With the countdown to the upcoming Olympics underway, all eyes are on the Indian athletes who are trying to secure a berth at Rio in their respective sporting disciplines. This is a chance for them to represent the nation at the world's biggest sporting spectacle, and they wouldn't want to let it go no matter how much sweat and blood they have to expend.
It comes as no surprise to me that a big part of India's Olympic contingent is made up of athletes from the defence forces, popularly known as the Services. Jitu Rai, Gurpreet Singh and Chain Singh (shooting), Shiva Thapa (boxing), Kheta Ram, Sandeep Singh, Nitender Singh Rawat, Gopi T, Ganapathi and Devendra Singh (athletics) have all qualified for the upcoming Rio Olympics.
The Indian armed forces has always been on the forefront when it comes to producing sportsmen of international pedigree. In addition to their heroics on the battlefield, where the brave officers and soldiers of the defence forces have made the ultimate sacrifice by laying down their lives in the line of duty, they have been equal to the task of making the nation proud by winning medals for the country at international sports meets.
Sports has always been an integral part of the military fitness regime. There is a structured approach to organizing sports in the Indian army to get to the pinnacle of sporting excellence. There are inter-battalion, brigade, divisional and command level tournaments for each of the sporting disciplines, which brings out the ultimate champions in each sport.
These tournaments are intensely competed by the sportsmen of different battalions, who put their best foot forward for the "naam" and "izzat" of their respective battalions. The Services Selection Control Board (SSCB), the apex sports body governing body, then draws out the best athletes from the tri-services to represent the defence forces at the national level meets.
The Indian army launched a path-breaking program under the aegis of "Mission Olympic Wing" with a view to improve the overall standards of the country's sportspersons and spot potential medal winners for the upcoming Olympics. The Mission Olympic wing has five nodes: the Army Sports Institute (Pune), Army Marksmanship Unit (Mhow), Army Rowing Node (Pune), Army Yachting Node (Mumbai) and Army Equestrian Node (Meerut), which have their task cut out to produce world class sportsmen in archery, boxing, shooting, weightlifting, wrestling and rowing.
The programme has reaped huge dividends, with some of the army men winning medals for the country at the Asian and Commonwealth Games. The services athletes train at the state-of-the-art Army Sports Institute (ASI) at Pune, which is equipped with world class facilities for training and physical conditioning in addition to the best foreign coaches under whose able guidance the athletes can fine-tune their skills.
So let’s go down memory lane and relive the exploits of some of the athletes from the armed forces who represented the country with honour and brought back laurels in different sporting disciplines.
India’s legendary athlete Milkha Singh’s first real exposure to athletics happened in the early days of his army career as a recruit in the Electrical Mechanical Engineering Center at Secunderabad.
Milkha became the poster boy of Indian athletics in the 60s after his heroics in the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he finished a creditable fourth after missing the bronze by a whisker. The “Flying Sikh” won the 400-metre titles in the 1958 and 1962 Asian Games besides winning the 400m title at the 1958 Commonwealth Games held in Cardiff.
Sriram Singh Shekhawat from the Rajputana Rifles was a prominent middle distance runner in the 70s who won gold medals in the 800m at the 1974 and 1978 Asian Games. Sriram represented India in 800m at the 1976 and 1980 Olympics.
Shivanth Singh was a great long distance runner who defied all odds and trained hard to achieve notable success in his athletic career. Shivanth won the gold in the 5000m at the 1974 Asian Games. He had an intense rivalry with another great runner Hari Chand, and both of them competed hard for most of the titles in long distance running at the national meets.
In the last decade or so, Surinder Singh from Garhwal Rifles has been one of the best long-distance runners in the country. He has represented India at the 2006 Asian Games and the 2008 Summer Olympics. At the 2007 Asian Indoor Games, he won a silver medal in the 3000m race.
Meanwhile, the likes of Basanta Bahadur Rana and Irfan Kolothum Thodi have been seasoned runners in the international circuit. Both Basanta and Irfan Thodi represented India at the 2012 Olympics.
