The year 1998 was kind of a watershed for Indian sports-an era when participation in Olympic Games in several individual sports meant waiting for wildcards or quota places as they are called in true Olympic terms.
That year in Bangkok Asiad two events happened, which distinctively affected Indian sports-first was bantamweight fighter Dingko Singh’s boxing gold medal and the second, India winning hockey gold for only second time at the Asian Games.
Bangkok helped break India’s run of silvers-8 till 1998 for the 8-time Olympic gold medalists. India’s only Asiad gold had come in 1966 in Bangkok when they defeated twice champions and traditional arch-rival, Pakistan.
If the hockey gold provided India direct path into 2000 Sydney Olympics, the team got no chance to celebrate as the then Indian hockey supremo, KPS Gill, sacked more than half the team on disciplinary grounds.
The announcement came when the team was midair on the return flight back home and all hell broke loose when the news was relayed to the team members on landing.
This sack decision was the start of the end of his stranglehold on Indian Hockey but it took almost 10 years to unseat him and rendering the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) defunct.
Boxing gets hero
India won a total of 7 gold medals and finished 9th overall (7-11-17), sandwiched between North Korea (7-14-12) and Uzbekistan (6-22-12), five editions ago, but of those medals only three remain relevant today-the third being Kabaddi gold, which has so far remained India’s forte.
A certain Nagangom Dingko Singh rose from nowhere, almost. The Indian Navy fighter had been on the horizon having dominated bantamweight class, but on that sweltering afternoon Dingko clinched the biggest prize of his career that somewhat catapulted him to higher echelons of Indian sporting heroes.
His road to gold was interspersed with some key bouts before he caused a major upset by beating World No 3 Wong Prades Sontaya of Thailand to storm into the final.
His victory over Sontaya suddenly woke up India’s boxing fraternity in particular and the whole nation in general as country was destined to finish into the top 10 in the medal tally.
Everyone expected something special from Dingko now that he was in the final and he fought gamely against the World No 5 Timur Tulyakov of Uzbekistan—the gold being contested on the final day helped India to
No 9 position.
Dingko’s gold was the most precious given that he had moved to 54-kg only a few months ago from flyweight class (51-kg) and as he forced Timur to retire after the fourth round.
India’s four other gold medals went to athletics (2) and cue sports (2), which debuted in Bangkok but the green baize sport was slowly pushed out of Asian Games to Asian Indoor Games, whose relevance has become debatable in this current era.
Middle-distance runner Jyotirmoy Sikdar won gold medals by winning 800m and 1500m events and Ashok Shandilya won billiards singles and doubles gold medal-pairing up with eight-time world champion Geet Sethi.
The billiards singles final between Shandilya and Sethi was something of a nasty chapter in Indian cue sport. Indian coach Michael Ferreira, himself a three-time world champion, openly sided with Shandilya egging him to go for the win, while Sethi stood motionless probably thinking if Ferreira was India coach or Shandilya’s personal trainer.
After Shandilya won the final, Sethi couldn’t stop tears dropping out, not for losing the gold medal, but for Ferreira’s impropriety.
These stories set Indian sports, specially individual disciplines apart, as many found recourse in professional competitions rather than depending on the once in four-year Games, wherein to get into the Indian contingent has become a task whether one is deserves or not.
Indian gold medalists
2 Jyotirmoy Sikdar (Athletics) 1500m and 800m
1 Geet Sethi and Ashok Shandilya (Cue Sports) Billiards Doubles
1 Ashok Shandilya (Cue Sports) Billiards
1 Dingko Singh (Boxing) 54-kg
1 Men’s Hockey team
1 Men’s Kabaddi team