Rio De Janeiro, August 1: The next few days blur the Rio Olympics past our eyes and minds and slide it into our ever-crowded memories, let’s pause and take a breath. Take a moment to remember this time in Indian sport because it will never come again. Not because Indian athletes won’t be able to repeat the achievements we have witnessed but because what Dipa Karmakar, Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu did this week was to mark the arrival of the previously unimagined. Of the unexpected and the unrecognised.
Their places in history secure, Dipa, Sakshi and Sindhu have become more than the sum of their performances. Across three sports – gymnastics, wrestling and badminton – running on strength, endurance and flexibility, they have stretched boundaries and reinforced power for Indian women’s sport.
After a miserable first week full of teary near-misses and a few underwhelming sub-scripts, a gymnast, a wrestler and a badminton player were to spark the 2016 Olympics to life for Indians. To send us leaping to our feet, shouting and fist-pumping. Through their play, Dipa, Sakshi and Sindhu re-wrote the rules of how we will always view these Games.
First, Dipa pushed the medal aside from our minds and took us along with her as she went racing towards her vault. Transfixed by her daring, her composure was to send a message to anxious countrymen watching late on a Sunday night:chill, guys, I know how this is done.
This was a territory Indian sport had never occupied before: the women’s artistic gymnastics competition, shredding its code of conventions and going for broke. After Dipa was done, there were more Indian competitors waiting to step forward. Again two girls, showing us what the fuss was all about. Suddenly, the thrill was in the chase, to keep pushing was the only way ahead and the size of the fight in the dog was what mattered.
The size of wrestler Sakshi Malik’s fight could fill an Olympic colosseum – trailing in four out of five bouts, she was to crouch into her stance and turn into a prowling tiger. In the dying seconds of her bronze-medal bout, extracting the last ounce of force from her muscles, she kept looking for an opening to force her opponent into the “danger position”. Sakshi treated the repechage like its original meaning intended, repechage as ‘rescue’, from a quarterfinal exit to a shot at the first medal from an Indian woman wrestler. Indian-Woman-Wrestler, three words tied together containing courage, rebellion and belief.
The Olympics was to sharpen PV Sindhu’s personality from a quiet, on-and-off performer into a player of ferocity and purpose. If the Olympics require athletes arriving with their A-game, Sindhu’s transformation should become the template. A genteel kind of giant-slayer, who had lurked in the shadow of the accomplished battler Saina Nehwal, she has suddenly become a dangerous and driven opponent. This is the girl who was once reduced to tears when her coach P. Gopichand stopped all practice, had Sindhu stand in the middle of the court with other players watching and asked her to scream. He wanted her to find her anger and understand its use as fuel. It is found and understood.
The three athletes who have taken us on an exhilarating route through the Olympics belonged to the hidden corners of India’s Rio contingent. Far from stars or contenders, brand ambassadors or poster girls of anything, Dipa, Sakshi and Sindhu were Everygirl. Take away the blingy blue leotard, the sleeveless orange wrestling suit or the daffodil yellow shift-dress and put them into civvies. They could be any Indian girl at a bus stop, on her way to home or to “studies” gazing into an impersonal middle distance. Or standing together, a group of friends. Before Rio, Dipa didn’t talk much, Sakshi talked non-stop and Sindhu was a good distance away from the perfect soundbite.
Yet, when the arclight of competition turned on them, each of them put on their uniforms and proved that they were the only thing they needed to be at an Olympic Games: ready.
Who knows how things will go for Sindhu today, but it doesn’t matter. Will Dipa or Sakshi return for Tokyo 2020? Four years is an aeon in Indian sport. A medal of any colour, or even the lack of it, has been rendered irrelevant. What matters is only how they turned the feeble man-on-man insult “fight like a girl” on its head and made it their mantra. For everyone watching and everyone remaining in Rio – fight like us girls.
What will you remember of their fight?
Was it Sakshi Malik’s exploding out of her opponent’s grasp, as the clock ticked over 06:00? Half-crying, half-celebrating the victory that she had wrenched from the distraught Asian champion Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan, in the most muscular of heists. Or covering herself with the Indian flag and burying her face into the wrestling mat to hide her tears?
Was it Sindhu raining down body smashes in a rage on World No. 2 Wang Yihan and Nozomi Okohura, the All England champion, like she was willing to break through their resistance using the hard end of the shuttle for as long as she needed to? Or every time she inched ahead on the scoreboard, the sound of her voice, a shriek, a shout clear and sharp over a crowd that could have rumbled rafters all across Rio? Or the frown on her face like she was angry with someone, something and wanted to break it into pieces? Or was it the smooth angled beauty of her smashes slicing through the air or the devious loop of her drop shots or the whispering delicacy of her net play?
Or the fearless assurance of Dipa’s sprint on the vaulting runway? Tearing down the strip of ground in a large, cavernous hall in a busy, teeming city in a huge, looming country in far, distant corner of the globe. One girl running, thousands of miles away from home and family and familiarity, ready to fling herself into the skies towards her dream and look for the perfect landing.
The lives of Dipa, Sakshi and Sindhu are now forever changed and they may well never be the same again. They will be no doubt hijacked by many causes and set about in varied directions – not least the ministry of women and child development – as striking examples of the power of their girl-childness. About this country it is said that, given its size and scale, whatever about India is found to be true, the opposite also happens to be completely true. Which is how generation after generation of India’s female athletes emerge, despite the crushing weight of patriarchy and medieval norms. They put, each of them, their shoulder against the giant boulder that presses down on them and has done so before them and will do after they are gone, and they try to shift it a little. Or shake it a little. In Rio, three Indian girls together, gave it a good shove. Remain amazed.
They will always have Rio and so will we. Never forget what they did, what you thought when you saw them and what it felt like.