Dipa Karmakar lost a medal at the Rio Olympics by a whisker. But let us not take the credit away from her. She is a world class gymnast and on another day the same performance would perhaps have brought a gold for her. She is only going to improve provided she gets proper facilities in a competitive environment and if she is groomed for the next Olympics under the Central Government’s active patronage. Unfortunately, our Sports Ministry is totally devoid of ideas and is headed by a minister who went to Rio with a bureaucratic entourage to display his obnoxious behaviour and was almost thrown out.
But let us concentrate on Dipa Karmakar. How modest she has been in her loss!
Here is what she said, “I never expected a medal honestly. My first target was to better my scores in the two vaults, and I succeeded in doing that. Whatever I had learnt, I managed to perform. There’s been no better score than this in the two vaults that I performed.”
The 23-year-old Dipa, who had become the first Indian woman gymnast to have qualified for the Olympics, scored an average of 15.066 points, a mere 0.15 less than the eventual bronze winner Giulia Steingruber (15.216) of Switzerland.
With just a little bit of luck, she would have been on the medal stand. The whole country should stand by her and give her encouragement. Dipa represented a country that has hardly any gymnastic tradition, adequate environment, adequate exposure and a structured sporting goal. Sports is a soft power that is being used by countries to enhance cultural status and prestige in a globalized world. India has not been able to use this soft power despite what it describes as democratic dividend, a reservoir of youth energy not matched by any other country and yet failing miserably in most sport events except in cricket and sporadically may be in hockey. Individual performances are lone efforts by sportsmen themselves, may be only encouraged by their coaches or a limited number of well-wishers.
In this respect, India can take a lesson from China. Here is an extract from a report in the Hindustan Times. Perhaps India could set up a system mirroring China, the most successful nation in the sport. China’s domination didn’t happen overnight. Over decades, a lot has gone into the programmes that churn out, with unfailing regularity, world beaters not only in gymnastics but other disciplines.
Cheng Fei, captain of the Chinese gymnastics team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was picked out of pre-school for her flexibility and fearlessness. The three-time world champion in vault was taken to a gymnastics school and it wasn’t till she was 17 and had the team Olympic gold to show that she was allowed to see where her parents lived.
Fei’s favourite event was the vault, just like Dipa. However, the journey they took to reach the Olympic final are very different. Though the institutionalised Chinese system is a bit extreme, their step-by-step nurturing of a gymnast is something India can learn from.
A gymnast in China would start when she is around six and progress through the system.
Here is a peek into the journey she undergoes:
1. The government begins identifying and taking in children as young as six, as this is the best time to determine whether the child is a potential Olympic medal winner.
2. Children are recruited based on their predicted height, weight, bone density, arm span, and flexibility.
3. Once recruited, children are sent to training camps, away from families.
4. Athletes are fed special diets with herbs and exotic Chinese medicines.
5. Use of technology is banned while training. No cell phones or computers are allowed except for during a short period in the evening.
6. Olympic gymnasts train for up to eight hours a day, six days a week. They believe that a break will be counterproductive.
7. Earning gold is the only focus; even silver medallists are looked down upon. Athletes who do not bring home a gold medal are left to fend for themselves with little to fall back on.
8. Once they reach the early teens, the gymnasts who show potential and develop will be part of the gymnastics squad and will get exposure in major continental and global events.
9. By 16 or 17, the best would have been identified who will spearhead the country’s challenge at Olympics and World Championships.”
Except the Chinese no 7 regime, we may adopt a similar training program not only for gymnastics but in respect of most athletics.