Dipa Karmakar’ s achievement in becoming India’s first woman gymnast to qualify for the Olympics is noteworthy. The 22-year-old from Tripura is not a practitioner of a high-profile sport. Indians at the Games have made strides in shooting, badminton, tennis and boxing while the men’s hockey team continues its quest to regain at least some of our past glory.
There is little gymnastics tradition in India. Young Indian girls showing off flexibility and performing stunts to packed houses have been confined to circus troupes. In fact, in the past, there used to be suggestions to tap even that talent and bring it into the sport.
True, Indian gymnasts have gone to the Olympics, but they were all men, and none since the 1964 Tokyo Games. Interest was generated when India hosted the 1982 Asian Games. A foreign coach, too, was at hand, but he was left dazzled by the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese. Indian gymnastics faded away.
All these facts put Dipa’s performance in perspective. She was encouraged to take up gymnastics by her father Dulal, a weightlifting coach, though Agartala is a far cry from Allahabad, which is regarded as Indian gymnastics’ nursery.
Dipa, a medallist at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, qualified at the Olympic test event in Rio. But considering global standards, the reality that 22 is old for a sport where flexibility is everything.
The sad truth is that unless Dipa confounds expectations and wins a medal at the Games, sponsors are unlikely to line up for the sport. But her effort shows what can be achieved with hard work, and should serve as an inspiration for boys and girls across the country and prompt the government to improve facilities for gymnastics.
Dipa’s coming into the national limelight should help infrastructure-starved Tripura. It should also goad officials into putting gymnastic equipment procured for national games --- which are held essentially to improve sports facilities in smaller cities --- to better use. Gymnastics is about ‘catching them young’. Only by providing quality and continuous training support can children be expected to take up the rigorous sport.
It took years of toil by Mary Kom to boost the profile of women’s boxing. Dipa’s vault should be seen as the first step, not an end in itself.