Dipa Karmakar’s few seconds of tumbling in the air have got a nation enthralled. Suddenly words like ‘Produnova’ and ‘Tsukahara’ have leapt out of their obscurity in gymnastics training manuals to drawing room conversations in India.
The 23-year-old has sparked interest in a sport that India only woke up to every four years when it saw lithe waif-like performers beamed on TV from the Olympics. Karmakar has added fuel to the joy back home by saying: “This is just my first Olympics. In 2020 I will try my best and get a medal.” Her coach Bisweshwar Nandi has added more grist to the expectation mill by stating: “We only practiced properly for three months for these Games.”
Given the history of the sport with its barely pubescent winners (remember Romanian Nadia Comaneci and her perfect 10 at the age of 14 in 1976 Olympics?) Karmakar’s enthusiasm may cause some skepticism. However, the sport of gymnastics has evolved in such a manner especially over the last decade that the possibility of older medallists is growing stronger.
The rules have now been tweaked so that older gymnasts can focus on specialised events instead of the earlier all round prowesses that were demanded. As such, Karmakar can keep fine-tuning her two mandatory routines for the vault alone instead of also having to focus on floor routines, the beam and the uneven bars. The changed scoring system allows for some assured points for executing a tricky manoeuvre before the evaluation of skill comes in. And it’s especially in the vault that the fewest deductions are possible.
The vault itself has become more forgiving with better equipment. More lift from better springs also reduces the load on joints thus aiding longevity. The sport has consciously tried to contain its ever evolving levels of difficulty, so older gymnasts can now have longer careers by polishing and fine-tuning their moves.
The best aid for the dreams of older gymnasts like Karmakar is the exploding know-how on strength and conditioning. Gymnasts can now be stronger without the excess bulk that can compromise their routines.
The Indian is particularly proud of her success coming through the mentoring of an Indian coach. “In the contingent there are a number of foreign coaches but their wards haven’t even made the finals. I did it without any foreign coach,” she says.
Coach Nandi feels that there is no need to even train outside India: “I had been asked to take her for training abroad but I insisted on staying in the country and doing it our way.”
Move to USA
With the breakup of the Communist bloc, the majority of the world’s best coaches moved to the United States where gymnastics thrives as a college sport. Comaneci’s mentor Bela Karoyli being a case in point. That’s where the best facilities exist and Karmakar and her coach may have to tap that exposure to take her skill to the next level. Given that the purse strings are now bound to open, Nandi may reconsider his decision in case a long-term development plan can be figured.
The earlier powerhouses of the sport are also now shrinking. For instance Romania’s men or women teams did not even qualify for Rio and only two athletes figured in the field.
The diminishing challenge from diverse state-sponsored programmes further brightens the future prospects of Karmakar but the road between Rio and Tokyo will be long and full of potential tumbles. It will be a tough prospect for the 4’11” 47 kg lionheart from Tripura. But then by qualifying for the Olympics and placing fourth, she has already proved that the presumed impossible is just a percept. And percepts are, anyway, just figments of the mind.