Aiming for a podium high

India's Archery Team for London 2012.-PTI

Since making its debut in archery at the quadrennial Games, India has never come as close to winning a medal as in Barcelona. After that, none of the Indian archers have come anywhere close to being projected as a medal prospect till the six who are to represent the country in London came along, writes S. Sabanayakan.

Indian archery is truly on the threshold of realising its dream at the London Olympics. It was a dream that sprouted in 1992, at the Barcelona Games, and remained unfulfilled through the Beijing Games four years back.

Since making its debut at the quadrennial Games, India has never come as close to winning an Olympic medal in this discipline as in Barcelona, when a tribal boy from Rajasthan, Limba Ram, made everyone take notice of him. He, however, went down in the elimination round.

But for him, none of the Indian archers have come anywhere close to being projected as a medal prospect till the six who are to represent the country at London came along. The three male archers, Jayanta Talukdar, Tarundeep Rai and Rahul Banerjee and the three women, Deepika Kumari, Chekrovolu Swuro and Laishram Bombayla Devi, have raised visions of the old dream. Chekrovolu, who was instrumental in India gaining Olympic berths in 2003 and 2007 (but missed the main event), will be making her debut.

The man who was singularly responsible for bringing up the standard of Indian archery to the present level is AAI secretary, Paresh Nath Mukherjee. When Limba shattered a million dreams with one bad shot at Barcelona the first man to break down was Mukherjee, who took the first flight home out of there. He vowed that day to make India compete for medals rather than participate in the Olympics. Now the Indians have reached a stage where they can realistically compete for medals.

India’s preparation for the biggest stage has been elaborate. The two years of toil mostly at the Sports Authority of India, Eastern Centre, gave the archers hours of uninterrupted practice that reflected positively in the teams’ showing at international tournaments. A brief, two-week training session at Gangtok in Sikkim rejuvenated the archers.

The Indians have always excelled as a team. All three men and women have been shooting together for long and this as Deepika said: “will be our strength.” The Indian women’s team, which qualified from the Turin World Championship in July 2011, where it finished runner-up to Italy, has been on a downhill slide since the historic feat. The team is, however, expected to return to form. Coach Purnima Mahato feels that the Koreans are the favourites in the distaff side.

Indian Archery coach Limba Ram with archer Deepika Kumar at the Olympic Games Village at Stratford in London.-PTI

As a team the country has been winning the team honours unerringly since 1988, when the event was first introduced at the Games. The Koreans have also won the individual title since 1984 till Athens. At Beijing, the host’s Zhang Juanjuan stopped the juggernaut.

Apart from Korea, the Indians are weary of China and Chinese Taipei; the two nations have always done well against India. Well drilled teams like Russia, world champion Italy and Great Britain have a healthy respect for the Indian women, having tasted bitter defeats in the past.

The men, who failed to seal an Olympic berth at the Turin Worlds, had to come through the final qualifying tournament at Ogden recently. The Indians struck form late and they hope to carry it to the Games. “The form is on the upswing for our men’s team. If it carries the same form into the Games, a podium finish is on the cards,” feels Mukherjee.

National coach Limba observes that India is feared in the world stage, owing to many giant-killing efforts in the past. “Our boys do not fear any team. To me Korea and the U.S. are the teams to beat for the gold medal,” he said. The Korean men have won the last three team titles out of four.

The U.S. has been impressive for the past two years after Korean Ki Sik Lee took over as head coach. With five individual gold medals since 1972, the U.S. has, however, failed to put up a champion since 2000 Sydney. As a team it had won at home in Atlanta in 1996.

Banerjee feels India has the best chance this time around. Apart from Korea and the U.S., he thinks Great Britain, Italy and France are the teams to watch out for. “If we do well in the ranking round, we are sure to get a bye. This means we will start from the quarterfinals. One victory will put us in the semifinals and from there it can be anybody’s game,” he points out.

Individually, only two Indians in the present squad have done well. Deepika is tipped to do well in the women’s section and Talukdar on the men’s side. “There is too much hype surrounding Deepika’s chances of winning a medal,” contends Mukherjee. “She is young and could have done without this pressure in her first Olympics. I hope Deepika rises to the occasion.”

Talukdar is a threat to any archer but he does not have good recent performances to back his claim for an individual medal. Archers like Brady Ellison of the U.S., Victor Ruban of the Ukraine, Im Dong Hyun of Korea, Marco Galliazzo of Italy, Gael Prevost of France and Dai Xiaoxing of China are medal contenders.

The archery event will be held from July 27 to August 3 at the famous cricket ground, Lord’s. All the elimination and medal matches will be at the historic field. The ranking round on the first two days, however, will be outside the famous venue.