When she stands at the top of the runway, what is she thinking? What does she see?
The vaulting table for one, about 25m from where she is, separated by the runway, a platform meant for propulsion. Around her, there are stands and spectators but they begin to blur, the noise in the hall receding. At one o’clock in her line of vision is the judges’ table, from where she will see the signal to begin. About 20 feet away from them, her coach.
We first saw her standing at the top of that runway wearing a white shiny, sparkly leotard with graphical blue flames. The scoreboard showed the number 7, the points value for the vault that she is about to attempt. “The hardest vault seen in this final,” said the commentator. “She’s going for the handspring double front.” The gymnast then flexes her neck, raises her arms to acknowledge the judges, her chin jutting out, the palest line of a frown on her face.
Then off she goes. “At that time” she says about the full sprint,”you’re thinking of nothing. All that’s in your head is technique. The elements that I’ve been told about in practice, every time, every practice. Sir saying again and again, ‘Beta (child), keep it in mind’.”
They’re there, the words, resonating in her consciousness as she races through – “Tight, tight, straight, straight, compact, swing, push.” She hits the board, swings her legs into the air and, tongue sticking out, reaches out to the vaulting table. Shooting towards it, only to be pushed back, with as much force and power that her forward momentum can generate; the vault becomes a bowstring and sends her into the air as high as she can go.
Then she whirs furiously, an electric saw blade in human form. The commentator’s voice is rising, “Up and over, one, two…” Gravity reels her in, landing in an almost ungainly but centered squat. “Ohwee, she’s made it! She made it…”
The commentators are exultant. “How about that!?” “I haven’t seen that in 20 years since Produnova! “This is fabulous vaulting, courageous. It paid off.”
It has taken all of six seconds. She is beaming, pumps her fist, rushes off stage, hugs her coach, high fives someone in a Canadian shirt. We are gaping.
Who is Produnova? Never mind that, who is this girl? Where did she come from?
We are still learning.
In India’s Rio Olympic contingent of 100-plus, Dipa Karmakar’s presence is undeniably the most unexpected. Her joyous arrival has driven her sport out of the shadows, and uncovered her home state Tripura’s four-decade-old romance with gymnastics. It’s a sport that India follows at the Olympics usually with a detached sense of wonder, lacking any personal investment. Until Rio 2016.
It is not that India has never had any presence in Olympic gymnastics, but it has been a very long time – more than half a century. Ten Indians – all men – participated in three consecutive Olympics: Helsinki 1952, Melbourne 1956 and Tokyo 1964. They remain unknown; possibly mostly military men, given the dominance of the Services in Indian sport in the first two decades after Independence. Dipa is our first woman gymnast to get this far. The idea itself is a mind-bender, Dipa treating convention and stereotype with the insouciance with which she engages with gravity.
Despite five national championship titles, she was an unknown before her bronze medal at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games on the vault. Her composed confidence and execution of the Produnova, the vault with the highest D-(for difficulty)-value in the women’s vault was to become her signature move. But more on that later.
Her 2014 CWG medal was followed a year later by a vault bronze at the 2015 Asian Championships in Hiroshima and, a month after that, a fifth place at the World Championships in the vault. In April this year she qualified for Rio by finishing among the top 29 gymnasts at the Aquece Rio Test Event at the Rio Olympics Arena – the same venue as the Olympics event – and won gold in the vault finals.
Sports nerds will contend that Indian gymnastics’ true pioneer is Ashish Kumar, the first Indian to win a medal at an international multi-discipline games. His silver (vault) and bronze (floor exercises) at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi were followed by a bronze on the floor at the far tougher 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. After a euphoric 2010, Ashish was to slip through familiar cracks in Indian sports administration: his eccentric Russian coach left and, for the past two years, two rivals groups have been fighting for control of the national federation, leaving the athletes without a competitive calendar, elite level coaching or national championships since December 2013.
“Despite five national championship titles, she was an unknown before her bronze medal at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games on the vault.”
It’s this stifling environment that Dipa, 22, and her team have broken through. Her first line of defence is her family, who live modestly but think large, and her coach Bisweshwar Nandi, a government servant of almost 30 years and now creating his own path in Indian women’s gymnastics. One level removed, but living, breathing in Karmakar’s consciousness, is the goodwill of her largely anonymous hometown, Agartala – tucked away in a remote corner of north-eastern India, on the other side of Bangladesh. The town, the capital of Tripura state, has gymnastics most curiously hardwired into its soul; not merely as sport or exercise, leisure or lark, but resource and livelihood.
Dipa owns a sobering perspective of her place in the wider scheme of things in her state. She is, in every other way, a regular Indian girl who has understood that she lives an irregular kind of life. “I now feel that there must be more in me that I have to give to people here,” she told the BBC. “They have put me on such a pedestal that I feel I need to give them more.”
