From the Rio Olympics to a home Test season in cricket then hockey world cup win, the year 2016 gave India some great sporting moments and several noteworthy young performers emerged as national sports icons. Here’s the list of the most impressive Indian sports icons of 2016:
The 21-year-old shuttler became a sensation after her resilient display at the 2016 Rio Olympics, which earned her the silver medal. Her incredible ability combined with her perseverance made her the frontrunner among India’s young athletes to become the nation’s next big sporting icon. She went on to win the China Open and Malaysia Masters, and finished as the runner-up in the Hong Kong Open and reached the semis of the Dubai Superseries Final, consolidating both her own and India’s position as a force to be reckoned with in international badminton. Her dominance also neatly plugged the gap left by an injured Saina Nehwal, and based on her performances, one can only expect her to shine even brighter in the years to come.
Sakshi Malik scripted history at the 2016 Rio Olympic by becoming the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal. The 24-year-old’s bronze medal winning feat was a highlight of an otherwise disappointing Indian campaign. Her achievement also veiled the under-achievements of the Indian wrestling contingent that was marred by controversy. At the Olympics, Malik won her Round of 32, 16 bouts before losing to finalist Valeria Koblova in the quarterfinals. She then qualified for the repechage round and won her first bout. Malik won her bronze after defeating reigning Asian champion Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan 8–5, despite trailing 0–5 at one stage. Her never-say-die spirit and enthusiasm endeared her to the millions of Indian watching the Games, providing a silver lining with India’s first medal of the 2016 Games.
Not often is a non-medallist in the Olympics the toast of a nation, but at the Rio Games in 2016, young Indian gymnast Dipa Karmakar did something whose worth no medal can measure. She missed bronze by a whisker, but was mentioned in the same breath as the country’s two medallists PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik. And not without reason too. Dipa was the first Indian woman gymnast overall, and the first Indian gymnast since 1964, to qualify for the Olympics, and at Rio, made the world gasp in disbelief when she nailed the Produnova – a ‘death vault’ comprising a front handspring and two front somersaults. Only four others have pulled it off so far, but Dipa has mastered it, having done it over 1,000 times. Her achievement was all the more special given the odds that she had had to fight, starting from poor facilities and misconception (people used to ask if what she did was circus) to her flat-footedness. She missed a medal at Rio by a mere 0.150 points, but firmly etched her name in the hearts of her countrymen. Dipa has been in every way an emerging sports icon of 2016.
Indian Junior Hockey Team
An unbelievably loud crowd witnessed history in the making at a jam-packed Dhyan Chand Stadium here on last Sunday.The captain led from the front, or rather from the centre. Manning his team from the centre, he had an almost flawless tournament. The only poor game he had was against Spain in the quarterfinals, when he lost his bearings a bit. But he quickly raised his game, and made sure his team was disciplined against Australia in the semifinals. The most impressive feature of his performance was the regularity at which he started counter-attacks. The speed with which he stole the ball of an opponent’s stick on numerous occasions showcased his presence of mind. India’s main strategy was to apply high pressure and catch the opponent off guard with counter-attacks. The captain proved to be the biggest weapon in this strategy; no wonder manager Roelant Oltmans couldn’t stop singing praises of him.The junior World Cup win has kindled greater hopes of India bringing home more titles in the future. However, what has made this win even sweeter, is India’s complete team performance, an aspect not attributed to the Indian teams.
India capped off a fantastic 2016 with a thumping 4-0 hammering of England. While the performances of Virat Kohli and Ravichandran Ashwin took center stage, India managed to unearth some real good talent. One of them was Jayant Yadav. The 26-year-old was in the thick of things as soon as he burst onto the Test scene. Crucial lower-order runs and a brilliant run out on just the second day of his debut match set the tone and from then on his consistent all-round performances stood out. With the ball he provided control while with the bat, he amassed crucial runs. He ended the series with a batting average of 73.66 and nine wickets from three matches at 29.55. He became the first India batsman to score a century at No 9, in just his third Test. The off-spinner’s control stood out in his bowling while his technique and composure impressed many. He has consistently received praise from his captain, coach and seniors and in Jayant, India has discovered a fine all-rounder.
Scoring a 300, at any level, is commendable. And doing so in your third Test innings, that too with complete authority, clearly indicates the caliber a player possesses. There were doubts looming over Karun Nair’s ability in the international arena after the Karnataka batsman failed in his initial two attempts at the crease. But he put them to rest with his scintillating triple century, a knock which has announced Karun at the big stage. The year 2016 ended on a high note for the 25-year old, though it wasn’t this pleasant early on. After making his limited-overs debut for India against Zimbabwe in June, the youngster visited Sree Parthasarathy Temple in Kerala in thanksgiving. But the experience turned out to be tragic as he survived a boat mishap. The accident had an impact on the Karnataka batsman as he went through a lean patch in India A’s tour of Australia and the first few matches of Ranji Trophy. However, he recuperated and gained form soon. But such is the competition in the Indian Test set-up currently that despite scoring 303 in the Chennai Test, Karun may find himself warming the bench after Ajinkya Rahane returns to the team, but is sure to find a spot in the overall squad.
