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Dipa Karmakar’s Olympics qualification chances dented, Covid 19-hit FIG World Cup canceled but coach Nandi remains hopeful

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As an Indian sports enthusiast, growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, it was hard to find international-level athletes to root for consistently outside of cricket. But there were a few shining stars who did manage to breakthrough on the international stage with their gutsy performances. These Indian athletes came into the spotlight every so often but remained largely drowned out amid the cricket din.

The Indian hockey team, P.T. Usha, Milkha Singh, Vijay Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan among others were all international stars in their respective sports. But their achievements are often overshadowed by India’s cricketers.

For most Indians, the sport of gymnastics that entered our living rooms once every Olympic year via good ol’ Doordarshan seemed like Elon Musk’s expedition to Mars…. how and when could we ever get there?

Like many, the sport for us remains synonymous with Nadia Comaneci, the first gymnast to be awarded a Perfect 10 for her performance at the 1976 Games. So it was no surprise that when a young 4-feet 11-inch girl from the state of Tripura qualified for the Rio Olympics in 2016, she captured the hearts and imagination of a nation starved of non-cricketing sporting hero(in)es.

Dipa Karmakar creates history at the 2016 Rio Olympics

Dipa Karmakar at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
Dipa Karmakar at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games

To the knowledgeable Indian sports fan, the signs of Dipa Karmakar‘s breakthrough had been sown a few years before Rio. She claimed the bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

She won another bronze at the Asian Gymnastics Championships and finished fifth at the 2015 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, both firsts for India. But it was her qualification for the Rio Olympics that put Dipa Karmakar firmly in the spotlight. She became the first female gymnast from India to compete at the Olympic Games and the first Indian gymnast to do so in more than half-a-decade.

Dipa’s Produnova move became as familiar to Indians as the cover-drive in cricket or an ace in tennis circles and inspired many to take an interest in the sport.

It’s hard for a non-gymnast expert (like me) to understand and then explain just how difficult the Produnova vault is. So I won’t even go there (Here’s a link for those who want to read more about it).

But it’s safe to say that it’s regarded as one of the most difficult vaults among those currently performed in gymnastics. Simone Biles, the current leading lady of women’s gymnastics, claimed a few years ago that she would never try it.

Dipa Karmakar, then 22, finished fourth in her event at Rio, missing out on the bronze medal by a mere 0.15 points. While she did not come away with a medal, Dipa Karmakar’s journey is a testament that with the right training, hard work, perseverance, and support, Indians could compete with the best in any field on the global stage.

More importantly, it provided enough hope for fans to look forward to the next Olympic Games and follow Dipa Karmakar through her journey to qualify for Tokyo 2020.

Since then, there have been several hurdles in that journey. Karmakar underwent surgery to treat an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury in 2017 which forced her to miss several events in the months after that.

However, the postponement of the Tokyo Games to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic provided some more time for Dipa Karmakar to regain her fitness and compete in the Olympic qualifying events scheduled for early 2021.

FIG World Cup cancellation throws a spanner in Dipa’s quest for Tokyo

Having worked hard in recent months, Dipa Karmakar is finally fit and has been raring to go for the Olympic qualifiers.

But those hopes have suffered a major setback in recent weeks. The current global scenario around the pandemic has forced the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) to cancel or postpone several Olympic qualifying events scheduled for the coming months.

As it currently stands, Dipa Karmakar needs 90 points to secure her berth in Tokyo. According to her coach Bisheshwar Nandi, Dipa Karmakar has 45 points from her efforts at previous qualifying events. That leaves her 45 points short of the qualification mark.

Coach Nandi remains hopeful that FIG will host at least a couple of events in the next few months which will give Dipa Karmakar a chance to make the cut.

“We hope that there will be some Olympic qualification competition. I think in April end or first or second week of May, there will be 2 or 3 qualification events. We hope so but it will be announced by the FIG, ” Nandi, a Dronacharya awardee, recently told Sportskeeda

While that is certainly reason to be hopeful, the road ahead for Dipa Karmakar seems anything but easy. Different countries are currently in different phases of the pandemic wave.

And with related travel restrictions to and from countries, sporting events in recent months have been dropping off the calendar at an alarming rate. The ones that have been held could not attract players from all corners of the globe due to the sheer logistics and travel restrictions involved.

As per the FIG statement, ‘a large majority of the 324 Olympic berths in Gymnastics have already been allocated and only a limited number of places are still at stake through World Cup series or continental championships that have been postponed from 2020 to 2021’.

The FIG statement goes on to clarify that the deadline for qualification remains 29 June 2021.

Dipa Karmakar at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games
Dipa Karmakar at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games

But Coach Nandi is confident that if any qualifying events are held in the coming months, Dipa Karmakar will be there and ready to vault for her place in Tokyo. What happens in a scenario where the events are not held? If that is the case, Nandi clarifies that it will be up to the FIG to determine what criteria will be used to finalize those who make the cut.

“If there is no qualifying event, how they will select (the remaining gymnasts) for the Olympics I don’t know. The FIG will announce that. Everything depends on the FIG and how they decide the qualifying criteria.”

Hope springs eternal for Dipa Karmakar and her fans

It remains to be seen how the next few months will pan out for Dipa Karmakar and her quest for Tokyo 2020. If she gets there, it will serve as another reminder of her steely determination and drive. If she doesn’t, it’s heartening to learn that Nandi already has the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games in 2022 and the Paris Olympics in 2024 on his mind.

“We are also preparing for 2022 Asian and Commonwealth games. Our target is definitely also the 2024 France Olympics,” Nandi added.

Dipa Karmakar, who is currently 27, cited Olympian gymnast Oksana Chusovitina as one of her role models in a recent interview. The 45-year-old Chusovitina qualified for her eighth Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“We all should take Oksana as an example; if she can still do so well at the age of 45, then why shall I consider the age factor now. It’s all about how fit you are mentally as well as physically and if you have willpower to give it a shot, you can definitely do it,” Dipa told the Olympic Channel in a recent interview.

Like most Indian sporting enthusiasts and her coach, I’ll remain hopeful in the months ahead that Dipa Karmakar makes it to Tokyo 2020. After all, hope is what the world is built on.

If not, it’s heartening to know that she and her team are both looking forward to Paris 2024. Dipa (herself), Indian gymnastics, and Indian sporting fans surely deserve a chance to see this little girl from Tripura take another mighty shot at Olympic glory.

Published 15 Mar 2021, 19:25 IST

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