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Tokyo 2020

The inspiring 'rags-to-riches' stories of 10 Indian Olympians

Here comes the story of how these Indian athletes when from paupers to become Princess by dint of sheer hard work.

Indian Boxer going to 2nd Olympics

Mary Kom


Utsha Roy

Updated: 19 July 2021 1:56 PM GMT

'Rags to riches' stories are inspirational, to say the least, and a reminder that we can achieve anything if we set our minds to it. However, these 'rags to riches' stories are a little different in that these are Indian athletes that we are talking about, so the definition of 'riches' changes in this context. They will never be as rich as the Indian cricketers or Indian movie stars; for them, 'riches' would always mean comfortable living, one where they do not have to skip meals, can afford their sporting gears, have access to proper infrastructure and such others. Even when they have achieved these, there is always a possibility of them sliding back into poverty once their career is over and the government grants are withdrawn. Here we will be looking at such Indian athletes who have come from obscure little villages of India with simple dreams of easing their families' burden and doing so by pursuing their dreams.

Deepika Kumari

1. Deepika Kumari:

With her prowess with the bow and arrow, she is the modern equivalent of the great warrior Arjun from Mahabharata. However, while Arjun was born to the royal family, Kumari struggled to get fame and fulfil her basic requirements of food and shelter. Kumari was born to a family in the Ratu Chati village of Jharkhand, which struggled to make ends meet and, like many other families in India, lay below the poverty line, earning only 700 rupees every month.

Speaking to Sportskeeda, she had confessed that she had gone to the Kharsawan training camp only to reduce the burden of her family as they offered food and lodging to the trainees. She lacked intent initially and was rejected; however, she asked for three months when she would train and prove herself worthy of selection. She never looked back and gained the rank of World 1 at the age of 18.

She used to practice on wooden bows with mangoes as a target and compete in various sub-junior competitions for the prize money of 500 rupees. It was not until the Tata Academy junior team coach discovered that she was introduced to recurve bows and arrows.

She has secured 35 World Cups, six Asian Championship, two World Championship, one Asian Games and two Commonwealth Games medals over a decade and secured the Tokyo Olympics berth by winning the Asian qualifier tournament in Bangkok.

Bhawna Jat

2. Bhawna Jat:

Discovered late in her journey, Bhawna took the nation which knew very little about race-walking in 2019 when she smashed the national record clocking the time 1:29:59 at National Race Walking Championship in Ranchi in 2019. Back then, she had not even been selected for the senior national or international camps. She clocked 1:28:4 seconds in training before the cancellation of the 2020 Asian Race Walking Championship; this would have earned her a bronze medal in the Rio Olympics.

Jat, born in the Rajasthani village of Kabra to lower-income parents, is the first Indian woman to qualify for race-walking in the Olympics. Unable to afford training shoes, she often trained barefoot and competed in kits borrowed from others. Speaking in an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, she opened up about the societal difficulties she had to face along with financial ones. Other villagers did not like her practising around the fields in shorts as they considered the movements made by the athlete while training disrespectful and had advised her to stay at home and perform 'womanly' chores. It was only with the support of her father and brother that she could complete her training, sometimes at ungodly hours in the night, so as not to be seen by other villagers. Hopefully, when they see her representing the nation this Olympic season, they will give her the respect she deserves.

Lovlina Borgohain

3. Lovlina Borgohain:

Hailing from the Baro Mukhiya village of Assam, Borgohain struggled from her childhood to get to this platform. Daughter of a tea garden worker, Lovlina did not have the money to buy a boxing kit to compete in tournaments or travel to different cities to participate in competitions. She remembers sleeping beside the train compartment toilet and borrowing boxing kits from other competitors once they were done with their rounds. In 2013, she secured her first pair of gloves, before which she participated in tournaments using various regional SAI centres and hostel kits.

Despite very little early formal training, she was selected at the sub-junior level state camp by coach Padum Boro of the SAI, as she says, because of her height and fitness. Formal training discovered that her problem was that she automatically lifted her leg to kick her opponents, her coaches paid particular attention to the problem, and her father used it to motivate her, citing the example of Mary Kom and Shiva Thapa.

The introduction of the 69kg category in the Olympics paid rich dividends for her as she no longer had to fight in the 75kgs category, despite being below 70kgs. Fighting in the 69kg category showed instant results, as she won a bronze medal at the 2017 Asian Championship in Vietnam. She later registered back-to-back World Championship podium finishes in 2018 and 2019.

