Sandeep Sejwal has a refreshing sense of self-confidence when I speak with him. ‘I believe I can win in 2012,’ says the 22-year-old swimmer as he talks about his preparations for the London Olympics.
Sejwal is one of a small group of Indian swimmers who over the past year have beaten the odds to become winners in a sport where India historically has had little success. At last year’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi, he became the first Indian swimmer to reach the final of the 50 metre breaststroke, and he is also the first Indian breaststroker to qualify for the Olympic Games.
Sejwal didn’t manage to win what would have been India’s maiden Commonwealth Games medal in the sport—that honour went to para-swimmer Prasanta Karmakar. Nineteen-year-old Virdhawal Khade, meanwhile, followed up this success in the pool at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, when he became the first Indian since 1986 to win a swimming medal at the event.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
These athletes are a breath of fresh air after the stench last year of a series of mega scams, including over the bungled preparations for the Commonwealth Games and alleged bribery in cricket’s Indian Premier League, threatened to overwhelm India’s sporting image. Indeed, Sejwal & Co symbolise the sudden and unprecedented exuberance that has started to surround sports outside of India’s national game. And they’re starting to get noticed outside India, too. ‘Foreign competitors wouldn’t have a clue about us before,’ says Sejwal. ‘Now at events, they know us, talk about us.’
India’s inefficient sporting federations, mostly helmed by bureaucrats and political appointees, are the stuff of legend. But over the past five years, a galaxy of up-and-coming stars like badminton player Saina Nehwal, boxer Vijender Singh and shooter Abhinav Bindra have defied the country’s creaking infrastructure, callousness and ill-preparedness to take small, but important steps toward putting India on the global sporting map.
India turned in its best-ever performance at the most recent Asian Games, winning 64 medals, including a record 14 golds. It also amassed an unprecedented 101 medals in the Commonwealth Games, behind only Australia and England.
‘We’ve seen a huge change year-on-year in the sports ecosystem,’ says Hakimuddin Habibullah, a former Olympic swimmer and co-founder of the GoSports Foundation, a Bengaluru-based non profit that provides financial support to athletes considered highly promising.
Indeed, Sejwal, Khade and Karmakar are all supported by GoSports, which was established in 2008. ‘Everything has grown—funding, opportunities, confidence,’ Habibullah says.
Individual successes like that of Bindra, who ended India’s individual Olympic gold medal drought in Beijing in 2008, have been catalysts for change. For years, Indians have hidden behind the widely-held belief that its culture simply didn’t accommodate the killer competitive instinct so critical for sporting success. For many, this helped make sense of why a country of a billion-plus people couldn’t produce world greats in any sport aside from cricket.