Day 10 of the Rio Olympics is long gone, but the name Dipa still lingers on the lips. For the best part of an hour, this girl, Dipa Karmakar, a 23-year-old from Tripura, all four feet and 11 inches made sure that more than a billion people were glued onto her every movement as she attempted to pull off the toughest vault of ‘em all, the Produnova.
The last time a gymnast from India had qualified for the Olympics, the year was 1964. For a majority of the television-viewing public, Dipa had shown them something wonderful: one of their own performing gymnastics at the highest level.
She came fourth but it feels like gold, silver and bronze all combined in one. The sheer scale of what she has accomplished, starting from a vault made of old scooter parts, in one of the remotest parts of the country, practising on old, soiled mattresses due to a lack of foam, is unfathomable and adds a layer of improbability to itself every time one of these old stories come out.
Just what power did this girl possess within her? What pushed her to run full tilt towards that vault, hurl herself 10 feet into the air and attempt a death-defying vault, one that athletes from countries with well-regimented gymnastic programs wouldn’t dare to attempt?
Abhinav Bindra winning the gold medal in 2008 had evoked a certain sense of pride, but this felt different. Dipa had a different power, a different kind of effect on the masses – a power to make grown men cry, a power to move. Dipa’s faith had not only moved mountains, it had vaulted them.
This raised other questions: Were there other Dipas out there? Did they also possess the same power? Why hadn’t India found them yet? The answers to these questions are well-known unfortunately; one quick glance at India’s overall medal tally confirms these suspicions. The system hadn’t helped Dipa, she had succeeded despite it. The system had spectacularly failed Dipa.
Blurring the lines between sports and politics
As expected, Dipa, Sakshi Malik, PV Sindhu, Deepika Kumari had all made headlines at Rio. However, there is one person who shouldn’t have been in the headlines but had made it, albeit for the wrong reasons.
Not only had India’s sports minister embarrassed the entire Indian contingent, Vijay Goel, also the head of India’s delegation to the Olympics, had proved by his tweets that he can’t seem to remember the names of athletes or their faces. At this point, you’d be very tempted and very right in asking what Goel’s primary responsibility at the Olympics was, if he couldn’t recognise his own athletes.
For years, sporting federations in India have been the personal fiefdoms of bureaucrats and babus with a personal agenda. There are very few federations that have been spared political interference and mismanagement; over the last two decades, football, hockey, athletics, boxing, wrestling have all come under the scanner. Now add gymnastics to that list as well.
After Dipa’s heroics in Rio, it was fanciful thinking on the part of the Indian sports enthusiast to think that conditions for gymnasts would improve, but after all the Tripura girl did to bring the sport into the limelight, a national meet is the least that any sport requires for it to prosper and bring about internal competition within the country, always a healthy way to unearth new gems.
Alas, not only is a national meet nowhere on the horizon, but infighting within the Gymnastics Federation of India has ensured that a huge administrative logjam has developed after the body split into two.
On her return from Rio, Dipa was showered with accolades and gifts from cricketers (Sachin Tendulkar gifted her a BMW!) and politicians alike but no one from the sports ministry had stepped forward when she had become the first Indian woman to win a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2014.
The ministry didn’t include her in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme until the last minute, when, in April 2016, she won the gold medal in the vault at a Rio test event. Her request for a physio in Rio was initially denied and was granted only when she qualified for the vault final.
A trend-setter and a role model
Clearing these obstacles would appear to be second-nature for Dipa, but the world of good that she has done for Indian gymnastics is immeasurable. For a nation with people largely unfamiliar with the vault and with virtually zero gymnastics infrastructure, for them to tune into a gymnastics final at the Olympics and see an Indian flag fluttering there, is as close to surreal as it gets.
The Go Sports-sponsored athlete will hopefully be competing at the upcoming World Cup circuit in Rhythmic Gymnastics conducted by the Federation of International Gymnastics, starting April 7 in Pesaro, Italy, She may also change her vault if coach Bishweshwar Nandi is to be believed.
Nandi spoke to Scroll.in on potentially changing Dipa’s vault from the Produnova to a different one. “It is my plan as a coach to change Dipa’s vault as every gymnast changes her vault after two-to-three years. Right now, Dipa is practising in Tripura. To implement this, we have to go to the IG Stadium in New Delhi, where there are facilities.”
With Tokyo 2020 in her sights, it cannot be predicted whether the 2016 Khel Ratna awardee will go one better or not. Perhaps, just perhaps, there will be a team accompanying Karmakar on her Olympic mission next time around. One thing is certain though: If and when an Indian does manage to win a gymnastics medal, s/he and a billion others will be reminded of one woman and one woman only, the athlete that started the revolution, the Dipa Karmakar.
Simone Biles may have won four gold medals at Rio including the vault, but it was Dipa who set a billion hearts fluttering and captivated an entire generation. If the American has her way, the Karmakar might be born.
This is the third of a five-part series listing the top five Indian sportspersons of the year. Indian junior hockey captain Harjeet Singh was #5 and Olympic silver medal-winning shuttler PV Sindhu was #4.