India’s Olympics campaign was salvaged by female athletes in Rio last week, with PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik winning the country’s only medals at the sporting spectacular.
Sindhu won a silver in the badminton competition last Friday (19), while Malik brought home bronze in the 58kg freestyle wrestling category two days earlier.
There were inspirational stories from several other Indian women, including Dipa Karmakar’s historic fourth place finish in the gymnastics vault event and Lalita Babar’s run to the final of the 3,000 metres steeplechase.
Prime minister Narendra Modi led tributes to the athletes as they returned to a heroes’ welcome in their respective states this week, with hopes that their performances can inspire millions of youngsters to achieve sporting excellence.
“Congrats for the Silver @Pvsindhu1. Very well fought. Your accomplishment at #Rio2016 is historic & will be remembered for years,” Modi tweeted.
On Malik’s achievement, he wrote: “Sakshi Malik creates history! Congratulations to her for the bronze. The entire nation is rejoicing… A daughter of India, (she) will inspire several sportspersons in the years to come.”
Although India failed to reproduce the success of London 2012, when they won six medals, there were a lot of positives to take to Tokyo in four years time.
Malik, 23, opened India’s medal account after over a week of failure by coming back from 5-0 down to beat Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan 8-5 in the bronze medal wrestling match.
Sindhu, 21, went one better in the badminton, becoming the first Indian woman to win an Olympic silver medal in any sport, despite losing 21-19, 12-21, 15-21 to Spain’s top seed Carolina Marin in the closely contested final.
“There are no words to express my happiness,” Sindhu said afterwards. “My aim was gold when I went in, but never mind. One person had to lose and I lost. It was her day. I played my best and I am satisfied.
“I believed in myself and gave 100 per cent in every match. I feel proud I have done well and brought laurels to the country. Things will change now, things have already changed!”
Echoing Sindhu’s thoughts, Malik, who had the honour of carrying the tricolour flag at the closing ceremony last Sunday (21), added: “It is a dream come true. The feeling is still sinking in. These six minutes have changed my life.”
Although she didn’t get on the podium, Karmakar stole Indian hearts with her heroic displays that saw her become the first woman gymnast from the country to take part in the Olympics, and the first person to do so in 52 years.
Known for her trademark Produnova double somersault vault, the 23-year-old agonisingly missed out on a medal by just 0.15 points.
Babar made her mark in athletics, coming in 10th in the 3,000m steeplechase. She is only the second Indian woman to qualify for a final of a track event at the Olympics in 32 years; PT Usha was the other in Los Angeles in 1984.
There could also be a star in the making in golf. Aditi Ashok, at just 18, was in the top 10 going into the final round of the women’s tournament before a poor finish saw her drop to 41st position.
Sindhu’s coach Pullela Gopichand has predicted big things ahead for his charge, insisting there is plenty more to come on the world stage.
“I believe we have just seen glimpses of what she is capable of. She has got potential and I was waiting for her to realise that. It might take time,” Gopichand said.
“She is still 21 and has probably another 10 years. Once she realises what I see, she will be head and shoulders above the rest of the world.”
The two medal winners now join Karnam Malleswari (weightlifting), Mary Kom (boxing) and Saina Nehwal (badminton) in the Indian women Olympics medallists’ club.
“Hard work is the key for success. Parents’ support is most important,” Sindhu said.
“I am thankful to my parents, they have done many sacrifices. I am lucky to have a coach like Gopi sir. If this kind of motivation is there, I definitely feel many of the kids will come up with hard work.”
Karmakar made a plea to Indian officials to continue to invest in home-grown training and infrastructure to ensure future successes.
“Before going to Rio, I was asked by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) if I needed foreign training under a foreign coach. I had said Indian coaches have a lot of energy to train their students. I am very happy with the coaching of Bisweswar Nandi (who she has been with since she was a child),” she said.
“Sakshi and Sindhu, the two who secured medals in Rio also have Indian coaches. I appeal to all – save the girl child and encourage the girl child.”