Asian Games: India athletes break barriers to make sports history

Cricket-crazy India is opening up to other sports. The proof? The athletes who excelled at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang. Here, sports writer Suprita Das profiles five of them.

Swapna Barman, heptathlon

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Image caption Swapna Barman competed at the Asian Games with an excruciating toothache

At 21, the first Indian to win a heptathlon gold at the Asian Games. It's considered to be one of the most difficult track and field events, and an excruciating toothache made competing even more difficult for her. She appeared in the stadium with a heavily taped jaw and chin to reduce the pain.

Adversity has been part of her existence practically since she started walking. She was born with six toes on each foot. Her homemaker mother and rickshaw-puller father in West Bengal's Jalpaiguri district barely managed to earn enough for two meals a day for the family. They didn't have the means to fund their girl's athletics career.

For years, she squeezed her six toes into a shoe meant for five. Heptathlon stretches athletes to the limits of their endurance and stamina. It needs strong running and fine throwing and jumping techniques to score as many points as possible over a multi-day competition.

For Barman, every landing in the jumping event brought more pain, and the sprints were worse. But she didn't give up. Her stellar show at the Asian Games has made her popular, and she is hoping sponsors will now come forward to help her get better, custom-made shoes.


Neeraj Chopra, javelin throw

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Won India's first Asian Games gold medal in javelin throw. Has been performing well since he won the Under-20 World Championship title in Poland in 2016.

Born into a family of farmers in a village in the northern Indian state of Haryana, he learnt how to throw the javelin by watching videos on his mobile phone. He has come a long way in the last two years. There was a time when the javelin-thrower would wait for hours to find the bus with the cheapest ticket to travel to his practice sessions. but now he is travelling around the world for competitions.

He used to be a vegetarian but reluctantly started eating chicken because his body needed more protein.

He will go into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a serious medal contender. No Indian has ever won an Olympic medal in a track and field event. Chopra may just end that long drought.


Dutee Chand, running

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Won silver in both 100m and 200m sprinting. Her success comes after a battle that almost destroyed her confidence, and her career. She was dropped from the Indian squad just days before the Commonwealth Games in 2014 after failing a hormone test. She filed a case against the test in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The court quashed her suspension and questioned the validity of so-called gender tests around naturally high testosterone levels in female athletes.

For the daughter of weavers from the eastern state of Orissa, it was a race for redemption at the Asian Games. For the last four years, Chand has been at the centre of a debate around gender tests in sports.

She wasn't considered womanly enough to compete in events for women in 2014 but as she ran on the tracks of Indonesia like a bullet, she broke more than national records.


Shardul Vihan and Saurabh Chaudhary, Shooting

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Image caption Shardul Vihan

Shardul Vihan, 15, is not eligible to drink, drive or own guns but good enough to beat competitors more than double his age. He won a silver in the men's individual double trap event. Vihan didn't have access to world-class facilities in his village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. On most days, he woke up at 04:00 to reach Delhi - 75 miles (120km) away from his village - to practice with his coach at a shooting range. He divided his time between his practice sessions, school and helping his father on his farm.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Saurabh Chaudhary

The story of Saurabh Chaudhary, 16, is little different. He won a gold medal in the 10m air pistol event. He too didn't have access to good facilities when he started. His family built a makeshift shooting range at their home to help him practise. The area around the target wall is severely damaged but his parents are not complaining after his performance at the Games.

The two teenagers have contrasting personalities. Vihan has to be told by his coaches to go to bed early on the night before a final, and stay away from video games. The teenager is the shooting team's darling - they love pulling his chubby cheeks.

Chaudhary, on the other hand, is like a monk, who stays away from his mobile phone most of the time. After becoming the youngest Indian shooter to win an Asian Games gold, he allowed himself a slight smile while on the podium. Before that, while toppling world and Olympic champions in the finals, he didn't show any emotion.

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