KT Irfan

4. KT Irfan:

Born to a large family, he could not afford shoes ahead of the 2012 London games; however, popular Malayalam actor Mohanlal donated an undisclosed amount of money to his campaign, and Irfan thanked him by setting the new 20km national record in race-walking in the London Olympics, a record which stood for eight years.

In an interview with Sportskeeda, he opened up about how his 1000 rupees remuneration with the Indian Army was not enough to support his Olympics dream, and it was only with assistance from the government and Mohanlal that he was able to compete.

One of his brothers now works in Dubai, and he has helped him support his Olympics dream. With the help of the Karnataka government and the steady inflow of prize money, he had been able to buy a house in his village and led a more or less comfortable life.

He was the first Indian athlete to be selected for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after finishing fourth at the 2019 Asian race walking championship.

Bajrang Punia

5. Bajrang Punia

Bajrang Punia, well known as he is now, was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father, himself a wrestler. did not have money enough to send his son to play sports that required specialized equipment. Born in the Khudan village of Haryana, wrestling seemed to be the only option. As he started practising in mud akharas his interest grew and he started skipping school to practice.

As he started fighting in junior-level competitions, the prize money he won, allowed him to help his impoverished family. A series of exceptional performances (in 65kg) later, when he bagged the Asian title twice, won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games and silver medals at the World Championships and World Under-23 Championships besides securing podium finishes at other elite events, he is more comfortably settled in life. But the hunger is still there and he wishes to prove himself in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Mary Kom

6. Mary Kom:

Born in a Kangathei village of Manipur, this champion boxer comes from very humble roots. Her parents were jhoom cultivators surviving on subsistence farming, and she did not have enough money to pay for training for a sport that was considered masculine by her society and her father.

Nevertheless, she overcame them all to be the face of boxing in India and what makes her even more remarkable is that she did it again after giving birth to her sons. She fought against the patriarchal society that defines a very traditional role for mothers to fulfil their dreams.

She was the only indian woman boxer to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and competing in the 51 kg category; she bagged the bronze medal for the country. She is the only boxer (male or female) to win eight World Championship medals.

OP Jaisha

7. OP Jaisha:

She is another remarkable athlete to represent the nation in the 2016 Rio Olympics. She is the current national record holder in the marathon. She comes from a lower-income family in the Waynad district of Kerala, which faced further hardships when her father met with an accident.

She was just five when all the responsibility fell upon her and her mother to keep the family sustained. Their only source of income cows from whom the sourced milk died was left with minimal sustenance resources. In a recent interview, she spoke of a time when she had to eat mud to survive.

PT Usha

8. PT Usha:

The flying girl of India started her journey young and was the youngest Indian to have qualified for the Olympics. She was born to a poor household, the daughter of the owner of a small clothing store. She did not come from as poor a family as some of the other athletes mentioned in the list; however, she is one of the flag bearers in the history of Indian women athletes, who showed the country what a woman is capable of and had the nation cheering for a girl running for national glory.

The 1986 Asian Games in Seoul saw PT Usha win 4 Golds and a Silver in track and field. From 1982-1994, Asia's sprint queen hauled in 4 Golds and 6 Silvers in four Asian Games. Her most unbelievable run was at the Asian Athletic Championships through the decade, where she won a total of 22 medals, of which 14 were gold medals.

Even after retiring from the sport, she continues to give back to the nation by running coaching centres at the grassroots level and does so without any remuneration so that younger athletes who do not have enough economic support do not have to give up on their dreams.

Milkha Singh

9.Milkha Singh:

Growing up in communal violence-ridden India, he witnessed his family being decimated in the wake of the country's partition. He escaped from what was to become the separate nation of Pakistan into India and, after staying with his sister for a while, lived in a refugee camp in Delhi. All the trauma of partition, the inadequacies of the refugee camp could not dampen his spirit even though he neared a breaking point. Milkha Singh had even considered joining the dacoits for a while and had been arrested for travelling on a train without a ticket before being persuaded by a friend to join the Indian Army, where he received his training.

Deriving strength from his experiences, he became one of India's best athletes and won a gold medal at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in 400 m, another in the 1958 Asian Games for 200 m and 400 m, and again a gold medal in the 1962 Asian Games. He was conferred the title of Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1958.

Vijender Singh

10.Vijender Singh:

The 2008 bronze medalist of the Beijing Olympics is the son of a bus driver employed with the Haryana Roadways. His father worked overtime to earn enough to pay for Vijender and his brother's schooling. It was only to reduce the financial strain on the family that the brothers decided to learn boxing. As his elder brother got employed by the Indian Army, it became easier for Vijender to support his boxing dream.

The title of Padma Shree was conferred to him in 2010 for outstanding contribution to Indian Sports

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