FIZZLING OUT: (From top) Shooters Ronjon Sodhi and Abhinav Bindra, and archer Deepika Kumari were among those who dashed India’s medal hopes
It was a perfect setting on the morning of July 27. The Lord’s cricket ground, venue for archery at the London Olympics, was lush green with a thick carpet of grass, the sun was shining, and it wasn’t breezy — a constant worry for archers. But Paresh Nath Mukherjee was clearly not prepared for the events that unfolded in front of him. He slumped in his seat as the Indian men’s team — ranked World No. 3 — finished last in the qualifying rounds.
Worse was still to come. The Indian women’s team — the favourite to win gold before the event started — was trounced by South Korea, a team that India had defeated a few months ago. Mukherjee, secretary general of the Archery Association of India, felt so let down that he decided to hang up his boots as an administrator.
Just what’s wrong with Indian players? The phrase earlier used for Indian cricketers — snatching defeat from the jaws of victory — seems far more appropriate for Indian contestants at the Olympics. Despite high success rates at other world events, Indian contenders crumble at the Olympics’ starting line.
“I had been dead sure of seeing a decent performance. Sitting there and watching them self-destruct was surreal,” says Mukherjee. “It was either the fear of failure or dreams of grandeur, I don’t know what, but it was a pathetic performance. Our archery teams were provided with the best equipment and facilities. They were trained abroad for months. We had left no stone unturned.”
A few days later, shooting at the Royal Artillery Barracks on August 2, the former world record holder and World No. 1 Ronjon Sodhi, one of India’s greatest medal hopes, finished 11th in the qualification rounds of men’s double trap shooting. Beijing gold medallist Abhinav Bindra too failed to enter the finals in the 10m air rifle event, though Gagan Narang won a bronze.
The London Olympics may have seen India garner more medals than before, but Indian contenders continue to flounder when it comes to the big .
“We simply get spooked. I have noticed it myself,” admits archer Dola Banerjee. “I remained calm and relaxed in the world championships, Commonwealth Games and many other events, but at the Olympics something happened to the mind. It gave in to thoughts that never come otherwise. I tried to control them, but failed.”
The problem is that a “mental sport” demands that the mind doesn’t wander. “In most shooting events, the shooter’s body, externally visible, is still. What we can’t see as an audience is his or her mind, which can be in the midst of a hurricane,” explains Rajyavardhan Rathore, silver medallist in the double trap event at the Athens Olympics in 2004. Army sharpshooter Vijay Kumar focused well enough to win a silver in London, but experts stress he is more of an exception than the rule.
Abha Banerjee, a motivational speaker and peak performance and mental strength coach who has been associated with a few Olympians, says that “mental makeup” could make or break a person at the Olympics. And it is especially true in these “mentally demanding” sports.
“In archery and shooting, the points system is so precise and the scores deviate at the smallest point. The athletes can exercise little control over that. All they can do is play their best. But each down point causes a mental strain, leading to pressure. The downward spiral is what causes the losses,” she says.
Anjali Bhagwat understands the pressure better than anyone else. As a rookie shooter who went on a wildcard to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, she competed in the 10m air rifle competition and reached the finals — to everybody’s surprise. “It was fun shooting in qualification rounds. I was the first Indian to reach the finals and had everything to gain. But I was tense all through and it was no longer fun. I finished with poor scores,” Bhagwat recalls.
At the Athens Olympics, she was the most decorated shooter, having won almost every shooting tournament in the world. “I was World No. 1, and I wouldn’t say the hype was unjustified, but again, I couldn’t even reach the finals. That’s what the Olympics does to you,” Bhagwat adds.
In the same Olympics, Rathore, however, sprang a surprise by winning a medal. “To don a winning mental state is vital. For that one has to learn to manipulate one’s own mental state. The actors do it very well to give a realistic shot. This applies to all of us,” Rathore says.
Psychologists believe that as opposed to physically demanding games such as track events, badminton, boxing and wrestling where the competition is against an opponent, mentally demanding sports such as archery and shooting involve a battle with oneself.
“If you look at the performance of the Olympic squad, only boxers to a certain extent performed well even though they didn’t win any medal. If you look at track and field athletes, they have failed miserably. Many couldn’t better their own personal marks, which is a shame,” says G.S. Randhawa, chairman, selection committee, Athletics Federation of India. Randhawa believes that this was because the contestants were mentally not strong enough to take on the best in the world.
Saina Nehwal, fresh from a successful Olympic quest, holds that a balance between mental and physical strength works for her. “Mental strength is very important but you should also be physically fit. Your skills will bring better results if you are mentally strong along with physical strength,” Nehwal says, adding that “mental conditioning” is integral to success.
But sceptics scoff at this. “Bullshit” is how Mukherjee describes mental conditioning and sports psychology. “What will a psychologist tell our archers? You cannot coach their minds. They have to learn by themselves.”
India has only a handful of sports psychologists and they are not surprised at the cynics’ reactions. “Sports administrators in India are yet to wake up to the importance of psychologists. The fact that the Sports Authority of India (SAI) has only one sports psychologist for the whole of the country is proof that we are yet to give importance to this aspect of sports,” says Sanjeev Sahni, a former sports psychologist with SAI.
Abha Banerjee and Sahni point out that almost every international team has a mental conditioning coach. “Many Olympic teams have a mental conditioning coach for every event. On the other hand, the entire Indian contingent didn’t have a single sports psychologist. There is a reason we fail to live up to the hype,” concludes Sahni.
Along with the body, the mind needs training, the experts suggest. What goes on inside the mind is the perhaps last hurdle between success and failure.
So near, yet so far
Milkha Singh was one of the favourites to win the 400m race after clocking a world record 45.8 seconds just before the Olympics. He finished fourth in the finals.
Los Angeles, 1984
P.T. Usha came first in the semi finals of the 400m hurdles. She lost the bronze medal by 1/100th of a second.
Limba Ram equalled the archery world record months before the Olympics. He was 23rd in the individual competition.
Anjali Bhagwat, the world champion in the 10m air rifle event, broke a world record in the event going into the Olympics. She finished 20th in the qualifying rounds at the Olympics. The women’s archery team of Dola Banerjee (in pic), L. Bombayla Devi and Pranitha Vardhineni had won international tournaments. They crashed out of the quarter finals.
Anjali Bhagwat disappointed again. Saina Nehwal showed promise, but failed in three games in the quarter final.