Since the Rio Olympics began, I have been glued to the television during primetime, cheering for the American athletes who have already made history—the women’s gymnastics team, Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps, and women’s volleyball, just to start. Performing at this level, breaking world records and achieving scores or times untouchable by the runners-up, requires years of dedicated practice, and as importantly, a family and national infrastructure that supports developing world-class sports talent.
So I have also been watching the enthusiasm that India has brought to the games in Rio. Unlike Russia, China, or small but specialized countries like Romania—with its decades of gymnastics gold—India has no history of Olympic prowess. For a country of its size with such an enormous population to draw upon, this represents quite an anomaly. As the Times of India put it mere days ago, “It is a known and lamentable fact that India, the world’s second most populous nation, has the worst Olympic record in terms of medals per head. In the past 30 years, India has a solitary gold medal….” The lone gold medalist, sharpshooter Abhinav Bindra, won a gold in Beijing in the men’s 10-meter air rifle.
This time around, India appears focused on a better showing, aiming to secure more medals than its six in the 2012 London Games. Since 2012, India’s sports ministry has devoted more funding and more attention to supporting the country’s most promising athletes through better training, financial assistance, upgraded training facilities, and even foreign coaches, imported to up the national game. This year India has sent its largest team ever, 118 athletes, to compete in Rio.
The Indian state’s efforts to raise India’s visibility in this quadrennial measure of national might have not, so far, borne fruit. While India can boast of global dominance in cricket, that sport does not feature in the Olympic games. And in the sports in which Indian athletes have been competitive (archery, boxing, shooting, wrestling, badminton, field hockey, and doubles tennis), they have not yet managed to medal in Rio.
Still, one Indian athlete’s story stands out for the level of sheer determination that has taken her from tiny Tripura state, in India’s northeast bordering Bangladesh, all the way to Rio: Dipa Karmakar. The twenty-two year old is India’s first-ever woman gymnast to qualify for the Olympics, and the first Indian citizen since the 1964 Tokyo Games to qualify in the sport. Tripura, a land-locked and hilly state of India, is not among the most developed parts of the country, so Karmakar’s rise to excellence is even more remarkable. (When the Economist published a feature that compared Indian states’ gross domestic products (GDP) with other countries, it ranked Tripura’s GDP akin to Somalia’s, or like Cambodia’s on a per capita basis.)
In a BBC interview filmed after she qualified for Rio back in April, Karmakar recalls a humble upbringing, practicing gymnastics without proper equipment and in borrowed clothes. She walks through what seems to be her childhood gym, one with a corrugated steel roof that looks more like a large shed than the training grounds for a world-class athlete. Karmakar tells of floods in the gym during monsoons, and of rats and cockroaches. Despite these hurdles, she became a gymnastics star, winning a bronze medal in the vault in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. This week she qualified for the Olympic finals with an eighth place showing on vault.
Karmakar’s secret to global competitiveness lies in the risk she takes to perform the world’s most difficult vault, named the Produnova. It is also called the “vault of death” due to its difficulty. By aiming for the toughest vault, she can score high even if her overall execution has some flaws. That’s how she made it to the finals, which will take place on August 14.
To my mind, the story of Karmakar’s dreams and determination illustrates Indian ambitions today. Karmakar may have started out from somewhere “half the people in India don’t even know”—those are her words—but that did not deter her from big aspirations on a global stage. Her grit kept her practicing over and over until she reached world-class levels.
About a decade back, Shekhar Gupta heralded the rise of a new India, one whose echelons of achievement were increasingly populated not by the “charmed circle of its elite institutions” but by the “small-town, modestly brought up but ambitious, hard as nails Indian.” Come August 14, you can find me cheering not only for my country’s team, but for Dipa Karmakar as well, and the new India she represents.