Indian archer Atanu Das went into the Rio 2016 Olympics shouldering the responsibility of being the country’s only participant in the men’s recurve individual event. And after all his compatriots registered narrow losses in the early rounds of the other events, the Baranagar-born bowman was the only Indian representative still standing on the final day.
Unheralded at the time, Atanu’s pre-quarterfinal run was already a successful one. And for a country starved of Olympic success, his progress against former world number 8 Lee Seung-Yin of South Korea was followed with keen interest.
Heading into the decisive final set, Lee and Atanu were tied at 19-19. The South Korean registering a 9 on the final shot, which meant that in his first ever Olympics, Atanu needed a 10 to stay alive.
He closed his eyes and released the arrow, but fell tantalizingly short of the desired mark by one point. And that ended India’s hopes of an archery medal from Rio.
Learning from the heartbreak
Atanu was visibly distraught in the immediate aftermath of what was probably his career's narrowest match finish, but since then he has worked extensively on the mental side of his craft.
“My Rio 2016 loss still haunted me for the next couple of years, but what it taught me was to give equal weightage to the psychological aspect of this sport. It’s not easy to take a loss like that, 28-28 in the final set, could’ve gone either way. However, I have worked really hard on improving these key points which would have seen me win a medal at Rio,” the 27-year old told Sportskeeda.
Help was forthcoming not just from professionals, but also from those in the industry. “Apart from working with a psychologist, I also spoke extensively with seasoned campaigners on the circuit about how they controlled their emotions during tense finishes. I would like to thank the Sports Authority of India (SAI) for helping me with these aspects as well,” Atanu added.
A host of technical and psychological changes have started showing positive results during India’s Tokyo Olympics 2020 qualification cycle. The trio of Atanu, Tarundeep Rai and Pravin Jadhav have secured as many as three Tokyo berths for India in the men's individual recurve event, with their good showing at the 2019 World Archery Championship in Netherlands.
Atanu’s specific focus on mental calmness shone through at that tournament like never before. India squared off against Canada in the pre-quarterfinal, and during a nail-biting finish Atanu hit a 10 to level the set on score and confirm India's participation at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
It was a culmination of a targeted approach by Atanu, who admits to envisaging such tense situations during his strenuous practice sessions in Pune. “I was in the exact same situation in Rio, but this time I was way calmer, I wasn’t flinching," he said. "I practise around 8 - 11 hours a day, and I must say a substantial chunk of this is dedicated to recreating such environments.”
Still a few battles to fight
Despite securing three berths for the nation, the trio are still not guaranteed of individual tickets to Tokyo 2020. At the National team trials to be completed in April, they will have to fight for a spot in the Indian contingent; the top three will represent the nation's recurve team in the individual event at Tokyo.
After the preliminary stages of trials, Atanu is currently placed at the number 1 position in the men’s individual recurve table. Meanwhile his fiancee, Deepika Kumari, is currently topping the women’s recurve standings.
With the final four stages of trials still to go, the field has been narrowed down to eight of India’s best male recurve archers - Atanu (PSPB), Jayanta Talukdar (Jharkhand), Tarundeep Rai (SSCB), Pravin Jadhav (SSCB), Vishwas (SSCB), Kapil (RSPB), Sukhmani Babrekar (Maharahstra) and B Dhiraj (Andhra Pradesh).
Apart from identifying India’s Tokyo representatives, the trials will also act as a selection barometer for the upcoming Archery World Cup events in Guatemala and Berlin. The latter will also be the final major event before the Olympics commence in August.
However, with the coronavirus epidemic at its peak, a shadow of doubt hovers over both the Archery grand slam tournaments.
Not seeing India’s flag on podium was tough to digest: Atanu
The 2019 Asian Archery Championship held in Bangkok saw India secure as many as seven medals, including a bronze for Atanu in the Individual men’s recurve event. However, the victory was marred by the Archery Association of India (AAI) getting temporarily de-recognized by World Archery due to governance issues.
That meant the Indian archery contingent at the tournament was not allowed to represent the tri-colour.
“I think every athlete who competes does it not just for himself/herself, but also for the country, so after winning a medal, not seeing India’s flag is something tough to digest," Atanu said. "But I’m glad the issue has been resolved now and hope it's never repeated again.”
India’s suspension was officially lifted on 23 January 2020, with the rider that the national federation would chalk out a strategic plan for the calendar year. The AAI is currently contemplating the creation of a franchise-based league for the sport towards the end of the year. India will also host the 2022 Commonwealth Archery Championship in Chandigarh, which would help boost the national federation’s credibility.
A journey of steady progress under watchful eyes
The responsibility of ensuring the qualification of the Indian men's team for Tokyo 2020 was given to Mim Bahadur Gurung of the Army Sports Institute (ASI). Atanu began training under Gurung two years ago, and the results have been unmistakably encouraging.
“It’s difficult to quantify how much he (Gurung) has helped me improve not just my game, but also the entire national team’s performances. If you see the Asian Championship from November, we medalled in all compound and recurve events," Atanu said.
"This is unprecedented to say the least, we have a much stronger team compared to the Rio Olympics. We are currently registering really high scores in the trials and practice,” he added.
After the Indian men’s contingent’s empty medal haul at the two previous Asian Games editions - in 2014 and 2018 - a dominant showing at the continental level has revived the Tokyo 2020 medal hopes. And as for Atanu himself, his prowess as one of the world’s top archers is underscored by the fact that only a loss against reigning Olympic champion Woojin Kim stopped him from climbing the Asian summit.
With just four months to go for Tokyo, the men’s recurve team led by Atanu might just be India’s Olympics dark horse this edition.