It’s just a few hours before the first arrow of the Rio Olympics 2016 hits its target in the ranking round on August 5. Surely fans are filled with tension, trepidation and excitement as they wait eagerly to know what lies ahead for the Indian archers.
After all, the memories of the 2012 London Olympics are not something they would like to remember. A heightened expectation of winning medals amounted to nothing as the Indian archers floundered on the hallowed turf of the Lord’s Cricket Ground, unable to acclimatize themselves to the blustery conditions and the burgeoning pressure.
Can the Rio 2016 Games help to alleviate that pain? Are our archers prepared enough to stand on the podium and perhaps get a much-awaited opportunity for redemption?
Here we rate their chances as they embark on a medal mission in Brazil:
1. Deepika Kumari
Medal chances: 40%
Ranked World No. 1 at only 18 years of age, Deepika Kumari found the huge expectations of a nation of more than a billion at the 2012 London Olympics overwhelming. With the whole world watching her, she crumbled under the weight and all her hopes were smashed to smithereens with her exit in the first round.
With her fall, India’s maiden Olympic medal ambitions in archery were blown away just like the high winds on that that fateful day in July, 2012 that swept away Deepika’s dreams.
She was left shaken by it and her fall from grace was fast. Deepika, who used to wear her confidence on her sleeve, fumbled and stumbled at every corner. The slide saw her slipping down to 19th position in the rankings and the Indian archery’s erstwhile blue-eyed girl was left out of the squad of two of the World Cups the following year.
The prodigious talent was forced to return to her basics to single out the root cause of her problems. There was a technical mistake in her anchor position alignment. Help poured in from the 1992 Barcelona Olympic team gold medallist Juan Carlos Holgado. He not only turned her focus on the much-needed rectification of her mistakes but even did his bit of soothing her nerves ahead of a vital match.
Deepika started feeling the positive changes soon after. In her own words, the Ranchi girl admitted: “In the last Olympics I was not that experienced. I couldn’t enjoy my game because I lost the first match. But now I have become more matured and have gathered valuable experience. I have improved a lot.”
The Archery Association of India (AAI) too stepped in to help the country’s top archers handle high-pressure situations by organising a mental training camp with the US-based Lorenzo Beltrame. Subsequent yoga sessions too played a major role in strengthening their mental toughness.
With her confidence back, Kumari played a key role in delivering the team silver medal at the 2015 World Championships in Copenhagen that also saw the trio booking the much-coveted Olympic spot. And she followed it up with another silver – this time in individual – at the Mexico World Cup final as well as a bronze in mixed team event at the Asian Championships.
She started the 2016 season in stellar fashion. At the Shanghai World Cup qualifying stage, she equalled the world record tally of 686 out of 720 set by the reigning Olympic gold medallist Ki Bo Bae at the World University Games last year.
Caution: Deepika cannot give in to complacency
Deepika, though, cannot be complacent. There are still moments when she is unable to raise her game especially in the face of strong opposition and in blustery conditions. A prime example is her performance at the Antalya World Cup.
The wind at the coastal city did wreak havoc as she ended up in the ninth place in the individual competition. In the mixed section where she eventually won the silver medal alongside Atanu Das, her form kept fluctuating against the top-seeded pair of Choi Misun and Ku Bonchan and she even hit a lowly 6 which readily handed over the advantage to the formidable Koreans.
There is no doubt that as far as the performances of India’s individual archers are concerned, there is no one better to rely upon than this Ranchi girl. Time and again she has led India’s challenge and has put up a solid show.
However, realistically, as mentioned above, the 22-year-old does look vulnerable under pressure and her best has been coming mostly in team competition of late. That is corroborated by the fact that her average arrow is 9.2 and she currently lies outside the top 10 players at 12th.
It is extremely important for her to have a confidence-boosting start in the ranking round and get a favourable seeding. If she can do that, a semi-final should look a possibility.
2. Women’s recurve team: India’s best bet
Medal chances: 50%
It is the areas of concern regarding Deepika Kumari which make India a stronger favourite in the women’s recurve team event. The 22-year-old can bank on her teammates – Laishram Bombayla Devi and Laxmirani Majhi – for the extra bit of mental and moral support that can bring out the best from all three of them.
Consistency is the key:
The team has been wonderfully consistent in the past few months. The chemistry and mutual understanding among them have been fantastic that saw them clinching the World Archery Championships silver medal, besides adding another silver at this year’s Shanghai World Cup.
At the Antalya World Cup too, they were in contention for a bronze medal which they, unfortunately, missed to finish in the fourth place. If they can hold their nerves and have a bit of luck, the women’s recurve team has the potential to create history at the Rio Olympics.
Four years on, Deepika should be more aware and alert and would be gunning to avert a repeat of the London debacle. The medal expectations are definitely there given the women’s recurve team has been steadily proving themselves at numerous events. It would thus not be unfeasible to see them with a prized Olympic medal in a few days’ time.
The silver medal that they won at the 2015 World Championships in Copenhagen should inspire them to emulate their feat. However, it goes without saying that the pressure increases manifold at the Olympics and it would be safe to expect them to grab at least a bronze medal.
3. Atanu Das
Medal chances: 15%
If India’s best woman archer is still looking a bit wobbly, the men’s section has hope in the form of Atanu Das. The team might have failed to qualify but the Kolkata archer has been proving himself of late which enabled him to make use of the solitary quota place that India earned earlier.
It was amazing to see how Das had been moving up the ranks right ahead of Rio. He is only 24 and has never been to the mega-quadrennial Games before. Yet his maturity belies his age.
After struggling last year, he came back with a bang in 2016 after a change of equipment. Since then, his focus, match temperament and determination have been top-notch. At the first leg of the World Cup in Shanghai, he grabbed two medals – a bronze each in men’s recurve team and the mixed team events.
At the Antalya leg, he outshone all the Indian archers with his solid performance. He was once again one-half of the mixed recurve team that delivered India the silver medal. But it is his fearlessness in the individual event that became the talking point.
He led the World No. 1 Kim Woojin for nearly half of the bronze medal play-off before succumbing to the Korean in the closest of finishes when Woojin’s arrow landed closer to the centre at 10-10 in the shoot-off.
It is no wonder that his Antalya show has shot him up 30 places to his current 22nd ranking. It surely was a huge boost for Das ahead of Rio.
There’s no iota of doubt that he has been one of the most consistent individual performers of the Indian team in the build-up to the Olympics
Yet, the Olympics are one event he has never been to before and stage fright might just play a role. And that can cause a major difference in results. With guts and gumption, he can even pull off a surprise. However, keeping the circumstances in mind, let’s pencil him in as a probable quarter-finalist.