Silence greeted Bhavani Devi as she stepped onto the yellow piste of the Makuhari Messe Hall to create history. Bhavani was the first Indian fencer, male or female, to ever make it to the Olympics. Only a handful of people were present at the hall due to the health protocols. For Bhavani, the most important person was among them—her mother Ramani, who watched and prayed, prayed and watched.
On the fencing strip, Bhavani lunged and attacked. After every point she won, the Indian pumped her fists and let out a scream of joy. She had been her own cheerleader for years, toiling in empty practice halls, believing in her Olympic dream when very few did or cared. Resembling a masked warrior, Bhavani defeated Tunisia’s Nadia Ben Azizi 15-3 in the first round of the Tokyo Olympics on Monday.
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Even though she lost in the second round, 7-15 to French fourth seed Manon Brunet, the 27-year-old had made India’s presence felt in an elite European sport at the highest level. “Every end has a beginning,” she tweeted later that evening.
Bhavani’s performance was symbolic of the many small victories the Indian contingent has scored at the Olympics so far. In tennis, Sumit Nagal had registered India’s first win in singles since 1996. On Sunday, Manika Batra had battled back to victory against a higher-ranked opponent to become the first table tennis player from the country to enter the third round at the Olympics. Earlier that day, Nethra Kumanan had become the first Indian woman to compete in Olympic sailing.
All of these significant feats revolved around the hulk of silver won by Saikhom Mirabai Chanu on the opening day.
For five years, Mirabai had shut herself off to the outside world and trained her focus on not failing. The three failed attempts in Rio 2016 still rankled. Her friends, family and coach Vijay Kumar, had helped her regain her confidence. “She didn’t go anything other than sleep, eat and train for five years,” Kumar said during their media interaction from Tokyo. “In the last five years, I must have gone home for maybe 5-6 days,” Mirabai added, gorging on a slice of pizza she had craved for so long.
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The 26-year-old from Manipur had trained in St Louis, USA since the first week of May before flying directly to Tokyo. When a smiling Mirabai emerged on to the Olympic stage on 24 July, the first day of the Tokyo Olympics, Rio seemed like a distant nightmare. Her earrings resembled the five intertwined Olympic rings; the red bow she wore belied the heft of the task ahead of her.
All four feet 11 inches of her radiated confidence as she started with a lift of 84 kg in snatch. She upped it to 87 kg on the second attempt. Mirabai had entered the clean and jerk section of the 49kg weightlifting event placed second on the leaderboard. That was her strong suit. And she never fell out of medal contention, lifting 115kg on her second attempt to clinch the silver.
“I missed out on a medal in Rio Olympics and I changed the training pattern after that,” said Mirabai after returning to India on Monday. “We have dedicated the last five years to Tokyo Olympics and sacrificed everything for my goal…this is why we have been able to achieve this feat.”
Her medal is important not just for Indian sport, but in helping make the country’s sporting landscape more inclusive. Mirabai, like London Olympics bronze medalist MC Mary Kom, comes from Manipur, a state in India’s marginalized north east. It also gives Indian women athletes, who have now brought home the last three Olympic medals, more than just bragging rights.
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“Mirabai winning the medal was a huge sporting achievement because Indians are not exactly known for doing well in weightlifting,” former Indian star Somdev Devvarman told Mint. “I think the social aspect is a little bit more important. The last few huge performances that Indians have had Dipa (Karmakar), Sakshi (Malik, bronze medal at Rio), PV Sindhu (silver medal at Rio), and now Mirabai, its huge. In the 90s I don't think we ever sent more than 10 women to the Olympics. That number has started steadily increasing.”
“Perhaps selfishly, I just love to see athletes from the North East have success and get a few more opportunities,” added Devvarman, who hails from Tripura. “The North East undoubtedly has some of the best athletes in the world. Unfortunately a lot of them are hidden away. This is chance for a lot of people to feel that they can come out and do well. It is also a good indicator for those responsible to create more opportunities for people from different parts of the country.”
Former table tennis player Neha Aggarwal has also seen a shift in narrative when it comes to her sport. She remembers being happy to just represent India at the Beijing Games in 2008. “When I lost in the first round, no one questioned or criticized me,” she recalled. “We are not there just to participate anymore.”
Manika Batra had clawed back from a 0-2 deficit against Margaryta Pesotska, a player ranked 32 places above her, to win 4-11, 4-11, 11-7, 12-10, 8-11, 5-11, 7-11 in the second round on Sunday, 25 July. She thus became the first Indian player to enter the round of 32 at an Olympics. A day later, Achanta Sharath Kamal, 38 years old and competing in his fourth Olympics, repeated the feat as he defeated Portugal’s Tiago Apolonia 2-11, 11-8, 11-5, 9-11, 11-6, 11-9 in the round of 64.
“The Olympic stage is completely different. For Manika to pull off an upset under so much pressure, expectations, and staying focused on what she has to do is a big deal,” says Aggarwal. “What Manika and Sharath have done carves a path for a new generation. You cannot start winning overnight. It takes a generational shift. Next time an Indian player goes to the Olympics, the target will be to do better than them. That’s what will lift the level of the game in India.”
In tennis, Nagal, who was a last-minute entry into the men’s singles draw, battled in the sweltering heat of Tokyo to edge past Asian Games champion Denis Istomin 6-4, 6-7, 6-4 on Saturday. It was the first victory for India in singles at the Olympics since Leander Paes’ bronze finish at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
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“The performances of our athletes have been very, very good,” says Devvarman. “None of this is to say that we only need pats on the back. Personally as an athlete I didn't care too much for that, but I think it is very necessary for the general public to acknowledge the shift that is happening. It is happening very quietly. And it’s not happening only because of medals. It is also happening through gritty performances.”
Nagal, Bhavani and Batra’s feats won’t be accompanied by the shimmer of a medal when they return to India. But in their own way they have helped the country break new ground. What may seem like small steps for individual sports may end up being a big stride for Indian sport.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.