Late into India’s 70th Independence Day, American gymnast Simone Biles, the golden girl of this year’s Games, slipped in her Balanced Beam event. The mistake cost her a fourth consecutive gold medal in a row, shattering her dreams of the ‘Perfect 5’ in gymnastics. Her bronze felt like a defeat. A day later, she won her fourth gold in the women’s floor event, but the beam mistake still nagged at her. It also nagged at a billion Indians around the globe. Why couldn’t she have made this mistake perhaps an event earlier, in the Women’s vault, where she performed last out of the eight talented women? While every Indian prayed for a mistake, Biles landed two perfect flips, winning a gold by a long margin from the second-placed Russian gymnast. But if she had stumbled, India’s 23-year-old pocket-sized dynamo, Dipa Karmakar, would have won a medal in her first-ever Olympic Games. She had qualified 8th and last, but ended up 4th in the final, a single position outside medal standings.
Karmakar won hearts again with her execution of the death-defying Produnova in her second jump. She was the sixth gymnast to perform, with two left to go, and had placed second after her performance. Many, including this writer, did the math quickly and realized: if one of the next two score less than Karmakar, this would be India’s first medal and perhaps its proudest. Here was a little girl who had grown up in Tripura, practicing on DIY equipment, in a sport where her country had not one entrant in any Olympics ever. And now she was 2nd, in silver-medal position, with two gymnasts to come. Unfortunately, the two that came after her were eventually placed second and first – Maria Paseka of Russia and Biles of USA, who finished in front of Swiss gymnast Giulia Steingruber. At that moment, it felt cruel, and almost a tragedy, given that the clock struck midnight to mark Independence Day during the medal presentation. It could have been Dipa, but it wasn’t to be. Yet, as the enormity of her achievement set in, one realized that no matter how poor India has been at this year’s event, Karmakar’s 4th place stood at par with past Indian legends who met the same fate: Milkha Singh at the 1960 Rome Olympics (400m national record), P.T. Usha at the LA Olympics in 1984 and Abhinav Bindra at this year’s Rio Olympics. You’d feel bad about it as it happened, and revel in the gloom of what-ifs, but Karmakar had already gone where no Indian had gone before. To be the fourth best in the world in her event was already a significant achievement, and perhaps the tragedy of not winning a medal added to her legend, inspiring many young girls and boys to take up the ignored sport in hopes of compensating for her ‘defeat.’
Yet, she said she will be back for Tokyo 2020, where she definitely expected to win a medal. Her confidence didn’t sound foolhardy, because she was still the only athlete in the field who was ‘comfortable’ doing the deadly Produnova. Unfortunately, maybe by 2020, the scoring system will have eliminated the advantages of the high-scoring Produnova, which traditionally favors all-or-nothing gymnasts hoping to shock the more technically able favorites. Biles famously said she “doesn’t want to die,” when asked if she would try what Karmakar does so often. Still, one feels that, with fame and a little more wealth on her side, Karmakar stands a good chance of being far more polished and traditionally capable by the time Tokyo comes around. She can get up there, perhaps if she trained in another country, too. One thing is for sure: no stone should lay unturned to develop her into India’s face of Olympic history.