Trailblazers in any field are a sought after lot as they pave the way for others to follow. And even if the next generation or even those contemporaries who chose to follow on their footsteps go on to achieve far more than these pioneers, their importance cannot be understated.
This is precisely why the likes of Prakash Padukone in badminton, Anjali Bhagwat in shooting still have a special space in the heart of every sports lover. Just like these two stalwarts, Limba Ram was synonymous with Indian archery for those growing up following Olympic sports disciplines in the 90s.
And it was the intrigue surrounding the rise of an athlete from the tribal belt of Rajasthan that caught the attention of the entire country.
Born in Saradeet village, Limba Ram was one of the five siblings in a family with meagre resources. He was initially named Arjun Ram but renamed Limba, the name of the local deity, after he recovered from a serious illness as a toddler.
With the family struggling to meet ends, Ram would work find work in the farms or make bamboo bows and arrows to shoot around with his friends. As he grew older, the quality of the bow and arrow also improved and he graduated to even shooting in local competitions, shoot down birds or win some food items.
He had no knowledge of archery being a competitive sport until an uncle told him about a selection trial in a nearby village. Ram aced that trial and went on to impress the selectors in the second round trials in Chittor and was inducted in the Sports Authority of India’s newly launched Special Area Games Scheme in 1987 along with Shyam Lal, Dhulchand Damor, Ved Singh. They moved to Delhi to train under Russian coach Alexander Nicolai, R S Sodhi and Suman Das among others.
“R S Sodhi sir would tell me that I was made for this sport and that gave me a lot of confidence,” Ram told a radio channel a few years ago.
“When we got to Delhi, they gave us two bows and an arrow to be used by five players. Four months later, we got imported arrows and two people had to share one,” he added.
Sodhi was right about Ram’s talent. Months after joining the camp, he went on to win the junior nationals in Bangalore and a year later was selected in the India squad for the 1988 Seoul Olympics at the age of 16.
It wasn’t a memorable outing for the Indian contingent but Ram learned a lot about discipline and strength training from the South Koreans and was determined to defeat the world’s best archers one day.
He fulfilled that dream a year later when he helped the Indian team bag the Asian Championship gold and he himself clinched the silver in the individual event. The same year, Ram reached the quarterfinals of the World Archery Championships.
The legend of Limba Ram only kept growing with the champion archer helping the Indian team finish fourth in the 1990 Asian Games and equalling the 30m world record in 1992 at the Asian Championship.
Ram was in such form in 1992 that for the first time since the 1980 Moscow Games, the Indian contingent in Barcelona Olympics was hopeful of ending a medal drought in the quadrennial event.
But Ram admitted in the radio interview that his form began to suffer because of the pressure ahead of the tournament and the officials ended up hurting his focus in the Games village on the eve of his competition.
“I was in a deep state of meditation before the event. Archery is such a mental sport and it is vital to find inner calm. If the mind wanders even slightly, you won’t fire the arrow well. I was summoned to meet the officials even as I was meditating. They told me ‘we will carry you on our shoulders and take you to India with the medal around your neck’. I was angry and irritated that I was disturbed. I came back to my room but could not focus again.”
Four years later, Ram made it to his third straight Olympics and should have been in the best shape given that he had matured as an athlete. But he suffered a shoulder injury in the run-up to the Games while playing football in Kolkata and that was the start of a downward curve for the multiple-time national champion.
Used to winning rather easily in the domestic circuit, Ram struggled to handle the downward curve as he lost in three consecutive nationals and then started visiting sadhus and looking for heavenly intervention.
‘‘I always took my focus, my concentration for granted. I never planned for a day when they’d fail me. When they did, I couldn’t do anything,” he was quoted as saying by The Indian Express after he made a comeback to win his seventh national crown in 2003.
His only coaching stint with the national team from 2009-12 also turned out to be controversial as stories of how players did not listen to him started surfacing before the 2012 London Olympics.
Some in the archery circles felt that he lacked the scientific knowledge that the players were used to with the foreign coaches and hence did not give heed to many of his suggestions as the national coach.
Ram has never really spoken about what happened before and during the London Olympics and returned to Rajasthan to coach local talent there.
However, a neuro-degenerative disease has meant that Ram is struggling with his health and the cost of his treatment has put more pressure on his finances.
As things stand now, the once poster-boy of Indian archery is looking for help from any quarter and the Archery Association of India is working with the Sports Ministry to provide help to the 48-year-old.
In the last few years, Ram had simply faded from the public memory as the likes of Deepika Kumar, Atanu Das and others began winning medals on the international stage. The reticent 48-year-old also preferred to take a back seat from public life and stay in Jaipur and spent most of his time training young kids.
He may no longer be the star of Indian archery but there is no doubt that he will always hold a prominent position in archery’s Hall of Fame.