Ask a teenager... Do you have dreams for your life? Do you believe you can achieve them? The teen in all probability will snap back, saying: “Let me follow my dreams. Don’t get so obsessed with what I can achieve.”
The Indian Olympic dream is full of such stories. With no past glory to fall back upon, Indian society has constantly pursued any teenager who makes the headlines. This time, it is no different.
The moment one talks about 18-year-old sprinter Hima Das or 15-year-old weightlifter Jeremy Lalrinnunga or shooters Saurabh Chaudhary (16), Shardul Vihan (15), Anish Bhanwala (15) and Manu Bhaker (16), the first question is this: can they win India a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Games?
The Indian athletics arena has never promised so much. Hima, nicknamed the 'Dhing Express’, holds the current Indian national record in 400 metres with a timing of 50.79, which she clocked at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Till 2016, the youngest of five children of a rice farmer Ronjit Das and Jonali, Hima had no intention of being an athlete. In fact, she was playing in the mud fields of her village Dhing. It was her coach Nipon Das who first took her to state championship in Guwahati, where she won a bronze without any training or proper practice.
Hima’s story is akin to many teenagers across India who have been deprived of proper facilities while growing up. Now that she has access to real scientific training, she is living the Olympic dream.
The story of a 15-year-old boy from Mizoram runs on similar lines. The latest Indian weightlifting sensation, Jeremy Lalrinnunga, has bigger things to achieve in less than two years.
The Mizo teen is being touted as the next best thing in Indian weightlifting. His recent herculean effort in the 62 kg category to help India clinch its first-ever gold medal at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, has not just revived the dead weigh-lifting federation of our country, but has also made him a certain hope of a medal at Japan and beyond, because age is on his side.
Son of national-level boxer Lalneihtluanga, Lalrinnunga aspired to don the gloves too, but shifted to weightlifting at the tender age of eight, as the power involved in it attracted him more than any other sport.
Shooting probably gives India’s sports fans most hopes of a medal. In fact, there seems to be an air of certainty around it, something not enjoyed thus far by any Indian sports squad ahead of 2020 Olympics, since the halcyon golden days of Indian hockey three decades ago, in the 1980s.
With the rise of teenage young guns at the recent Asian Games in Jakarta, jokes are doing the rounds that the Indian government has diluted the 1959 Arms Act and the 1962 Arms Rules, among other things, where a citizen needed to be 21 to get a gun licence.
Four teenage sensations --- 16-year-old Saurabh Chaudhary, 15-year-olds Shardul Vihan and Anish Bhanwala, and 16-year-old Manu Bhaker --- now have the firepower to kill their opponents to bring in gold medals for India.
Apart from child prodigy Abhinav Bindra, what has helped is the formulation of a robust junior programme by the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI), which has ensured a steady supply of ‘finished products’, when it comes to competing internationally in various ranges and conditions.
That is why this fabulous four were picked to train with senior shooters with an eye on Youth Olympics held in Buenos Aires recently. Meerut boy Chaudhary scripted history by winning gold in the 10m Air Pistol shooting event not just in Argentina, but before that at the Jakarta Asian Games.
Born to an engineer from the Merchant Navy and a school principal, Bhaker has always been a natural. The girl added the Commonwealth gold medal in the 10m Air Pistol to the glowing list of achievements in her relatively nascent career. Though it was a heartbreak for her at Jakarta, finishing 6th out of eight qualifiers in the final, her double gold at the ISSF Junior World Cup came good to keep her in high spirits.
Vihan and Bhanwala are others in this growing list of youngsters, post-2012, led by NRAI’s system of appointing personalised coaches. For example, Bhaker herself is mentored by multiple CWG gold medallist Jaspal Rana.
The most critical thing now is to find ways to protect these teens from the lure of money and petty politics. Hima’s coaches are praying that their prodigy keep her level-head after the kind of reception she got on her return from Jakarta, while Bhanwala has already been under scanner for disciplinary issues.
In a nation starved of sporting glory, it is important to put a tag of “handle with care” around these young prodigies. The sudden flow of money may turn these “fearless souls” into “careless waste”, if not handled properly!