One of the strangest things ever to have happened in Indian sports was witnessed in Rio, on the eve of country’s 70th Independence Day. India celebrated a fourth-finish in athletics like never before, thanks to Dipa Karmakar, then welcomed her in the grandest possible way which is only reserved for champions.
On that fateful day, Karmakar not only became the first Indian to compete in the finals of a gymnastics event in Olympics, but also challenged the world’s best. She scored 15.006 but missed a bronze medal by mere 0.150 points.
Fighting for a medal, Karmakar produced a Produnova, which many considered the vault of death, in her second vault and was second when she completed her routine.
But as fate would have it, she slipped to fourth place when the final contestant, the irreplaceable Simon Biles, came up with a score of 16.033 in her second vault for a total of 15.966 points. The American captured the gold medal, ahead of Russian Maria Paseka (15.253) and Swiss Giulia Steingruber (15.216).
That’s how Dipa Karmakar became the sweetheart of India, and helped the country see a new sporting dream, matching the promises made by cricketers, shuttlers, shooters, wrestlers and boxers – to be a world champion.
Karmakar’s story became the story of India. Her exploits at the Rio Olympics will always be remembered as one of the most iconic moments in the history of Indian sports. But record will tell that she was only a fourth-place finisher at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Then, who doesn’t detest a fourth place finisher, and for that matter of fact, even a second or third finish is looked down upon whenever the winner/champion debate comes alive.
However, what set her apart from other two girls – PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik – who have dominated the Indian sports in 2016, is that she competed in an event which virtually had no history in the country.
It's not that the exploits of Sindhu and Malik were less incredible, but India has been one of the breeding grounds of badminton and wrestling champions.
In the 2012 London Games, Saina Nehwal created history by winning a bronze medal, and wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt and Sushil Kumar won a bronze and silver respectively.
The girl from Tripura, thus, by finishing fourth and staying in contention of a medal, managed to win hearts. She became the darling of a nation which until then looked up to gymnasts from eastern European countries, America, China and Japan for their supreme fitness and daredevilry.
Truth be told, for majority of Indians, gymnastics is still a ‘thing’ done by circus performers, whose occasional pretenses in movies were only the bright side of their not so desirable practice.
Karmakar seemed to have successfully changed that impression, thanks to her breathtaking performance in Rio. Suddenly, gymnastics became a sport worth investing and Tripura, a state of promise. Produnova found its place in national discourse just like a six or wicket.
But again, when the next four-year cycle of Olympic Games arrives in 2020, India will still be searching for its champions in various sports, including gymnastics, and as usual, there will be post-mortems galore for yet another failed adventure.
No disrespect to Karmakar, but a single darling will not be enough to sustain the Olympic churning of a nation. If the 23-year-old had successfully managed to capture the attention of a cricket-obsessed country with a single Olympics outing, then she will need a much more creditable performance in the next Games.
Anything less than a medal will be heartbreaking. Karmakar herself had given her fellow Indians a glimpse of future success.
Her missing an Olympic medal by a whisker in a sport which doesn’t have a footing in the country allowed every Indian to dream for a podium finish in 2020 Tokyo. It will become even bigger moment for India if she translates her promise of doing so.
It will be a feat comparable to India’s 1983 World Cup winning campaign under Kapil Dev. But again, India needs to shed off its cricket fixation, and compare every success with the ones achieved by its cricketers.
Indian cricket’s success doesn’t happen overnight. Indian cricket has got arguably the best infrastructure in the world and thousands of thousands fight for a place in the national team.
Unlike cricket, the state of affairs in most sports like gymnastics in India is deplorable. But thankfully, the government has announced it would set up a Task Force to help India participate meaningfully in the next three Olympic Games in 2020, 2024 and 2028.
Gymnastics, sure, is part of that larger plan, which India desperately need.