Smriti Mandhana, one of Indian women’s cricket’s most valuable finds in recent years, got her year off to a flying start by notching up her maiden one-day international century during India’s tour of Australia. Following it up with another half-century in the same venue at Hobart, she emitted early signs of a year of consistency. Not only did the Mumbai-born, Sangli-raised opening batter get her year off to a good start, but she bid 2016 goodbye by becoming the first Indian to be selected in the ICC Women’s Team of the Year. This, shortly after she created history along with Harmanpreet Kaur by becoming the first cricketers from their country to play in a foreign T20 league, which in their case was the Australia’s Women’s Big Bash League (BBL).
Hailing from the state of Kerala, the talented CK Vineeth was quickly compared with the legendary IM Vijayan. The young striker was even quicker to laugh off any such claims almost embarrassingly. However as 2016 draws to a close, that comparison seems far less far-fetched. His exploits in this calendar year has made everyone take note. Having played as a winger for most of his career, Vineeth’s year began by filling in the void left by the departure of Bengaluru FC’s famed striking duo of Sean Rooney and Robin Singh. It was a challenge thrown at him, and one that he particularly relished. His four goals in the side’s historic run to the AFC Cup final, including the decisive strike against Tampines Rovers in the quarterfinal, made him a mainstay in the country’s strongest side. There was to be another chapter in the CK Vineeth story in 2016 and it came with the Kerala Blasters, where he sparked their ailing campaign with his five goals. The Blasters, who were rock bottom at a point, finished as the runners-up. A fantastic 2016 has set up an even better 2017 for the youngster with a place in Stephan Constantine’s side now on his radar.
Indian golfer Aditi Ashok had a breakthrough season in 2016 and emerged as one of the most talented athletes to watch out for. The 18-year-old from Bangalore made her debut at the Olympics in Rio 2016, and was the youngest golfer to tee off in the women’s tournament. She became an overnight sensation after grabbing the lead for a brief period of time, but eventually finished at tied-41st position at the end of the final round. After her Olympic performance, she registered four consecutive top-10 finishes on the Ladies European Tour. She also became the first Indian woman to win a Ladies European Tour title earlier in November by clinching the Women’s Indian Open title in Gurgaon. She then topped off an incredible season with another title at the Qatar Ladies Open, and was deservedly named the LET Rookie of the Year. Aditi ended 2016 on a high by gaining a partial status to play on the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 2017 after finishing tied-24th in the qualifying tournament at Florida.
Mariyappan Thangavelu made his way into the nation’s consciousness when he won a historic gold medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. The 21-year-old made a leap of 1.89m to finish first in the men’s high jump T-42 event, delivering India its first gold at the Games. His gold was, in fact, the first for India at both the Olympics and Paralympics this year. What makes his feat even more remarkable is his resilience to reach this far. Disaster struck when a bus accident crushed his leg when he was just five-years-old. His mother Saroja is a daily wage earner and he has two younger brothers and an elder sister and is yet to get a proper job. But he channelised all his energy into sports and trained under K Elamparithi, athletics coach at Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDAT) in Salem. From a village in Tamil Nadu to the top of the podium in Rio was a great achievement, making him one of India’s most striking sport icons of 2016.
It cannot be easy for a sportsperson to step away from the one thing that won him the biggest prize of his career, to say there are bigger things in sport than the Olympic Games. Vijender Singh did just that though. AIBA, the international boxing federation, allowed pro-boxers to participate in the Olympics. But India’s 2008 Beijing Games bronze medallist chose not to go to Rio and adding to his Olympic medals tally. But despite that decision, he still ensured he had one of the best years of his boxing career. Vijender had five bouts in 2016, and won every single one of them. The second-last one, against Kerry Hope of Australia, won him the WBO Asia Pacific Super Middleweight title, and the last bout of the year — against Tanzanian Francis Cheka — helped him retain the title. If he is spoken of in glowing terms today, it’s because he has walked the talk. He was once a flashy brat, considered too ‘pretty’, too ‘Bollywood’ for a brash sport like pro-boxing. Not anymore. He has added real steel to his game. His reach and his aggression have always been strong, but the Vijender of today is also fitter, more consistent and more dedicated towards his goal. If a fight with British boxer Amir Khan does work out, 2017 could be even bigger. It has already been built up as the fight of the century, and we can barely wait.