Deepika Kumari — The battle of nerves for an Olympic medal in archery
World no.1 archer Deepika Kumari is one of India's biggest medal hopes as she proceeds for women's quarterfinals at Tokyo Olympics
Archery is one of those sports for India which always shows a lot of promise but fails to deliver on the biggest stage every single time. Deepika Kumari has been the flag bearer for Indian Archery ever since she made her debut appearance in the Olympics in 2012.
During the period, she has been such a dominant force in the World Archery circuit, that at every Olympics the expectations rise sky-high. If these expectations are justifiable, a question arises why there are no results to see in the last 2 Olympics and also in the events so far in Tokyo. Is it all about handling the nerves at the biggest stage?
In London, she finished a brilliant 8th at the qualification round. But what transpired in the medal rounds was quite a shocking exit in the very first round to a much lower-ranked athlete. She struggled to close out matches.
Luckily, at that time, the age was in her favour. Treating this as an initial setback, she had an opportunity to work on her shortcomings for the next four years before Rio 2016. In Rio, she fared much better than London in the knockout rounds. Ultimately she once again succumbed to the weight of expectations around her in the pre-quarterfinal. Again she could not manage to close out the games. Still, she had the age by her side, which meant the Rio disappointment wasn't the end of her bumpy road.
She arrived in Tokyo last week with the same burden of expectations on her as before, not to mention the unnecessary hype created by the media of her being the World no 1. A title she very much deserved but is largely inflated due to the absence of top archery nations, including South Korea, in the world archery events.
Tokyo was her 2nd opportunity after Rio to prove that she had worked on her incapability to handle the pressure situations better. She also did manage to prove it during some of the crunch moments leading up to Tokyo until everything came crashing down again in the mixed team quarter-final against South Korea on Saturday.
What was the problem? Was it Korea? Well, it certainly seems so.
Unlike contact sports, Archery is a self-oriented sport where the opposition should not be a major factor in the performances. It should be the conditions that define the game. However, opposition like South Korea does play an intimidating role in the minds of the archers.
They have been by far the most successful archery nation in the world. They keep producing talent in their domestic circuit, who then come to the biggest stage of all at a young age and still destroy the field.
In Tokyo, the same thing happened. If the qualification scores were any indication of what was to come, it showed the sheer domination of Korea across the gender. The women's team finished a massive 56 points more than the second-place Mexicans.
Similarly, the men's team finished ahead of the Dutch by 37 points. They were a class apart from the rest of the field. Naturally, any opposition would want to avoid a draw featuring the Koreans until the medal rounds.
This exactly is what went wrong for Indians on the qualification day. Both the Mixed and Men's teams fell in the same quarter of the draw as Korea as a result of finishing 9th in the qualification round, which meant they would meet Korea in the quarter-finals.
The first archery medal event that happened on Day 1 was of the Mixed team. India was slated to meet Chinese Taipei in the round of 16 and South Korea in the quarter-finals. Deepika Kumari was paired up with Pravin Jadhav as he finished above Atanu Das, her usual partner for the event.
With all her experience, Deepika had a leadership role to play along with the Olympic debutant Pravin. Deepika had been showing maturity right throughout this year, most notably in the Paris world cup earlier this year. She had finished there with three back-to-back gold medals in her kitty in one day.
Deepika's form in Paris was simply phenomenal. She always had to shoot the crucial arrows as she went last in the round in both the mixed and team events. She nailed it each time when a specific target was supposed to be hit. Sometimes this meant she also scored some crucial 10s when it mattered the most. This showed her incredible maturity from where she was in London and Rio.
Also, most noticeably, her body language during the matches in Paris appeared to be much calmer than ever before. It seemed as though she had learnt how to deal with the key moments in a game better. The biggest question still was will she be able to carry this form and her relaxed state of mind into Tokyo. The inability to handle the pressure of the biggest stage was what cost her in the past
The answer seemed yes in the qualification stage and also in the match against Chinese Taipei. She finished a credible 9th in the qualification, though that meant her probable opponent in the individual quarters would be the top-seeded Korean.
In the Mixed team match against Chinese Taipei, there were so many of those crunch moments that she managed to nail so well once more. She shot last as she did in Paris and scored a 10 in her final shot when the team needed the most to progress to the quarter-final.
However, the hopes of her having overcome her nerves came crashing down in the quarter-final match against Korea.
Deepika did not even score a single 10 in the entire match. Though the mighty opposition might have been playing on her mind, the match was definitely not a one-sided affair as most expected. The young and inexperienced Korean team was slightly off-colour throughout. There were windows of opportunities in each of the lost sets where India failed to capitalize.
In his final shot, even Pravin who was shooting considerably well until then shot a 6. Overall, the match against Korea was a bizarre low-scoring affair, where surely an opportunity was missed by the Indians.
However, it is still not the end of the road for India and Deepika yet in Tokyo. She still has the individual rounds to play. One can surely expect that having already faced her likely quarter-final opponent once in the Mixed will help her better prepare for their match-up.