Anil Kumar Prakash from the Madras Engineering Group was India’s fastest man by a mile in the late 90s and early 2000s. He was the dominant sprinter of his generation and bagged most of the 100m titles at the national athletic meets. It is pertinent to note that he set the national record of 10.3 seconds in 100m at the National Athletic meet in 2005, which stood in his name for almost a decade. He also won a silver medal at the 2000 Asian Athletic championships held in Jakarta.
Paan Singh Tomar, a national steeplechase champion for seven years, served in the Bengal Engineers Group at Roorkee. Tomar represented India in steeplechase at the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo. The achievement of this unsung hero got plenty of publicity after a Bollywood movie was made on him, showcasing his accomplishments in athletics.
Other notable athletes from the armed forces: Bhim Singh, Ram Yadav, C Hamza, Chand Ram.
The Indian army has to be credited for producing some of the best boxers in the country's history, who have packed a punch at the international stage. Army boxer Padam Bahadur Malla was the first Indian boxer to win a gold medal at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta.
Hawa Singh dominated the Indian boxing scene in the heavyweight category in the 60s and 70s. He won the national title for 11 consecutive years from 1961 to 1972. He also won the gold medal in the heavyweight division at the 1966 and 1970 Asian Games.
Gopal Dewang was another boxer of international pedigree who won silver medals in the Asian Boxing championships. Other notable services boxers who were awarded the Arjuna Award for their accomplishments in the sport are M Venu, Mehtab Singh, C. C. Machaiah, Dharmender Singh Yadav and Rajender Prasad.
NK Dingko Singh was one of India’s best pugilist in the 90s. The stocky athlete hailing from Manipur served as a sailor in the Indian Navy. Dingko rose to prominence by winning a gold medal at the King’s Cup Boxing tournament in 1997 at Thailand. He made a mark on the world stage by winning the gold medal in the bantamweight division at the 1998 Asian Games.
Shiva Thapa has been another boxer of world class pedigree, who won a gold medal at the 2013 Asian Boxing championships. Shiva became the youngest boxer to qualify for the Olympics when he made the cut for the 2012 London Olympics. He won a bronze medal at the 2015 World Amateur Boxing championships.
In the last two decades, services boxers like Som Bahadur Pun, Suranjoy Singh, Gurcharan Singh, L Devendro Singh, Verghese Jhonson, Nanao Singh and Narjit Singh have done the nation proud by winning medals at international boxing meets.
The shooters from India's armed forces have hit bull’s eye and made the nation proud in international meets several times over. The Army Marksmen Unit based in Mhow is an ace establishment for sporting excellence. It has undoubtedly been the breeding ground in nurturing some of the best sharp shooters in the country.
Colonel (then Major) Rajyvardhan Singh Rathore from the Grenadiers Regiment created history of sorts when he won a silver medal in the Men’s Doubles Trap event at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Rathore, an accomplished trap shooter, has also won gold medals in the Doubles trap event at the 2002 and 20006 Commonwealth Games.
An ace pistol shooter, Subedar Vijay Kumar from the Dogra Regiment proved his mettle when he bagged a silver medal in the 25m Rapid Fire Pistol at the 2012 London Olympics. Vijay has been a silver medallist at the World Shooting Championships besides winning medals for India at the Commonwealth and Asian Games.
Jitu Rai seems to be the latest shooting sensation to come out of the Indian Army. Rai, a Naib Subedar with the 11th Gorkha Rifles, has been a top class pistol shooter in the international circuit, winning gold medals at the Asian and Commonwealth Games in 2014. Rai also made his mark at the 2014 ISSF World Cup by winning two silvers and a gold in the event.
Gurpreet Singh, a sapper in the Indian army, did the nation proud by winning two gold medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Harpeet Singh, a sailor with the Indian Navy, won two gold medals in 25m Center Fire Pistol event at Commonwealth Games 2010 New Delhi and a silver medal in 25m Rapid Fire Pistol event at the Commonwealth Games 2014 Glasgow.
It is notable that the first ever sporting icon of the country post-independence was Major Dhyan Chand, who served in the Punjab Regiment of the Indian army. A magician with the hockey stick, Dhyan Chand became well known for his artistry and dribbling skills which mesmerized fans across the world.
Chand was India’s goal scoring machine in Indian hockey’s golden era, when the team dominated the world scene by winning Olympic golds in the 1928, 1932 and 1936 editions of the Summer Olympics.
