Does the south or the north of India produce champions?
In Rome on September 6, 1960, 25-year-old Milkha Singh broke the Olympic record in the 400 metres. Running barefoot, he lost the bronze medal by a heart-breaking one-tenth of a second. It was such a close race that the first two broke the world record and the three that followed them broke the Olympic record.
For a long time, Singh remained India’s best-known male athlete. For an equally long time, he also remained the best known individual athlete from north India. Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav, who won the bronze in wrestling at Helsinki in 1952, was from Satara.
Ironically, north India has always eaten better (read: more protein) than the rest of the country. Blessed with fertile soil and robust laughter, the people in these parts have loved to devour dairy products and meat. Yet, when it came to individual success in the sporting arena, south India, though relying mostly on vegetarian stuff and sambhar, has had the lead.
Think tennis and you would think of the father and son duo of Ramanathan and Ramesh Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj, and Mahesh Bhupathy — all south Indians. Leander Paes is not from the north either. Nirupama Vaidyanathan, another south Indian, was India’s best known female tennis player until Sania Mirza, of Hyderabad, came along. Our best badminton players have been Pullela Gopichand and Prakash Padukone, whose surnames leave no one in doubt over their ethnic identity.
In athletics, it has been mostly south Indian women: P T Usha, Shiny Abraham, Ashwini Nachappa. Even in chess, which requires physical strength and endurance in a different way, Viswanathan Anand has made sure that the accent remains on south India, though some Bengalis have done well, too.
In contrast, north Indians always did well in team sports. The national hockey team has always had a liberal sprinkling of turbans. Kapil Dev, India’s best cricketer according to Wisden, is from Chandigarh. Otherwise, too, Delhi, Haryana and Punjab have generously contributed to national cricket teams.
This has changed in the recent years. Since Jadhav, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore became the first Indian to win an individual Olympic medal in 2004. He is from Jaisalmer. This year’s Olympics more or less settled the issue in favour of north India, which houses all three individual medal winners.
Shooter Abhinav Bindra, who won India’s first individual gold, is from Zirakpur in Punjab; wrestler Sushil Kumar is from the village of Baprola, on Delhi’s border with Haryana; boxer Vijender Kumar is a native of Kaluwas village, in Bhiwani district of Haryana. And yes, Milkha Singh’s son Jeev is the country’s best golfer.
It will be worth finding out if north Indians have started having sambhar for breakfast.