Olympic countdown: Deepika, Atanu, and the perennial hope of an archery medal

Indian archery is finding its feet after a long time and two of the best exponents in the sport, Deepika Kumari and Atanu Das, are at the forefront of a resurgence, which has given hope that the sport can earn the country the elusive medal at the Olympics.

Despite the archery association being mired in controversy and uncertainty that has lingered on for years, Indian archers finally broke the cycle of disappointment when they returned rich pickings at the World Cup Stage 3 in Paris late last month, with recurve archer Deepika winning three gold medals — women’s individual, team and mixed pair — to reclaim the No.1 spot in the world, which she achieved for the first time in 2012.

The 27-year-old from Ranchi first paired with Ankita Bhakat and Komalika Bari to win the women’s recurve team gold, beating Mexico. The husband-wife duo of Deepika and Atanu Das then won the mixed gold, overcoming the Dutch, and finally, she put the icing on the cake by winning her fourth individual World Cup gold.

Deepika’s overall tally of nine gold, 12 silver and seven bronze in the world cups gives hope that the double Commonwealth Games gold medallist in 2010 Delhi could be the frontrunner for a medal in her third outing at the Olympics. Hopes are also high because Deepika has got nearly two years of preparation time as she had secured the Tokyo berth in the 2019 Olympic qualification cycle.

While Deepika is the only woman archer who will be representing India at the Olympics, three men – Atanu Das, Tarundeep Rai, and Pravin Jadhav – will vie for the honours in the men’s team event, and then Deepika and Atanu will pair up in the mixed category.

Indian archers have come close to clinching a podium finish on the big stage on a couple of occasions. Notable among them is the performance of three-time Olympian Limba Ram who missed the 1992 Barcelona Olympics bronze medal by a whisker.

Limba’s story is part of India’s sporting folklore, where a hunter belonging to the Ahari tribe of Rajasthan was spotted by the Sports Authority of India’s scouts and thrown into the spotlight in 1987.

While Limba continued to excel on the international stage, several youngsters, many of them tribals, were scouted by SAI’s Special Area Games scheme and their talent was harnessed in centres around the country.

Over the years, Dola Banerjee, Satyadev Prasad, Bombayala Devi, Tarundeep Rai and many more have spawned hopes of a medal on the big stage but things have somehow not clicked.

At 37, Tarundeep Rai, who first competed at the 2004 Athens Olympics and has been Limba Ram’s understudy, is among the most experienced of the trio — Atanu Das and Pravin Jadhav being the others – going to Tokyo, and would like to end his career on a high.

More than anything, Deepika would also be keen to erase the memory of the 2012 London Olympics when despite being the firm favourite after winning her maiden World Cup individual gold at Antalya, Turkey, she lost to home favourite Amy Oliver in the opening round, attributing the exit to poor health.

Deepika’s run at the 2016 Rio Olympics too came to an abrupt halt after showing promise, as she went down to an archer from Chinese Taipei in the round-of-16.

While, winning a medal is easier said than done when the South Koreans and the Japanese are aiming for nothing less than gold, this could still be an opportunity for the Indians to bring their experience to the fore and get rid of the underachiever tag once and for all.