Gymnastics helped her discover herself. Without it, she would have remained the younger of the two Karmakar siblings, a quiet, gentle girl studying in a Bengali-medium school, who loved her mishti (sweets), the tumult of family weddings and listening to Hindi songs. There were many like her, friends who are today married, mothers, carrying only traces of their teenage lives. She has not left her past behind – she is diligently working towards a Masters degree in political science, through correspondence, hauling her study material over the world. She still obediently still seeks permission from her coach to attend a Farhan Akhtar rock concert (condition: that she’s asleep by 10).
Yet she carries a layer of independence and determination and her personal growth continues to astonish her family. How she can speak confidently and hold an audience at a felicitation function. Or has become the natural leader among her peers at any event, a change from her previous instinct to stay a step behind the teacher. Or is cussedly working on smoothening out her English by talking to fellow-gymnast Aruna Reddy from Telangana, stumbling over the illogical metaphors and pronunciations, asking that her mistakes be pointed out.
Her return home to Agartala post-qualification for Rio was a public event, crowds lining the 10km route from the airport to Rabindra Bhaban, the city’s biggest hall, with Dipa and coach Nandi’s open jeep at the centre of a cavalcade with motorcycle outriders, the works. Today she cannot leave her home without being being stopped for a selfie. On the street, her parents, Dulal, a government weightlifting coach, and Gauri experience vicarious fame on a daily basis.
In January this year, a large party of tourists from Maharashtra sought to visit her at home assuming that Karmakar was actually Karmarkar, the extra ‘r’ turning the family from Bengali to Maharashtrian. In Maharashtra, the suffix ‘kar’ is locational, attached to the name of an individual’s village. In Bengali, the “kar” is the suffix attached to occupation; “karmakar” means artisan. The 40-strong group was invited in – “How could I say no? They had come from so far,” says Dulal – and turned up en masse, adults and kids, squashed into the family’s small living room. They chatted with the star and took their photos, even if somewhat disappointed that these were not long-lost clansmen. When Dipa met Sachin Tendulkar at a function, she was asked whether she was from Maharashtra. “No sir,” she said, “I’m from the north east, Tripura.” Best known for pineapples and 21 species of bamboo. And me.
The bamboo could, indeed, be a metaphor for the state’s gymnasts – bendable but not easily breakable, flexible but not malleable. Capable of springing back from debilitating circumstances.
Dipa is familiar with the two in gymnastics, almost certainties in the sport. The first is injury. “Like the hand is part of the body, and you can’t do without it, that’s what injuries are to gymnastics.” In her years in the spotlight, she has broken a hand, cracked a right ankle, sprained both ankles, competing fully strapped up and on pain killers. In the run-up to Rio, she went through 24 Produnovas a day, operating on what was described as the “inversion sprain of her right ankle.”
The second is the inevitable pull of gravity, despite years of training. “In gymnastics, you can fall anytime,” Dipa says. “Everyone falls. At the last world championships I fell three times. I had practiced so hard, despite that I fell. My coach told me, ‘Beta, even an Olympic champion can fall. Make a mistake and fall down.” In gymnastics: two things are certain: falling down and getting hurt.” In whichever order.
“I’m a girl and I’m fine being the way I am, being the kind of gymnast I am. People have their ideas and that’s up to them.”
Gymnastics had already made its early demands on Karmakar when she was sent to coach Nandi age 8: she had flat feet – with their promise of constant ankle injuries – and a fear of falling.
Sometime around 1990, three years into his job as a Tripura Sports Council gymnastics coach, Nandi was sent a directive by his bosses: take charge of Tripura’s female gymnasts. He was a three-time national champion, who had represented India in ten-odd international competitions, including the Asian and CWG. The women’s programme was the short straw. “I was very angry and said I didn’t want to work with them, I tried to dodge it but couldn’t.” He would be sneered at by his peers, he feared. “I was always told, What can the girls do? What can you possibly do with them? Only the boys were praised, never the girls.” Over the course of two decades he was to watch a frustrating pattern: his junior girls would rise through competition but, when required to step up to the senior level, would abandon the sport due to early marriage or out-of-state employment or a combination of both.
Ten years later, the council was to send him a prodigy who had won a balance beam gold medal at the North Eastern Games beating older gymnasts. The girl had first appeared under his wife Soma’s care, aged around five, at Agartala’s nursery for gymnasts, the Vivekananda Byamagar (gymnasium). Her father Dulal had a fleeting affair with gymnastics himself when in middle school, after being mesmerized by Russian, German and Chinese gymnasts holding dazzling demonstrations in Agartala. (Their sudden appearance in this neck of the woods is part of local folklore). Long hours of practice after a long walk from home and demanding teachers proved too much for Dulal and he quit after a year. Many moons later, when trying to figure out how to direct the energies of his younger child into something other than frolic, gymnastics seemed a sobering option.
