India's young and bold break new ground in 2019


Odd-numbered years tend to be a bit barren for Indian sports news in the absence of the big events - the Olympic, Asian and Commonwealth Games. Not so 2019. The headline news was PV Sindhu making history by becoming world champion and there were successes across sports from chess to athletics but the big running storyline, keeping us busy through the year, was the unprecedented success of India's shooters.

And these are the stories that dominate our Awards for 2019, spanning sports and generations.

ESPN India Awards 2019: Full coverage

Sindhu's feat made her overwhelming choice for the Female Sportsperson of the Year award. It wasn't just what she won - the first ever Indian world champion in badminton - but how she did it. She went into that final against Nozomi Okuhara having been runner-up the two previous years and having generally earned a reputation for tripping at the last hurdle. She went through that final in 37 minutes, winning 21-7, 21-7 in what our writer Susan Ninan called "the most belligerently one-sided final scoreline in the history of the tournament". That's why the match - which most of us watched in a state of near-disbelief - was also voted the Moment of the Year.

Sindhu's counterpart, Saurabh Chaudhary, won a total of five shooting World Cup gold medals -- two in the men's 10m air pistol and another three in the 10m air pistol mixed team event, and a 10m air pistol bronze medal. That's a phenomenal achievement but it formed only one strand of the larger shooting story, in which Indian shooters won 22 medals - including 16 golds - at the year's four World Cups.

Chaudhary's success in the mixed team event came with Manu Bhaker; the two teenagers - Bhaker has just turned 18 - won gold at each of the four World Cups. They were a shoo-in for the Team of the Year Award; as our jury member Chetan Baboor put it, "Reminds you of Lee-Hesh and their Midas touch".

Bhaker and Chaudhary, as their age indicates, are just starting out; Koneru Humpy took a two-year break from chess, became a mother, then went through a difficult return to the sport before winning her first World title, in December 2019 - the Women's World Rapid Chess Championships in Moscow. How has that affected her? "It's changed my outlook toward what I want out of tournaments," she told us. "Earlier I'd be all worked up from Day 1, obsessing about winning any event I went to. Now I don't even check the standings until perhaps the penultimate round. I don't stress myself out and can enjoy my game a lot more."

We picked Balbir Singh (Senior), one of independent India's most celebrated Olympians, for the 'Lifetime Achievement' Award. Singh played a starring role in the national hockey team's triple golds in London 1948, Helsinki 1952 and Melbourne 1956. Some years ago, he'd recounted for us his emotions at seeing the Tricolour flying in London as India won her first Olympic gold as an independent nation. "I felt as if I was flying."

Finally, the Courage Award, a new award that we are proud to initiate, one inspired by its first recipient: Dutee Chand. For all her victories on the track, it's easy to miss her success off it. She fought the IAAF's discriminatory hypoandrogenism regulations and earned her right to race again. In 2019, she became the first Indian athlete to come out and talk about being in a same-sex relationship.

A seemingly simple act, speaking out could have been received very differently in the conservative world of Indian sport and society at large; instead, it drew praise from the international sporting community and cast her firmly as an Indian sporting star choosing to live on her own terms. Soon after she came out, Dutee told ESPN, "Sach kehne mein kyun darna? (Why should I be afraid to speak the truth?)".

Why be afraid? That's a good motto as we head into another big sporting year - headlined by the Olympics and the Women's Under-17 football World Cup in India, but, as always, with the potential for surprises, upsets and moments of greatness. All of which will doubtless feature in the 2020 Awards.