Bhavani Devi shines bright before Tokyo Olympics exit
Bhavani Devi's battle cries pierce the fencing arena at the Makuhari Messe Hall in Chiba Perfecture. The hall is nearly dark and there are neon lights over the strip where the fencers are locked in battle. Every time Devi lunges and makes contact with her Sabre, she lets out a scream, and pumps her fist. The constant clanking of swords, the intimidating mask with the country's flag imprinted on it, the screams--it's all very gladiatorial. Much like Devi's journey to the Olympics.
Devi stepped on the Olympic stage, the first Indian to do so in fencing, against Nadia Ben Azizi of Tunisia and her eyes fall instantly on the Olympic rings. She remembers at that moment, to inspire herself, the years of struggle to be in a sport where there is neither following nor any infrastructure to speak of in India. The struggle for money, equipment, gear, coaches, training partners, a place to practice. It ran through Devi's head like a reel. She looked at her mother, her constant companion through those hardships. Then the helmet came on and she took guard.
Immediately, she was on the attack. Quick steps, powerful lunges, lightning flashes of her sword. Devi raced through to 15 points, which assures a win, conceding just three.
That's as good a start to the Olympics as she can think of.
“I have been dreaming of playing on that Olympic stage for so long, probably every time I go to sleep," said Devi. "So, I was emotional in the first match. I was nervous. At the same time, I wanted to do well, so I tried to change my focus. I tried to be as normal as possible, like a normal World Championship. But it’s the Olympics.”
Now that she had made her first mark on the big stage, gone past her breakthrough moment, some of that nervousness left her. Up next though, was a far stronger opponent, world No. 3 Brunet Manon of France. Devi had sparred with her in training in France and had narrowly beaten her 15-14 once. She thought of that moment. "I have nothing to lose," she told herself. It is stubbornness that had got her this far, chasing an improbable dream. the possibilities.
“It’s the Olympics, anything is possible," she said later. "Just before my bout I watched a top fencer lose. As a fencer and as an athlete, I know anything can happen. I have competed with her in two events earlier and lost. But the gap was not that wide, just a few points."
For a while, it was difficult to separate the two, but eventually, Manon won 15-7 and then went on to win the bronze in the event.
“I was a little bit sad because I thought I could have done better in the first half," she said. "I eventually changed my tactics in the second half. In sabre, it’s very, very quick.”
Her Olympic experience lasted less than an hour, but it was many years in the making. One of five children born to a middle-class Hindu priest and a homemaker, her parents struggled to fund her love for this "strange" sport. Buying the equipment -- just the electrically conductive jacket and the helmet can cost ₹1.5 lakh, and they have to be changed each year--and arranging for all the travel was difficult. People also ridiculed them for letting their daughter play “a sport with no future”. At one time in 2015, Devi had almost quit the sport because of a lack of funds, before a scholarship from the non-profit Go Sports Foundation changed her career. It also paved the way for her to train in Italy, under Nicola Zanotti — who coached the Italian national team for the last three Olympics.
“Yesterday was officially the last training session for the Olympic Games. I was just thinking about the journey. I wanted to remind myself how I got here. Yes, it was a very difficult journey, but I am happy that with the help of a lot of people, like my parents, I have reached this far,” she said.
Immediately after her bout with Manon, a German coach came up to her and told her that she was great even in defeat. That is the kind of impact Devi has had in the sport, where it is rare to see a competitor at the highest stage who is not from Europe.