What Soma, also a gymnastics coach, noticed about Dipa was her persistence on tiny legs. “She would not stop till she nailed her exercise. She would say, ‘Madam yeh karao, complete nahin hua. (let’s do this again, it’s not complete)’. No matter how long it took. Not every girl has this quality. It was a hunger to get it right.”
Her husband, who had seen prodigies come and go in Tripura gymnastics, watched the same qualities even after he put the junior into training with his senior girls. “She had an ability to stick to practice, to push for that extra turn, more than the seniors… she would go nonstop and never tire.” Her zidd (stubbornness) runs deep and feeds Dipa’s competitive career; it is what makes her. Nandi saw another advantage – that she could be fed the right kind of diet at her weightlifter-father’s home. (Nandi still warns her parents that if she puts on even a kilo above 47kg, he will hold them responsible.)
Dipa’s flatfoot problem was handled through a set of exercises that work on a child’s developing physiology. “All I had to do was tell her to follow it at home as well, because if it fixed her foot, she would have better running and jumping speed.” The belief that she could get better at every thing she was trying around those beams and on the floor was enough for Dipa to throw herself into it.
Nandi knew early that she could take on gradually increased training loads. Her zeal for defeating her own errors in training has only grown; her desire to be as complete and perfect a gymnast as she can fuels her vision and ambition. At 15 she first saw her hero, the Russian-American gymnast Nastia Lukin, compete first hand at a world championships. “First I thought, how do they do these things, it must be very difficult. Then my next thought was, we should also be doing this.”
If the flat feet were sorted out through exercise, the fear of falling went through trust. Nandi says, “When a child has to do any difficult exercise, the first thing in their mind is, Suppose I get hurt, suppose I fall? We had taken Dipa to exercises at such speed that of course, there was some confusion in her mind.” A coach then provides to gymnasts their secure landing: “Don’t be afraid. I’m here. Go for it.”
That fearlessness has stayed all through the introduction of the Produnova but what about the other apparatus? Coach and student both laugh. It is mandatory for all women gymnasts to display their skills on four apparatus: the vault, the floor, the uneven bars and the balance beam, each performed with a level of competence to keep yourself relevant in international championsips. The beam is Dipa’s No.2 favourite, she has won Commonwealth Championships medals in it. She says she tries to keep an open mind about the floor: “It’s not that I don’t like it but I’m not very good at dancing on the floor. When I don’t do it properly I kind of feel bad and cry that it’s not turning out like it should.”
“There’s a word that is used frequently when talking of Dipa’s career. When first heard, it is easy to giggle because it is merely a mispronunciation of familiar English word: “riks”, they say, instead of risk.”
The floor exercise is full of regulations about ‘musicality’ and features terms called cat leap, wolf jump, sheep jump and sissone. The rules expand on this: “It is also her ability to play a role or a character throughout the performance. In addition to the technical execution, artistic harmony and feminine grace must also be considered. It is not only “what” the gymnast performs, but also “how” she performs her routine.” The importance of “performance” over athleticism is not Dipa’s thing. “Her sticking issue there” says Nandi, “is the choreography – it is like she has problem paying attention to it and doesn’t like all the dancing stuff.” She would rather throw herself into a routine without any frills or coquetteish moves – just like the men in their floor exercises, minus even the music. That idea in women’s gymnastics is, however, almost heretical.
Men’s and women’s gymnastics, says the American coach Jim Holt, are separate entities. “The apparatus and task demands of the two disciplines are very different; that said, both men and women should aspire to perfect technique and a display of elegance.” From March 2013 to October 2014 Holt was attached to the Indian men’s gymnastics programme. He was quoted as saying he had said he wished Dipa were a boy, but clarifies it was “only a couple of times”. “The dream of any coach is to encounter athletes with an ideal combination of talent, passion, focus and a strong work ethic,” he explained to ESPN. “Dipa fulfills that exactly… I meant it as a compliment to her personally – and as an incentive to the men to emulate or surpass her example.”
Dipa, who’s aversion to the frilly, girly side of women’s gymnastics is known, laughs at the idea of ‘should have been a guy’: “I’m a girl and I’m fine being the way I am, being the kind of gymnast I am. People have their ideas and that’s up to them.” In India, “wish she were a guy” carries several other connotations. Dulal who’s spent a lot of time hearing about the advantage of fathering boys, says, “What’s the big deal? Girls are doing more than boys, anyway.”
The girls have given their coach new energy and a fresh mission. Nandi says, “If I get a chance, get support from the government, if I am healthy, I want to take two or three girls to the next Olympics in 2020. It is my dream.” He has a couple of new charges, from his hometown itself, the north-east’s second largest city in its second smallest state.
