Roopa Unnikrishnan is a former Indian rifle shooter, who won a historic gold medal in 50m rifle prone event at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games and became the first woman from the country to bag the top prize. Prior to this, she had also won a silver and a bronze, at the 1994 edition.
What happens when an Indian athlete wins a gold medal at a global event like the Commonwealth Games? The answer is fairly simple. The entire country goes into celebration mode, with thousands thronging the airport, upon the return of the medalist to the country, just to catch a glimpse of the newly crowned champion. The year was 2018, and the weightlifters -- Mirabai Chanu, Sanjita Chanu, Sathish Sivalingam, Venkat Rahul, and Punam Yadav -- had all struck gold at the Gold Coast Games. The welcome they received at the airport was a sign that India was fast becoming a sports-loving nation, instead of just a cricket-loving nation.
The weightlifters were heavily garlanded, received by the fans, federation, and the sports ministry officials, with eager journalists ready to pounce on them for exclusive interviews. In fact, the treatment for the medalists was the same, across sports, be it boxing, athletics or even shooting. Perhaps, the times have changed for good, but there is an entire generation of sportspersons from the era gone by, who despite attaining unprecedented feats, during their playing days, are still fairly unknown, or are not credited enough for the laurels they brought to the country.
In contrast to what the situation is today, or was in 2018, just picture shooter Roopa Unnikrishnan, after having won a gold medal in 50m rifle prone at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Games, being received by just two people. While India's first gold at the CWG came way back in 1958, by the late Milkha Singh, it took another 40 years for an Indian woman to achieve the feat; but the significance of the medal was never realized.
Disappointed, Not Quite!
Despite the forgetful experiences, Roopa, almost 20 years after quitting the sport, recalls those days with a touch of excitement in her voice. "I still remember the day I came back from there with all these medals, and there were just two people from our team. On the other hand, the cricket team came the next day and they lost, and there was no place in the airport. I thought to myself, this is the issue. You need to treat us better - if nothing else treat us kind of equal. If not like a winner of a medal, then at least like the losing cricket team," Roopa said in an interaction with SportsCafe.
"I think you know in many ways this is not the world which remembers the pathfinders, it sort of forgets the first and goes after the newest. But I enjoyed the fact that I have something to do with our country having the confidence and capability to take on the world now. And you know at the end of the day, if the shooting has evolved, I’m glad that in many ways by proving we can do it, I gave people the confidence to achieve much more. So, that makes me happy," she continued.
Kuala Lumpur 1998, Four Years to go
Even though the first woman to get a medal for India in shooting at CWG was Soma Dutta, in 1990, there was still a fair way to go for the women shooters in the country to be at the top of the world. Come 1994, in Victoria, Roopa won a silver in the small bore rifle three positions, and bronze with Kuheli Gangulee in pairs, which just set the tone for the 1998 gold perhaps. But for a young girl from Chennai to go out there and win medals for the country was more than impressive.
"Prior to 1994 CWG, we’d gone to a couple of international events and then we’d also practiced in Russia, and I had gotten a sense that champion shooters from other countries were just like me. Although when you grow up in India, your equipment isn’t great, fewer facilities, while the others were getting the best of everything, but there was nothing to get overwhelmed by.
"Going into the Games, I was in a very positive frame of mind because I had also just done my nationals and broken multiple records at that point, and got a personal best as well. I just had everything I needed. And there was this geopolitical kind of thing which, at the end of the day, you need to do well for your country. So, both of those kind of collided nicely, I was mentally prepared and emotionally ready."
At 1994 Games
The world was not used to seeing Indian women winning medals, and so any extraordinary effort did raise some suspicions. As soon as Roopa won a silver medal, eight officials showed up to test her for banned substances. "They made me drink a lot of water, take a lot of samples, they tested me up the wazoo because they were convinced this couldn’t happen. I was like, they can drug test as many times as they need to. I wonder if I was American, would they have done it."
On the other hand, an Indian official wasn't too impressed with 'just' a silver medal by her. "So one of the persons, I wouldn’t name him, guess he was from the Sports Authority, he came up to me and said, 'only silver'? I remember thinking, "What's the last time you did anything for the country apart from sitting around."
Fighting Tight Budgets
It is needless to say that Roopa hardly ever got the financial support throughout her career, to be the best shooter she could be. Sponsorships were hard to come by; and as she recalls, she used to send her list of achievements or a letter to different business groups, just to get some support. A letter to the Tatas, and she got the help of INR 5000, with a note from Ratan Tata, while Indian Overseas Bank provided her with a bigger, but inadequate fund of INR 50000.
Post her medals in 1994, she also did get some help from former Tamil Nadu CM, J Jayalalitha. The latter promised to help the shooter with the best of equipment, along with air tickets for her and her mother.
"It's a little bit like Cinderella, you didn’t have shoes, you were locked up in the basement, metaphorically. And shooting is something that in the end each bullet costs money, and the better it is the more it costs. So, it was really hard. Apart from a few sponsors, I had one small sponsorship from IOB, and once from madam Jayalalitha. These were the only two times that I had ever got support. I used to write down my record saying, 'hey please here is my record, here are all the medals, please help me'. And it was really kind of sapping."
Deja Vu, 1998
In the last four years, Roopa had grown as a shooter, and gold was certainly on her radar. Even though one cannot predict the outcome of a tournament, she says, she had played out the entire proceedings of the event in her head some 100 times.
"There were shooters around me in the building, doing all kinds of things, staying out late, but I told myself, I was here for one outcome, the gold. So I stuck to my routine, I remember going out and having my dinner and at 6 pm, came back and went to sleep at 8 pm. Then I woke up early the next morning, and my heart was pounding, so I did my meditation. On the bus, I put on my old Walkman headphones and I listened to my favorite Pet Shop Boys and just focussed.
"And in my mind, I had played this competition, this match in my head like 100 times. I played it a few more times in my head, all 60 shots and so by the time I had gone in it felt like I had done it many many times."
Even though Roopa kickstarted a new era for Indian shooting, she herself could not continue to pursue the sport any further. Post CWG 1998, she moved to the USA in search of better opportunities, and to be able to manage both, was difficult to say the least. In fact, she did participate in tournaments abroad until 2003, but her efforts were not recognized back home.
"Even after I left to come to the US in 99, I actually kept on shooting, but it got more difficult to actually go through the trails because they needed you to come to India to shoot. So, even though I had won so many medals for India, I felt like I was kind of brought back to ground zero, in that I had to keep going back, proving myself, with no support, no sponsorship. I had chronic back pain by that time because of all the shooting practice also. So that’s why I stopped."
Willing to Do it Again
But that is the thing with sportspersons. Despite all the pain and suffering, they have gone through in their careers, they want to live that life again. Feel the pain, agony, and joy, just one more time in their life, and maybe change a few things here and there.
"If you took me back with the same conditions, I would do it every single time, one reason being I changed the way the country thought about this sport. I think we became a country that expected medals. I think the second is it helped my family think about ourselves also a little bit differently. We were a normal middle-class family and you know we became something more interesting. Also, I think for me it opened up the world. I mean as a 15-year-old, there was no other way that I could be seeing Milan, Minsk, and Tokyo. So, the world opened up to me."