Rohit Mahajan A WAVE of elation swept Indian sport over the last few days. Which of the great feats Indian sportspersons achieved must be accorded prime place? It’s perhaps unfair to compare brilliance, but India’s win in the Thomas Cup, surely, scores over Nikhat Zareen’s fantastic gold in boxing’s World Championships and R Praggnanandhaa’s win over world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, the second of the year. There are several reasons for this. One is the rarity of the feat — this is India’s first Thomas Cup title, and the first medal since 1979, while Nikhat is the fifth Indian world champion in women’s boxing. Two, badminton is an ‘open’ sport in which there’s no limit on the weight and size of the competitor. For reasons far too complex to get into here, Indians struggle at top international events in sports that are not bound by weight categories — athletics or football or tennis or swimming or rowing, for example. In these sports, your height, body weight, strength and athleticism are of critical importance. Since 1996, most of our Olympics medals have come in sports that are bound by weight divisions (boxing, weightlifting, wrestling), and shooting, a sport in which body strength or athleticism isn’t of critical importance. That’s the reason Neeraj Chopra’s gold in javelin throw at the Tokyo Games was so significant, as also Leander Paes’ bronze in tennis in 1996, the men’s hockey team’s bronze in Tokyo, and also the three medals won by our two badminton queens, Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu. Kidambi Srikanth won all six of his Thomas Cup matches, HS Prannoy won all five he played, including two nerve-wracking ones that took India to wins in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Lakshya Sen, after being unwell during the tournament, did a fantastic job in putting India 1-0 up in the final. The importance of the doubles team of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty can’t be overemphasised — their win in the final was sensational. Without them, victory was impossible — nay, no one can be singled out. It’s an incredible team victory. Nikhat, world champion A taunt from Mary Kom turned Nikhat from a girl who carried respect for the opponent to the ring to a ruthless fighter. Shortly after Mary was thrashed by Nicola Adams in the semifinals of the flyweight category at the London Olympics, she shook her head and said ruefully: ‘Aaj bahut maar khaya’ — ‘I got badly beaten up today’. Mary, India’s greatest achiever in boxing, operated best in sub-50 kg weight categories — she’s just 5ft 2in tall and her optimum boxing weight class, commensurable with her height, is below 50kg. She’s won all six of her World Championships gold in 45kg-48kg categories. There’s no sub-50kg category at the Olympics, so when Mary went to the Olympics, in 2012 and 2021, she knew she was fighting above her natural weight class, often against taller opponents — Adams, for instance, was close to 3 inches taller. She could, thus, accept the fact that she was outclassed. However, Mary has had difficulty accepting being second-best in India. When she was beaten by Haryana’s Pinky Jangra in the 46kg quarterfinals at the 2009 Nationals, she allegedly used “unsporting” language against the judges and was suspended. Pinky beat her at the trials for the 2014 Commonwealth Games too. Mary later alleged she was discriminated against because she’s from the North-East. Mary often displays endearing naivete, but then she also acts in churlishness sometimes, mostly due to her ultra-competitiveness. That’s the nature of the beast — the self-belief of champions brooks no challenge. She’s the face of women’s boxing in India, she’s spawned a thousand dreams in the minds of little girls. Nikhat was once one such girl. Then Nikhat challenged Mary. Nikhat wanted fair trials to select the boxer for the Tokyo Olympics. The fault didn’t lie with any of the two — the boxing officialdom had given conflicting messages about the qualification process. But Mary didn’t like Nikhat’s demand. “Who is Nikhat Zareen? I don’t know who she is,” Mary said, and then proceeded to win their fight when the trial did take place in late 2019. Nikhat later said Mary used cuss words at her during the bout. Mary left the ring without shaking Nikhat’s hand. That was the turning point for Nikhat. She’d grown up admiring Mary, and disrespect from her idol stung her badly. But it didn’t break her. When she was sponsored by a non-profit, JSW Sports, she worked with Ronald Simms, a former coach in the US Air Force team. Simms says after the loss to Mary, Nikhat grew mentally tougher — she changed from a girl who carried too much respect for the opponent to a stronger, confident boxer. Nikhat is now a world champion. A sportsperson works almost every day of the year with a plan, with predefined goals. That’s what creates outliers — it has taken Nikhat 13 years of hard work to get there. There’s much lay persons, chained by inertia or negativity or plain tedium, can learn from them.