Ignacious Tirkey, an Indian field hockey player who captained India and played as a fullback, serves in the Madras Engineering Group of the Indian Army. Tirkey was awarded the Arjuna Award for his outstanding contribution to Indian hockey.
Meanwhile, Dananjay Mahadik who represented India as a fullback for almost 15 long years, served in the Maratha Light Infantry of the Indian army. Seasoned national shooters like Sanjeev Rajput, Chain Singh, Omkar Singh, Pemba Tamang have all been medalists at the Commonwealth and Asian Games for India.
Much like shooting which involves a lot of concentration, focus and discipline, archery has also seen a lot of exceptional athletes coming from the army overs the years. Tarundeep Rai from 58 Gorkha Training Center, Shillong has represented India at the Olympics. He became the first Indian to win an individual men's silver medal in archery at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. He also won the silver medal with the Indian team at the 2005 World Championship in Madrid, Spain.
Meanwhile, Majhi Sawaiyan represented India in archery at the 2004 Athens Olympics. He won silver medals in the team event of the 13th and 14th Asian Archery Championships.
The so-called “Pahari regiments” of the Indian Army – namely the Gorkha Rifles, Garhwal Rifles, Kumaon Regiment and Assam Regiment – which draw most of their troops from the Himalayan region, are known to be the powerhouses of soccer within the services fold.
The Gorkha Brigade Football team was one of the top teams vying for domestic titles during the 60s. They won the Durand Cup in 1966 and 1969 besides losing out to Madras Regimental Center in the 1958 finals.
Meanwhile, the Madras Regimental Center team won the Durand Cup in 1955 and 1958. Some of the services footballers who made it to the Indian national team were ace strikers Shyam Thapa and Amar Bahadur Gurung from the Gorkha Rifles and Peter Thangaraj from the Madras Regiment.
The Services team has been a force to reckon with in the national football arena, winning the prestigious Santhosh Trophy five times besides being the finalist on five other occasions.
The Services team are also the reigning national football champions. Havaldar Anthony Chettri, the current skipper of the Services Football team, happens to be from the 107 TA battalion which is affiliated to the 11th Gorkha Rifles regiment of the Indian Army.
Bajrang Lal Takhar, a Naib Subedar with the Rajutana Rifles, created history by winning the first ever gold medal for India in rowing at the 2010 Asian Games held in Guangzhou. Lal is also credited for being the first silver medallist in rowing at the 2006 Doha Asian Games.
Major General Mohammad Amin Naik from the Corps of Engineers has been a world-class oarsman. He won a bronze at the 1982 Asian Games coxed pairs. He has also been awarded with the Arjuna Award for his stupendous achievements in rowing.
Other notable mentions: Major R.S Bhanwala, Naib Sudebar Dalvir Singh.
The Indian army officers get very good exposure to horse riding and polo during their training days at the National Defence Academy. The National Defence Academy and Indian Military Academy Polo teams are right up there with the very best in the country.
The Indian polo team has always been fielded with ace polo players from the 61st Cavalry. The regiment, which has the distinction of being the only horse-mounted cavalry in the world, has produced some of the finest polo players in Colonel (Retd.) Kuldeep Singh Garcha, Lt Col. Ravi Rathore, Colonel Navjeet Sandhu and Colonel Rajesh Pattu.
Col (Retd.) Rupinder Singh Brar won a gold medal at the Tent Pegging event in the 1982 Asian Games.
The weightlifters from the defence forces have also made a mark at the international stage. In recent years, Katula Ravi Kumar from the Corps of Engineers has certainly raised the standards of weightlifting in the country by winning gold in the 69 kg category at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
Meanwhile, the likes of Chandakant Malil, Sandeep Singh, Ramesh Kumar, V Prabhakar and Sukhen Dey have won medals for India at international weightlifting meets.
Brigadier (Retd.) Raj Manchanda from the Indian army was the dominant squash player in the late 70s. Manchanda ruled over Indian squash by clinching the men’s singles national title a record six times from 1977 to 1982. Captain KK Hazari won the national squash title in 1957 and 1958.
It can be fairly concluded that the Indian army has significantly contributed to the sporting success of the country, and that it endeavours to raise the standards of excellence to greater heights.