Dipa Karmakar | On Independence day India wakes up to a sport named gymnastics

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Dipa Karmakar | On Independence day India wakes up to a sport named gymnastics

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Arun S Kaimal


Dipa Karmakar might not have won a medal, but just like Milkha Singh and PT Usha, she will also be remembered as one of India’s greatest Olympians not to have won a medal – at least till the 2020 Tokyo Olympics when she has a shot at changing that.

In 1947, a country which has been suffering under British colonialism for almost 200 years, took its first breath as an independent nation in the hour of midnight between August 14 and 15. People all around the country gathered around radio sets to listen to something which many among them did not even understand. 69 years later, something similar thing happened for all Indians. A nation of more than one billion people remained glued to their Television sets in the midnight hour to watch something they did not understand. A tryst with destiny in the greatest sporting event in the World - Dipa Karmakar attempting the ‘Vault of Death’.

An Indian in the final of a gymnastic event in the Olympics was unthinkable a few years back. After all, it was in the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games that India won its first-ever international medal in gymnastics. Ashish Kumar’s medals in the Commonwealth Games – a bronze in the floor exercise and a silver in the vault – changed India’s stature in gymnastics, and four years later, Dipa Karmakar took the baton forward with a bronze in the women's vault at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

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Also, read: Dipa Karmakar | The girl who climbed many a mountain to reach the sky

A fifth-place finish at the World Championships came and went, but Dipa still remained an unknown entity. However, after a gold medal in the Olympic Test event, Dipa became a household name in India. So much so that, many WhatsApp groups celebrated “her gold medal in the Olympics”, after Dipa qualified for the vault final. Clearly, for us, Indians, it was an alien sport, and we watched the proceedings giving a close ear to the commentaries to understand the intricacies.

After five gymnasts, Dipa Karmakar entered the arena as the sixth in the line of eight finalists, needing a better score than 15.216 to get a medal. Before the final, Dipa’s best-ever score in the Produnova vault was 15.1, and for a medal, she needed a miraculous performance. And she almost did it. Dipa ran in and did a Tsukahara 720 - a half turn off the springboard onto the vault table, then a push backwards, and finished with a somersault. 6 for difficulty and 8.866 for execution read the scoreboard. 14. 866 was a good start, and with the Produnova coming, hopes of a medal lingered.

The Produnova – the deadliest of gymnastic vaults – was coming. 41-year-old Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan had shown her Produnova skills earlier in the final, but Dipa Karmakar took it to another level. A stumble during landing in the qualifying round had reduced her points in the qualifying round, and Dipa needed a perfect one to nail a medal at Rio.

She ran in, spring-boarded onto the vault table and did a two-and-a-half somersault before landing. It was almost perfect, but she finished with a squat and her body touched the mat. The slight glitch in landing was once again a problem, and everyone turned their eyes to the scoreboard for the scores. 15.266 – 7 in difficulty and 8.266 in execution, and a total score of 15.066. It pushed her to second in the standings, right behind Switzerland’s Giulia Steingruber. Dipa had done her best, and even better than Yelena Produnova.

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But, with 2015 World Gymnastic championship vault gold medalist Maria Paseka of Russia and the USA’s Simone Biles, who is arguably the greatest gymnast of our times, remaining, a medal was a long shot. After 5 minutes, it was all over. Paseka finished with 15.253 to take the silver, while Biles touched almost 16 to win the gold by a big margin. 0.15 points more, and Dipa could have won a medal. 15.066 would have given Dipa a bronze medal at London Olympics, but not at Rio. In a sport where decimal points decide the medals, it was a big distance. But, Dipa had travelled a bigger distance, and reached within a whisker off a medal at the greatest sporting event in the world from nowhere.

However, this is not an ode to how India lost another medal at Rio. Dipa Karmakar is not going anywhere. At 23, she could have her best years in front of her. Although, gymnastics is a sport where athletes start really young - six of the 8 finalists in vault were under the age of 24 - 41-year-old Oksana Chusovitina’s final appearance shows us that age can be conquered. But, a bigger question for Dipa come 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be about her biggest weapon – the Produnova. If reports are to believed, then the “Vault of Death” is likely to be devalued more than most vaults when the international governing body of gymnastics rewrites the scoring system next year in a bid to discourage gymnasts from attempting the dangerous routine.

“One wrong move and I could die on the spot” - This is the opening line of Dipa Karmakar in a BBC news package. Produnova, also known as the “Vault of Death”, was first attempted by Russian gymnast Yelena Produnova in 1999. With a difficulty score of 7, Produnova is a vault routine, which gives high value for the difficulty. Even if the gymnast does not manage to land it perfectly, the reward for the routine is very high. It gives the gymnasts attempting Produnova an upper hand over other competitors. Apart from Yelena Produnova, only four other gymnasts have successfully done the routine, and it is known to be the most dangerous of the gymnastic vaults. So much so that, when asked whether she would attempt it, Simone Biles said, "I'm not trying to die."

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It is true that, Produnova is a high-risk high-reward routine. But no one has ever died because of doing the routine. Gymnastics as a sport is dangerous, and as the accident to French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd, who broke his leg doing a vault routine at Rio, shows, accidents can happen anytime. The Produnova gives an outside chance to women gymnasts, who are attempting the vault, a chance to get a medal, and Dipa’s story shows that it gave the Indian a place among the world’s elite.

For a country which has no history in gymnastics, the Vault of Death is a necessity, more than a choice. It is the only thing that gives Dipa a chance to go toe-to-toe with the world’s best. It is a symbol of the risks an Indian has to take to achieve something in life, and Dipa Karmakar showed it at Rio in the women’s vault final. From practicing with second-hand equipment to being mocked by foreign media for doing the Produnova, Dipa Karmakar has come a long way to reach the fourth place in the world. Even with her life on the line, she went in search of a medal, and her efforts will surely inspire a generation of gymnasts in this country in the years to come. Dipa Karmakar might not have won a medal, but just like Milkha Singh and PT Usha, she will also be remembered as one of India’s greatest Olympians not to have won a medal – at least till the 2020 Tokyo Olympics when she has a shot at changing that. 

Also, read: Twitter reacts to Dipa Karmakar's historic fourth-place finish

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