The Indian archery fraternity has been trying to win an Olympic medal since the sport was introduced at the quadrennial Games in 1988 at Seoul. Since then it has been an uphill task for a nation that prided on the exploits of mythological Arjun. As a country that practices archery at a serious level, India has produced three Dronacharyas and 17 Arjuna awardees but an Olympic medal has been eluding the nation.
When the Tokyo Olympics came around, India could qualify only four members (three men and one woman) to take up the huge challenge of winning a medal. The Indian women’s efforts to qualify the team at the Paris Olympic qualifier failed leaving Deepika as the lone woman to lead India’s charge.
Deepika, a two-time world champion in the cadet and junior categories, a prolific archer in various World Cup competitions, travelled to Tokyo not only as a World No. 1 but on the back of a triple gold medal haul in the World Cup Stage 3 in Paris. She won individual, team and mixed team gold, the last one in the company of her husband, Atanu Das.
The same team, comprising Deepika, Komalika Bari and Ankita Bhagat, came a cropper in the first round of the Olympic team qualifier, but the same trio won the Stage 3 with remarkable ease. Deepika, who swept into the senior limelight with by winning the women’s individual recurve gold at the Delhi’s Commonwealth Games in 2010, was one of the fulcrum of the women’s team that won the world championship silver medal in 2011 at Turin in Italy in the company of Chekrevolu Swuro and Laishram Bombayla Devi.
From a prodigious teenager with oodles of talent, Deepika’s transformation as a responsible senior was seamless. As the seniors around her began to retire from the sport, Deepika took charge after the 2012 disastrous Olympic campaign at Lord’s in London. There too she was the World No. 1 and the team was well prepared to spearhead the country’s challenge. But no one knew what the pressure of the Olympics could do! All the Indian plans for a medal were blown away by the wind that swirled around Lord’s.
After Olympics, World Championship is the biggest archery event on earth. There too the Indians, both the men and women teams, had finished at the silver position. The men reached there in 2005 at Madrid and in 2019 at Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, and the women in 2011. But Olympic Games have always been an enigma; the players, coaching staff, and association are still groping in the dark to find the winning formula.
In between Rio Olympics came and went and Indian archery stood where it was. Apart from winning medals at the Asian Games and World Cups to showcase its existence and to earn government patronage, Indian archery continued to strive for an Olympic medal before the World was brought to a standstill owing to the Coronavirus pandemic. The core group or Indian archers did suffer during the first lockdown the country underwent but before the second wave struck the nation, the core archers managed to assemble at Army Sports Institute in Pune and India’s preparations began in right earnest.
The Indian recurve bow team members, including Deepika, were provided with the best of facilities at the ASI in Pune and former India coach Ravi Shankar of Army even created the shooting arena, the podium, and background of the targets like an Olympic venue just to give the archers the real feel of the venue in Tokyo. The support of TOPS, Sports Authority of India, and the Army took care of every need of the archers and nothing was left to chance as far as the preparations were concerned. The Indian teams visited Guatemala for the first World Cup Stage 1 and were denied visa to visit Switzerland for the Stage 2. Then came the Paris Olympic qualifier and Stage 3 where the Indians did exceedingly well.
In archery current form matters more than the past reputation. The threesome of men’s team, Tarundeep Rai, Pravin Jadhav and Atanu Das finished second behind gold medalists China at the World Championship in the Netherlands in 2019. The three maintained their form through various trials to choose the team for the Olympics. Similarly, Deepika, who too grabbed the lone berth at the Worlds, maintained her form.
The Indians archers over the years have been proving their ability to take on the best in the World, both in recurve (played in Olympics) and compound bow, and excelled too. But an Olympic medal just eluded them.
It’s pertinent to mention here that India has a medal from Summer Youth Olympic Games held at Nanjing in China in 2014 where India’s Atul Verma won a bronze medal.
This time too, when the postponed Tokyo Olympics came around, the entire nation was gripped by the Olympic fever and the aficionados began to count the number of medals India could be winning. But for those who knew and followed archery for years, the struggle for a medal in the Olympics is hope rather than a reality.
“Indian archery needs one medal to break the ice,” gushes the country’s first Dronacharya awardee in archery, Sanjeeva Singh. A former archer, a successful coach and now a top executive in a Tata concern, established a full-fledged Tata Archery Academy in Jamshedpur. The other two Dronacharya awardees, Purnima Mahato and Dharmendra Tiwari, too are closely associated with the academy in Jamshedpur.
Purnima, who has been coaching Deepika for many years now, was in Paris during the Olympic qualifier and Stage 3 events. Purnima too is very confident of the Indian team’s good show in Tokyo but feels “every country comes to the Olympics well prepared. The atmosphere during the Games is completely different and the pressure can get to even the best of talent.”
What are the chances of India winning a medal? “India has the talent to beat the best but how the archers perform on a given day will decide the outcome,” she says.
The Koreans, supported by high-quality domestic tournaments, show such consistency in shooting arrows into the yellow circle, which cannot be matched by any other country. Now the Americans (ably coached by a Korean) have attained some kind of consistency. What makes Koreans different is that they can consistently shoot within the yellow circles fetching 9 or 10 points.
However, Atanu Das has beaten a Korean two-time Olympic gold medallist Oh Jin-hyek of South Korea in pre-quarters, while Deepika is into the quarters, possibly waiting to meet top seed AN San of South Korea for a place in the semifinals.
It is the ability to outshoot an opponent over five sets taking into account, so many factors, including wind and a bit of luck, will promise a medal. Indians have everything, including world-class equipment. What they lacked so far was self-belief. A champion is made in the mind and it is very much so in target sport like shooting and archery where the mind plays a huge role.