Tokyo in sight, India's champions get faster, stronger... and younger


Indian sport's trajectory and spread over the last decade has meant that every year, the ESPN India Awards find more names in each category than we may have discussed the previous year. When ESPN India was first launched in 2016, no one imagined a table tennis player or a sprint cycling team being nominated in our third edition. At that time, the idea of kabaddi being a central part of our sporting discussion was only just settling in. In 2019, we realise Indian sport, despite obstacles, hurdles and mistakes, is moving on fast forward.

ESPN India Awards 2019: Full coverage

For Indian Olympic sport, a year like 2019, after the double-whammy of the CWG and the Asian Games, was expected to be a quiet one. But with a Games on everyone's minds, the ambitions of our athletes never abate. For each of our achievers nominated for the 2019 awards, the year was meant to provide a useful marker for the road to the Olympics. The bulk of our nominations feature performances that made their mark on the world stage.

Whether it was PV Sindhu's world badminton championship title out of her third final, or the world records and multiple gold medallists amongst our shooters, Apurvi Chandela or Manu Bhaker or Saurabh Chaudhary. Or India's first men's world boxing championship medallist Amit Panghal or the first three-time world wrestling medallist in Bajrang Punia. Or Sai Praneeth, India's first men's world badminton championship medallist after Prakash Padukone.

Yet sport and with it our awards, extend beyond the firsts and foremosts; Vinesh Phogat shook off a career-threatening injury, Mary Kom's mettle still shone, Vinesh's cousin Ritu switched sports with astonishing success, Rupinder Pal Singh's drag flicks returned making louder noise and Rani Rampal did what Rani Rampal does: right place, right time, right moment.

Then there's the younglings, (a word I first ran into when my colleague Susan used it in her 2018 year-ender piece) and India's appear to only get younger. From Naveen Kumar, who lit up his debut season at the PKL to R Praggnanandhaa, who in 2016 became India's youngest grandmaster (with the longest name), and the quiet talent of Elavenil Valarivan, who sparkled in the highly competitive 10m air rifle event, ending the year with the world No.1 title and a gold from shooting's World Cup finals. The best news to come out of Indian golf in the year belonged to a girl who no one had heard of previously: Diksha Dagar's Ladies European Tour title in South Africa made her a path-breaker beyond merely playing four successful rounds of golf.

We at ESPN India closely followed each of these stories with delight and the awards are both celebration of the athletes' achievement as well as our untrammelled joy at being witnesses to these significant events in Indian sport.

As always, the winners will be selected by a jury that includes some of the most influential doers and thinkers in Indian sport. Every year, we opt to change a few jury members only to bring in a freshness to the many views of Indian sport and this year, our new jury members are Anjali Bhagwat, the first Indian to make an Olympic shooting final and now coach; Jwala Gutta, world badminton championship medallist; former India hockey coach Harendra Singh; Nirupama Sanjeev, the first Indian woman tennis professional; Shaji Prabhakaran, seasoned football administrator and senior consultant with the Asian Football Confederation; Harsha Bhogle, commentator-columnist and sports fan, as well as ESPN's own intrepid reporters-writers Susan Ninan and Jonathan Selvaraj.

The ESPN.in Awards instituted in 2017, recognise the best individual and team performances in Indian sport on a calendar-year basis.