed dilemma will come Indian football's future, its final shape still unknown.

Remember though, the future takes no prisoners.


Like the comrades always say, it's coming. No, truly. The Olympics will continue to accurately track standards but, around it, there's an ecosystem simmering whose impact will only be understood in the decade that follows.

The decade began with a smashing of stereotypes and shackles for India's women athletes. The dream of being champion hosts was central to the success of the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games and women athletes found themselves on par with the men, with respect to funding, coaching and training, and being watched over by an anxious Indian state.

If the Geeta and Babita Phogats opened the gates for women wrestlers, Sakshi Malik broke down the door with her Rio medal. It was Ashish Kumar's gymnastics medals at the CWG and Asian Games that inspired Dipa Karmakar and before you realised it, we had an Indian in an Olympic gymnastics final. Ten years ago, could even the most loyal, optimistic Indian sports fan, have ever imagined that?

There is no sport today that an Indian won't try their hand at or find their way into. Track cycling? Ladies and gentlemen, meet Deborah Herold and Esow Alben, Indian islanders whose names are known on velodromes across cycling's mainland. Fencing anyone? Meet Bhavani Devi, who is aiming to become the first Indian fencer to show up at the Olympics. India has a women's rugby team that won silver at the Asians Rugby Sevens Trophy in 2017, and in June 2019, won its first Test with a full XV side. This is the decade in which the Indian women's cricket and hockey squads found their way back on television, newspaper columns and into public consciousness.

The decade that lies ahead will require our athletes to build experience, maximise opportunity and understand timing. Like Sindhu. Her career is not marked by dogged consistency or a sheaf of titles. What she knows how to do, though, is peak at the Big Ones. The ones that stick - Olympics, World Championships - and the ones which represent the pinnacle. Sindhu is 24 today, still has time on her side and may still own a good chunk of the next decade, too.

What has been achieved in Indian sport over the past decade has been revolutionary in that it has redrawn the boundaries of our athletes' imaginations.

Even we cannot comprehend just how far they could go.