With the Rio Olympics currently taking place, India’s largest ever contingent is sweating it out in Brazil, desperate to earn a medal. Shooter Abhinav Bindra missed out on his second medal at the Olympics when he finished 4th in the 10-metre air rifle event. He is the first and only Indian to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics, achieving the feat in 2008, in Beijing.
Bindra is not the first shooter from India to perform well at the Olympics though. Four years before his Olympic glory, trap shooter Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won the silver medal in the men’s double-trap event in Athens. Rathore is considered as a ‘path-breaker’ in Indian sports, but apart from him, there are several other athletes who have paved the way of a particular sport for the first time in the country.
Here is a look at six such path-breakers:
1. Prakash Padukone (Badminton)
Prakash Padukone was by far the most established badminton player for India before the arrival of Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu. Back in 1980, he won the All England Championship and became the first Indian to do so. He was also the first Indian to ascend to the World No. 1 ranking.
The gold medal at the 1978 Commonwealth Games was his first major International title, which was followed by a bronze medal at the 1983 World Championships in Copenhagen.
‘Touch Play’ by Dev S. Sukumar is a book based on Padukone’s life story, and it details the struggles and successes of India's badminton pioneer quite well. The Bangalore-based former shuttler, along with cueist Geet Sethi, have co-founded an establishment called the ‘Olympic Gold Quest’ which aims at promoting sports in India.
Currently, players like Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth have been making it big in the world arena, but it was Prakash Padukone who globalised Indian badminton for the first time.
2. Milkha Singh (Athletics)
The name ‘Milkha Singh’ doesn’t require any introduction; he is perhaps the most well-known pioneer and ambassador of Indian sports. He was the most prominent Indian figure in athletics for a long time before the heroics of PT Usha in the 1980s.
The ‘Flying Sikh’ is the first to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games from independent India, and he also won four gold medals across two Asian Games in 1958 (Tokyo) and 1962 (Jakarta). But the most memorable and at the same time disappointing moment of his career came at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he missed out on a bronze medal in the 400-metre sprint category by a whisker.
Having taken only 0.1 seconds more than South African Malcolm Spence to cross the fninsh line, Milkha was denied the opportunity of being the first Indian to win an Olympic medal in Athletics. Milkha’s achievements are unparalleled by any Indian till now, and he is a trend-setter in the truest sense of the term.
3. Ramanathan Krishnan (Tennis)
Lawn tennis is a widely followed sport around the globe and Indians are keen followers of it. But there have been hardly any Indian tennis players in the individual category who have made a mark at the world level. Ramanathan Krishnan is one of them, and he was the first player to glorify India’s name in the global tennis fraternity.
Krishnan played the quarterfinals of the French Open in 1962, but his most memorable achievements were reaching the semifinals of two consecutive Wimbledons Championships – in 1960 and 1961. At the 1960 Wimbledon, he was the seventh seeded player and lost to the eventual winner Neale Fraser. The following year, the Indian defeated Roy Emerson to reach the semifinal but failed to get the better of the legendary Rod Laver in the next match.
The Nagercoil-born tennis ace was once ranked 6th in the world. Players like Vijay Amritraj, Leander Paes, Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi have made it big in recent times, but Ramanathan Krishnan was a true path-breaker for Indian tennis.
4. Jeev Milkha Singh (Golf)
Jeev Milkha Singh, the son of the famous athlete ‘Milkha Singh’ who also features in our list, is a professional golfer from Chandigarh. In 1998, he became the first Indian player to feature in the European tour. So far, he has won four European Tour events and is the most successful golfer from the country on tour.
Jeev became the first Indian to get through to the Top 100 in the Official World Golf Rankings, back in October 2006. A recipient of the Arjuna Award as well as the Padma Shri award, Jeev, after winning the 2006 Asian Tour and also performing well in back to back tournaments in Japan, scripted another milestone by becoming the first Indian to make it to the Top 50 of the World Rankings.
With a record of 20 professional titles, the Indian was the first prominent golfer from the nation.
5. Narain Karthikeyan (Motor racing)
Formula 1 may be one of the most widely followed sports in the world, but for a long time, it hardly had any popularity in India. Michael Schumacher was probably the poster boy of F1 for Indian viewers, but things changed to a certain extent when a young countryman was seen competing with the drivers of Ferrari and McLaren. Yes, I am talking about none other than Narain Karthikeyan, the first Indian Formula One driver.
Having made his F1 debut in 2005 with the Jordan team, the Coimbatore-born driver soon became a household name. Karthikeyan was a recipient of the prestigious Padma Shri award in 2010 and has started 46 races in his F1 World Championship career. In spite of not having a glittering stint at the top level, he is the only Indian athlete responsible for popularising Formula One to great heights in the country.
6. Dipa Karmakar (Gymnastics)
The young girl from Tripura created history by becoming the first Indian female gymnast to qualify for the Olympics. Her biggest claim to fame before that was the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where she won a bronze medal in the vault. Back in October last year, she became the first Indian gymnast to qualify for the finals at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships.
But her most memorable and famous performance cae during the 2016 Rio Olympics where he missed out on a bronze medal to Swiss Giulia Steingruber with an overall score of 15.066. Known for performing the dangerous ‘Produnova’ vault, the entire nation was glued to their television sets minutes before India’s 70th Independence Day, hoping for a medal, but that was not to be.
In spite of returning empty handed, Indians all over the globe lauded the Agartala-born girl for her efforts in a sport that India has never been known to embrace. Dipa is undoubtedly a path-breaker in Indian sports, and her success may well spawn the emergence of many more gymnasts in the country.