For a country like India, which is starved of sporting success beyond cricket, the Rio Olympics in 2016 proved out to be an anti-climax for the shot in the arm that it received during London 2012 with a six-medal haul. The fire which ignited in London by the likes of Mary Kom, Vijender Singh, was doused by a record 117-member team, that brought back just two medals home. PV Sindhu's silver medal and Sakshi Malik's bronze medal were a respite from an otherwise lowkey Olympic outing.
One of the silver linings in Rio, however, was the performance of Dipa Karmakar
, India's first-ever gymnast
in an Olympic Game. Karmakar's stellar jumps and rhythmic body movements though couldn't earn her a medal. But India cherished her fourth-place finish and took it in stride with a big hope that this could be the moment the country needed to encourage and work on gymnastics and build future champions.
Dipa Karmakar at the Rio Olympics 2016
Five years down the line with a tumultuous change in the Indian sports ecosystem amid a ravaging pandemic, the assessment of India's development in gymnastics could be rated with a simple 0. A brilliant proposition of five years hasn't yield anything for gymnastics in the country. With the cancellation of series of World Cups which were part of the Olympic qualification program, again only one gymnast from India could manage to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. An athlete needs to participate in three Olympic qualifiers (World Cups) and need to achieve 90 points to qualify for the Olympics. While India's best bet Dipa Karmakar could earn less than half of that points, Pranati Nayak
, who had claimed a bronze in the vault at the Asian Artistic Gymnastic Championships in 2019, is set to compete at the Tokyo Olympics after qualifying through the continental quota. The 26-year-old from West Bengal is the second reserve behind Sri Lanka's Elpitiya Badalge Dona Milka Geh for the Asian quota and became eligible to compete from the zone following the cancellation of the 9th Senior Asian Championships, which was scheduled to be held from May 29-June 1 in Hangzhou, China, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So what happened to all the hopes that were kindled after Dipa's unprecedented show at Rio? One thing was for sure, the popularity of the sport peaked after the Tripura lass etched glory for the country in the Olympics. She inspired a generation to pick up gymnastics which resulted in more children and teens enrolling themselves in the sport. In every state, where gymnastics centres were under the control of the government saw several private academies and gymnastic centres spring up. For instance, the Lal Bhadur Shastri Stadium and Saroor Nagar stadium were the only places that housed gymnastics facilities in the city. Within a span of four years, over 200 centres mushroomed in and around the city. Aruna Budda Reddy, who created history by becoming the first Indian to clinch a medal at Gymnastics World Cup, was reared and trained at the LB Stadium. Similarly, Tripura, the home of Dipa, has also seen a surge in the number of academies.
"With the growing interests among children and parents, equally, these gymnastics centre thrived and more pupils enrolled in their program. making it a lucrative business and there lies the problem," The Bridge
spoke to a former national-level gymnast (name withheld).
Despite the flurry of newly established gymnastics centres in India, there remains a wide gap of knowledge about the sport. The culture is thriving over outdated rules and age-old methods. " The education about the sport is still outdated. We are still lagging behind in terms of the latest concepts, techniques, and information, which should be the priority for now. Even after years of training, there is barely any standardization of training codes. Every other gymnastics centres follow different techniques to train," says the gymnast. For instance, USA, the country recognised as the powerhouse of world gymnastics has five different sets of programs for women's artistic gymnastics — from Xcel program for hobbyist gymnasts to the Elite program that fetches most silverware at the Olympics.
There is certainly much documentation about gymnastics available widely across the internet and also an opportunity to bring foreign coaches' intervention to bridge the gap among local coaches and train them, however, the proposition has never been delved upon by the Gymnastics Federation of India, which got its recognition as a National Sports Federation just in March this year after a faction-ridden tenure of 10 years. The GFI was de-recognised by the ministry in 2011 because of infighting in the body, and since then it has remained so till the ministry's order. Though there has been a vast inflow of young coaches who are approved by the International Gymnastics Federation (French: Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique, FIG). "Each of these coaches has different mindsets, different training techniques and also have internal strife with the older coaches which have failed reach a middle ground. With the federation, just being recognised, we need good leadership to standardise," says the gymnast.
The Badminton Federation, for instance, have their own set of standardisation, preparation technique, calendar and planning, which is barely existent for gymnastics. The GFI turned into a drama-filled entity - nothing short of a 'saas bahu'-style soap opera. Jaspal Singh Khandari was re-elected as GFI president in elections held in July 2011, but the Sports Ministry refused to take cognisance of that, with the former even moving to the High Court but failing to get any relief. Nothing exemplified the sorry state of affairs more than the exit of India's foreign coach Vladimir Chertkov in 2011, who had termed the GFI as a 'useless organisation'. The recognition has certainly come late in the Olympics year amid an ongoing crisis of a pandemic, but the state of affairs barely seems ready for a renaissance any time soon. "With the President being appointed from one association, secretary from another association, and treasurer from another, there still is a possibility that the people in the federation might not work in tandem. There would be biased decisions made based on regional factionalism which could still keep on affecting the future of good gymnasts in the country," the former gymnast says.
No national gymnastic championships have been conducted in India since 2015. Another big challenge remains the age-old infrastructure and equipment that is still used in government-affiliated centres. Modern facilities, the well-maintained space, the healthy player-to-coach ratio isn't something one expects SAI centres. It was only after Rio 2016, Dipa's coach Bisweshwar Nandi had revealed how, in her formative years, he had to modify a discarded scooter seat as a vault and use crash mats instead of foam pits. Aiming to win a berth in the team for what was also the first Olympic qualification of the season, Aruna Reddy had shifted her base to Gdansk, Poland, to train with top coach Andrei Levit. Unless the centre itself is facilitating good training centres in the country, the onus producing world-class gymnasts would be restricted to clubs. Pranati Nayak and Pranati Das, the two leading women gymnasts right now, are products of this club culture.
There is, however, a gleam of hope. Speaking to the gymnast, it could be understood that Indian gymnasts are endowed by a better presence of mind than their European contenders. "Indians gymnasts have better common sense and they know well about which techniques to use at which point. In European countries, I have seen gymnasts restrict themselves to the plans they make beforehand and do nothing innovative in the moment of need. However, this planning comes in handy to win medals. Therefore, I see plenty of potential among Indian athletes who could do well in the days to come if they go ahead with sufficient planning." the former gymnast concludes.