Leading into the 2012 London Olympics, the confident tone of India's archery contingent was unmistakable. The team's head coach, former Commonwealth Games gold medalist Limba Ram, was postulating on India's chances and the archers themselves were brimming with self-assurance. This was, after all, the first time since Athens 2004 that India had filled the six quota places available at the Games. India had had a successful season, with the highlight being the crowning of 18-year-old Deepaki Kumari as the women's World No. 1. There was even talk of India's archers winning a medal at the London Games.
Was this confidence misplaced? With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to say yes. The men's team lost in a close shootout to Japan and the women's team, ranked second best in the world, lost Denmark in the first round. In the individual competition, the outcome was no different with Deepika especially producing a below par performance to bow out of the individual recurve event. It was almost embarrassing to watch India's archers, and the image of Bombayla Devi laughing after missing a shot during an event at Lord's is perhaps the lasting impression of the women's archery contingent in London.
The reasons for this failure to compete at the London Games have varied, with some citing the wind factor at Lord's - despite a conditioning camp in windy Gangtok to get the archers acclimatized for London’s soppy weather - and illness to certain players and others the need for proper coaching, while a few archers have stressed on the need for physiotherapists and mental trainers. Few are admitting that India's archers just may not have been that good against the best in the world.
Deepika's case is the most puzzling, because of her No. 1 status. There are murmurs that her pre-Olympics performances didn't merit her rise in the world rankings, and that the absence of leading competitors in the rankings tournament diluted the competition. Deepika's dismal performance supports this line of thinking. It was surprising to see an archer who had outclassed all her opponents in the past season come up woefully short at the Olympics. Yes, the competition was expected to be a notch higher in London, but surely Deepika could have performed better?
Those in the know have expressed surprise at how Deepika failed to maintain even her minimum level of performance. Dharmendra Tiwary, the Tata Archery Academy, was shocked at how his young trainee was overwhelmed by the occasion and the opposition. Deepika, also a double Commonwealth Games gold medalist, recently admitted to telling her coach with a disbelieving laugh that it was "all over within ten minutes of our arrival at the arena". Yes, she is young, but is this the attitude of a champion?
Limba Ram said he had no excuses, but went on to reason that Deepika's No. 1 tag had been conferred on her by the International Federation, not by India. It smacked of disbelief and frustration. The team's other coach, Ravi Shankar, admitted the stature of the Olympics was the toughest his archers had ever encountered.
"The overall aura of the Olympics is awesome and that too had a big impact. Everybody was saying that this girl [Deepika] was the sure medal winner and that put a lot of pressure on the teenager and she could not cope with that. The presence of huge crowd and the glitz surrounding the venue made Deepika nervous and that showed in her results," he said.
Hopefully Deepika has learned how to cope with exposure and expectation, because that is what sports is about. She is 18, and the road from here can only be uphill for one of India’s brightest stars. But we cannot afford to hear excuses that athletes were overwhelmed by the occasion.
Rahul Banerjee, the 2010 CWG gold medalist who was part of the men's team that lost to Japan in the first elimination round, believes a physiotherapist and mental trainer should be present at major events. Banerjee's team-mate Tarundeep Rai has urged the federation to hire a full-time sports psychologist.
Indeed, a large part of sport is played out in the mind. If India's archers were in fact overwhelmed by the occasion then the issue of mental conditioning must be addressed. There is also hope that they will return in four years stronger, wiser and with more confidence. In all the pre-Games hype, it was overlooked that only two of the six archers had ever been to the Olympics - Rai and Bombayla. Confidence is gained by competing with the best on the biggest stage, and hopefully India's archers will have learned a lot from their London experience.