A number of iconic sports personalities have come out of India who have not only represented the nation at a global level and won laurels, but also set records that astonished the world. These stars put India on the map of various sports and inspired millions of young Indians in the process. Majority of these sports personalities came from humble and simple homes, sons and daughters of farmers, petty shop owners, clerks and laborers. Here is a look into some of the most celebrated men and women of Indian sports who went on to winning national awards and international fame and recognition for their talent and hard work. ( PS- Don’t miss out the 5th one)
One of the most iconic athletes of the Indian subcontinent is undoubtedly Milkha Singh, also coined as Flying Sikh. First ever Indian track and field athlete to reach the final Olympic athletics event where he was placed fourth in 400-meter race ( 1960).
He was born in an undivided India and was orphaned during the partition of India. Working petty jobs before joining the Indian Army, Singh only realized his true potential in the Army. Singh won both 200 and 400 meter race at Asian Games – 1958 and also won gold at Commonwealth Games (CWG) – first ever athlete of India to win gold in CWG. While he missed winning bronze by a few seconds at the Olympics in 1960, he did go on to win gold again in Asian Games – 1962 in the 400 meter race.
Milkha Singh has been awarded the Padma Shri for his contribution and is a celebrated figure of Indian sports. He served as a director of sports in Punjab post his retirement.
Bollywood has also taken interest in his life, his autobiography – The Race of My Life – was also an inspiration behind the celebrated movie, Bhaag Milka Bhaag. Singh sold the rights of the movie for a mere Rs. 1 however he did also put forth the clause that a certain share of profits will go towards Milkha Singh Charitable Trust, his trust was founded in 2003 with an aim to assist poor and needy sportspeople. The movie has been known to have earned over INR 100 crores.
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Bhutia is known to be India’s most inspirational and celebrated footballer. I.M. VIjayan went on record to describe Bhutia as ‘God’s gift to Indian Football’. He is a former India professional footballer who played as a striker and is known to be Indian football’s torchbearer in the international arena. Also known as Sikkimese sniper for his sharp shooting skills in the game, he has been named three times player of the year.
Born into a farming family, Bhutia has been part of I-League side East Bengal Club where he started his career. He is the first Indian footballer to sign a contract to play football for a European club. He was signed by an English Club called Bury in 1999. Bhutia also had a short stint with Malaysian football club Perak FA. His international career laurels include winning the Nehru Cup, LG Cup, SAFF Championship a few times. He has around 80 international caps to his name, second most for an Indian.
Bhutia was honored by the Indian government with the Arjuna Award and Padma Shri for his achievements in the sport of football. He also has a football stadium named after him, becoming the first player to have such an honor while he is still playing. He retired from football in 2011 however to continue to grow the sport in the country, Bhutia kick-started Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools in Delhi in a tie up with Nike and football by Carlos Queiroz.
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Chhetri is a well known Indian professional footballer who is also presently the Indian Football team captain ( and plays as a forward for the team). He also plays for the Indian Super League Club and Bengaluru as their captain and is known to be one of the top goal scorers in international football.
In the last quarter of 2021, Chhetri became the top two goal scorer in the world along with Lionel Messi ( in active players) and behind only Ronaldo. He is the all-time top most goal scorer for India.
With his father playing football for Indian Army’s team and his mother along with a few other family members playing for the Nepal women’s national team, Chhetri was born to be a footballer. Playing from a young age, in 2002 Chhetri began his career with Mohun Bagan and moved to JCT. He also signed for Major League Soccer – Kansas City Wizards in 2010 – one of the three players from the sub-continent to play abroad. Upon his return he played with Chirag United and Mohan Bagan and again moved to play abroad for Sporting CP of the Primerira Liga. He is known to have taken the Indian football team to win the Nehru cup multiple times, AFC Challenge Cup – 2008 which also led to the Indian team being qualified for their first AFC Asian Cup in almost 3 decades ( 27 years) . He has been a player of the year for AIFF for a record number of six times from 2007, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018 to 2019.
Chhetri has also been awarded the Arjuna Award for his outstanding achievements in football, a Padma Shri award in 2019 and most recently he was awarded the highest sporting honor by the Indian government, Khel Ratna Award, becoming the first footballer to receive the award.
For eons women have struggled to find their place in sports in India, especially when it comes to the celebrated sport of cricket dominated by men, however, Mithali Raj fought tooth and nail to get what she truly deserved. She is today the greatest female batter of India who is the only captain in any gender to represent India as its team captain to two 50- over world cup finals.
She has the record of most runs scored by any female cricketer in the world over her 2 decades long career. She achieved this in 2017 after surpassing the former England captain Charlotte Edwards to become the only women in cricket to cross the 6000 score mark. At a young age of 16 years, Mithali scored an unbeaten 114 in her ODI debut becoming the youngest centurion in ODI cricket and clearly the scoring never stopped.
For her remarkable performances and achievements she has also been awarded the Arjuna Award and Padma Shri by the Indian government. Her achievements and drive have been the inspiration behind the Bollywood movie Shabaash Mithu.
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Mirza is an influential and celebrated name for Indian Tennis and sports personalities. She is a former double world number 1 and has won a total of six grand slam tennis titles in her career. For close to a decade (2003-2013 – her retirement from women’s singles), Mirza was ranked by the Women’s Tennis Association as India’s no. 1 tennis player.
Some of her most talked about wins have been against world No. 1’s, with the likes of Martina Hingis, Dinara Safina, Victoria Azarenka and others. With her retirement from women’s singles post her wrist injury, she focused on her doubles career and achieved a number of laurels. She has won three Grand Slam titles in women’s doubles and mixed doubles. She also won the WTA finals in 2014 with Cara Black, later back to defend the same with Martina Hingis. She is one of the two Indian female tennis players to win a WTA title. Mirza has 91 weeks in her record as the world no. 1 in doubles.
In 2005, she was crowned with the title of newcomer of the year and by 2015 Martina Hingis and Mirza became the team of the year. She has won 14 medals at major multi-sport events like Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and Afro-Asian Games.
Time magazine in 2005 named her as one of the 50 Heroes of Asia and 100 most influential people in the world in 2016. The Economic Times in 2010 named her in their list of ‘33 women who made India proud’.
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There is no denying how the relentless and resilient hard work of each athlete is behind their success, however it should be noted that each athlete is also backed by a great support system in both their personal lives as well as professional. Each sports person works with a team of trainers – coaches, managers, physio’s play a vital role in the success of any athlete in the long run. They are the backbone of each player that keeps their mental, physical and emotional health in check, keep their commercials in line and bring them more opportunities for growth. If you’d like to be part of the backbone of an athlete team, here is your chance. Explore the MBA in Sports Management by MBA-ESG India and align yourself with some of India’s growing talent and be the backbone that helps them sustain success and magnify it.
Watch this space for more iconic sports influencers, to be continued..