Harika Dronavalli returns to an empty airport: When will India start celebrating its non-cricketing heroes?
How many more World Championship medallists will have to land at empty airports?
by Sagnik Kundu
The champ is here!
Imagine this hypothetical scenario. The Indian cricket team has just returned after winning a bilateral series against an inferior opposition. They have just landed at the airport, but they are having a difficult time manoeuvring their way out.
Of course, the media, the fans and everyone else have gathered, armed with garlands and what not. They have gathered to greet the team and congratulate them on their win, no matter however insignificant it was.
Now, imagine a different scenario. An Indian sportsperson or an Indian team has just returned after achieving an incredible feat at a World Championship. The sport, though, is not cricket in this case.
This sportsperson (or team) lands at the airport, he collects his baggage, is greeted by his family and makes his way home without any furore. There is no media waiting, no crowd has gathered and yet the sportsperson does not complain once.
It is not difficult to comprehend which scenario Harika Dronavalli was in when she landed at the Hyderabad airport, adorned by her World Championship bronze medal. Now, you may or may not have heard her name depending on how closely you have followed Chess in the last few years. But if you are aware, you would know that this is the third consecutive time that she has bagged the bronze medal at the World Championship.
And yet, as she landed in her hometown, her reception committee consisted only of her proud parents. No media person was there to take exclusive quotes, no fan was there to put a garland over her.
Too bad, she is not a cricketer but a chess player
Chess has never been a ‘spectator sport’. The picture of two people, hunched over a board with 32 pieces, does not give the impression that it is a sport at all, does it? It seems more like a laid-back game – one that needs only brain power.
What people fail to understand is that chess, like any other sport demands immense training, extreme levels of physical fitness, and dedication.
If anyone argues, just remind them how Anatoly Karpov, the 12th World Champion lost eight kilogrammes because of stress while playing his World Championship match against Garry Kasparov in 1984. Evidently, the games do take a toll on the players’ health.
But then again, it’s no cricket.
She took her first real vacation at 24. No, really!
For Harika, things were no different. She had to prepare meticulously since her childhood to be the very best. Becoming a World Champion was a childhood dream, and she strived for it. When she participated in her first National Championship, she finished 15th. But she didn’t let her failure usurp her. The youngster promised to herself that she will win the following year and true to her words, she did.
At 17, she took home the top honours at the World Junior Girls Chess championship in 2008 and received the Arjuna Award for her achievement. Four years later, in 2012, she would go on to win her first bronze medal at the World Championship in Khanty-Mansiysk.
Harika followed it up with yet another World Championship bronze medal in Sochi in 2015. Among her other accolades is the Commonwealth women’s title in 2010, the Asian Championship in 2011 as well as the World Online Blitz Championship in 2015.
Such was her dedication to the sport that she managed her first real vacation of her life after the 2015 World Championship. As she revealed in an interview with the Times of India she went on a week-long trip to Singapore and Malaysia in what was her first full-fledged vacation.
And how could she? At 13, she was representing the country in international events. Harika never got the opportunity to do anything else, but she has never complained.
The 2017 World Championship in Tehran
The Women’s World Chess Championships, which was supposed to be held in 2016 but was pushed back due to lack of any organiser, is being held in Tehran, Iran. It started on 10 February 2017 and is scheduled to conclude on 5 March 2017.
Notable chess players like 2015 Women’s World Champion, Mariya Muzychuk, and current US Women’s Champion Nazi Paikidze opted out of the tournament out of protest at the location of the tournament. After all, it is mandatory for women to wear a hijab in public and not many women can put up with it.
However, it did not come in the way of Harika. Her only dream was to become the World Champion, to change the colour of her medal from bronze to silver and bring glory to her country. She wanted to fulfil it at all costs.
The 26-year-old had prepared for hours for this. She had worked on different opening schemes, she had studied different tactics, different possible endgames and at the same time ensured that physically she would not fall back.
The tournament being a knockout event meant that even the slightest of errors would be unforgivable. One error and you might as well start packing. Harika was not one to give up without a fight.
With dogged determination, she won hearts with her exceptional performances and was well on course to fulfilling her childhood dream – until, a last-minute error in the semi-final against Tan Zhongyi of China proved to be too costly.
Heartbreak? Yes. But this is not the end. AND, a little support from our side would certainly help!
India has had a host of players who has dominated the sport. The likes of Vishwanathan Anand, Pentala Harikrishna, and Koneru Humpy have all brought several laurels to this country. And keeping an eye on the upcoming talent that the country boasts, experts around the world believe that India will be a powerhouse of chess in the near future.
But still, when Harika landed in Hyderabad there was no mad rush to greet her. The obvious question is why is this the case?
Why do we all go berserk celebrating some insignificant win over an inferior cricketing nation but when someone like Harika does the country proud in a much more global sport, we hardly bat an eyelid?
Yes, the perception towards chess (or any sport other than cricket) in this country needs to change and it requires time? But how many more World Championship medallists will have to land at empty airports before the change happens? Isn’t it high time already?