With 35 medals won at international archery competitions between 2010 and February 2012, it is a matter of intrigue why India is yet to be fully alert to the names of Deepika Kumari, Jayanta Talukdar, Chekrovolu Swuro and Laishram Bombayla Devi—the four archers who will represent India at the London Olympic Games starting July and on whom sport administrators have pinned the nation’s medal hopes.
As of March, the Indian Recurve Women’s Team is ranked No. 2 in the world, among 52 nations, according to the World Archery organization. The Indian Recurve Men’s Team is ranked fifth among 63 nations.
Focus: Chekrovolu Swuro (centre) and the core team of Indian archers in training. Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Finding physical likeness might be a subjective area, but a comparison with India’s cricket team captain and archery is not tenuous if one goes by what Deepika has to say. With seven international individual medals and 11 team medals under her belt since 2010 alone, 17-year-old Deepika, currently ranked No. 6 in the world, knows that she and her fellow Indian archers have achieved no less than Dhoni or the Indian cricket team in the international arena.
“But archery can’t hold a stick to cricket’s popularity in India," muses Deepika, between practice at Jamshedpur’s Tata Archery Academy.
It’s certainly more in focus: The government has included archery among the six “priority sports" in the country, corporate sponsors like the Tata Archery Academy and Mittal Champions Trust are chipping in, and the archers have benefited from more international exposure. “Having played and won against strong teams like South Korea, China, Japan and some of the European nations, we realize that we can be on a par with the best," says Bombayla Devi, the 27-year-old veteran from Manipur.
But these are not issues that bother the Olympic quartet right now. At the archery training grounds of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Kolkata, the archers, led by chief coach and former archer Limba Ram, are made to go through rigorous rounds of training. Practice begins at 6 in the morning and often stretches well into the evening—10-12 hours of work, during which most archers end up shooting around 800 arrows.
On one of the days we met, an I-League football match between Kolkata’s Prayag United SC and Sporting Clube de Goa was scheduled at the gigantic Salt Lake Stadium, adjacent to the SAI campus. Thousands of spectators trooped into the stadium bowl and the occasional roar rent the air. With the noisy football game as a backdrop, the archers continued to take aim and shoot arrows, honing their skills at a game that can never quite aspire to match the spectatorial proportions of a physically aggressive team-versus-team game like football.
“Quite often during practice, you will not hear a single word being exchanged by the archers," says Limba Ram. Here, the premium is on the mind’s ability to remain focused on a distant target; a tradition of single-mindedness that, Limba Ram reminds, goes back to ancient Indian mythology, when Eklavya shot a single arrow to stitch together the mouth of a howling dog in the Mahabharat.
Precision: Jayanta Talukdar.
Talukdar explains the delicate balance required between the archer’s mind and body for a game where precision is religion. It is part of the archer’s “feeling"—where an ideal shot can be achieved only through the synergy of the perfect draw of the bowstring, grip pressure, hooking technique, pull of the shoulders, standing posture and eventual release of the arrow. Above all, a mind that sees nothing but a target 70m away.
“For instance, it is important to hold one’s breath and concentrate before releasing an arrow. But something as common as a blocked nose can hamper performance. I hardly do anything that tires the body since eventually a tired body can affect the mind," says Talukdar.
Ahead of the Olympics, the South Korean coach, Lim Chae Woong, at the Tata Archery Academy, where both Talukdar and Deepika train, has a sharp eye out during practice sessions. In broken English, Woong advises restraint to players and the media, counselling both parties to not highlight issues that might distract players from their Olympic goal. “He has instilled new confidence in us and those of us who have trained under him have benefited a lot at international championships," Talukdar says. “Whenever he puts on his sunglasses, we know that our every move is being observed and scrutinized. He is a disciplinarian and has the ability to lift players’ performance levels."
In Kolkata, SAI’s archery analyst Shashi P. Sharraf exudes cautious confidence about the team’s chances of a podium rank at the Olympics. “Ideally, the players should be practising in a stadium and in more windy conditions, since the Olympic archery championship in London should have similar conditions. But going by India’s recent remarkable showing in international archery, we can be hopeful," Sharraf says.
With archers Tarundeep Rai and Rahul Banerjee recently qualifying for the June World Cup in the US, a winning performance there may lead to them qualifying for the two vacant slots in the Indian men’s Olympic archery team.
So far, players have been peaking at the right time. The women’s team came second in the Recurve Women’s Team category at the First Asian Grand Prix in Bangkok, Thailand, on 15 February, a creditable performance considering that many of the Asian countries are powerhouses in world archery.
With the archery events at the London Olympics scheduled to be held at the city’s most famous sporting address, if the Indian archers do bring home a medal, it will be another picture-postcard Lord’s moment for the country’s sporting fans. And this time, not for cricket.