Late June. Agartala is abuzz, pulled asunder by the demands of development. Roads have been dug up, paths around them form small swamps as the monsoon has arrived. What Agartala hopes will emerge is a series of flyovers that, like their gymnasts, will lift them over the crush of their daily life.
There’s a word that is used frequently when talking of Dipa’s career. When first heard, it is easy to giggle because it is merely a mispronunciation of familiar English word: “riks”, they say, instead of risk.
Thoda riks liya. We took a bit of a risk
Riks lena padega. You will have to take the risk.
Riks liya is liye medal jita, Olympics qualify hua. She took the risk and that’s why she won the medal and qualified for the Olympics.
The word itself has in fact been turned on its head – an English mispronunciation turning into a common Bengali colloquialism. Bengalis say, with amusement, that the phrase most often used (and which sums up the cautious side of their nature), is “riks nebo na“. (I will not take the risk.) Tripura gymnastics has always challenged that very thought. So much so, if generations of Tripura’s gymnasts were to create their own coat of arms, their motto in Copperplate Gothic font would read: Riks nebo. (I will risk it)
It starts with their decades-old choice of apparatus – the vault. A short, sharp burst of speed and explosive power, the vault has no strictures unlike other apparatus that require the sustained exhibition of a series of skills and elements over anything between thirty and 90 seconds. The vault is all get-go: six seconds, blink and its over.
Mantu Debnath, India’s first Arjuna Award winner in gymnastics and Tripura’s most famous gymnast before Dipa, who competed for a decade from the mid-60s onwards, says the vault’s popularity has much to do with necessity and improvisation. “The vault is a single skill you can devote yourself to, with movements related around it. Not like the other events that require ten elements performed in a group. They also needed secure landing facilities, which we never had.”
Performing floor exercises on flat stretches of mud or on rough jute mats did not bring out masterful execution of skills. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Debnath and his colleagues, including Nandi, would improvise their landing area. Debnath remembers making double somersaults off the vault into lakes or talaabs (ponds). “We taught ourselves somersaults and the turning or twisting movements by landing in talaabs. Water was our secure landing area.”
Dipa, it is now increasingly clear, comes from a long line of risk-takers. Her dramatic rise in fact signals Tripura’s revival in national gymnastics. While gymnastics has always been, to use an Indian governmentism, a non-priority sport, it was, for Tripura, territory they owned for more than two decades – particularly at junior level.
The state would clean up the national school, sub-juniors, juniors and senior titles – team, all-round individual apparatus. From the mid-1960s Tripura’s gymnasts arrived across India in bewildering profusion – picking up medals, securing government jobs, a domino effect that moved around the state for nearly two decades.
This dominance owes its genesis and cultivation to an unlikely hero: Dalip Singh, an army man and gymnast from Haryana, was dispatched in 1964 from the National Institute of Sport (NIS) in Patiala, Punjab, 2500kms east to see what could be done with gymnastics and Tripura.
Indeed, Singh’s presence was a minor miracle; he had been preceded by another NIS scout, Surbir Singh, who sent back a negative report: the locals didn’t have the physique to make good gymnasts, no point wasting time. No one knows why Dalip Singh was sent after this, or indeed why gymnastics was even on the radar. By the time he was done, Tripura had swept Indian gymnastics for nearly two decades, the Haryanvi was adopted by the state as their own, he had married a Manipuri girl and his name turned legend.
There is only one photograph commonly available for Dalip Singh. It looks like a mugshot blown up and photoshopped onto a cyan background, a broad unsmiling man giving nothing away. His story, though is everywhere, passing through generations of the state’s gymnastics community – and it is a large one. Manik Saha, currently the “founder vice-president” of the Tripura Gymnastics Association, remembers Dalip Singh’s earliest proselytising missions. “He would go door to door to collect boys and girls and introduce them to the sport. Then he came looking for local sports ‘organisers’ to induct them into setting up an state gymnastics body.” Saha, a badminton official, was one such. “Dalip Singh initiated gymnastics from scratch in our state – without any apparatus or infrastructure,” he said.
Debnath was one of those boys inducted into the sport, drawn in by the force of Singh’s personality: energetic, generous, parental, hot-tempered. Debnath lists a string of titles won by Tripura’s gymnasts and the numbers appear unreal: 18 national titles, 24 individual all around individual titles, including senior nations, school nationals, sub-junior and juniors. “I don’t think any one state has that many,” he says. By Saha’s calculation, the structure Singh put in place yielded 16 international gymnasts, including four in the six-member Indian team for the 1982 Asian Games.
Singh began where they all do even now – where Dipa has, her coach Nandi and his senior Debnath had. The Vivekananda gymnasium is what it has always been. In the heart of Agartala, it is every aspiring gymnast’s nursery – a low, long structure with a brick frontage and asbestos roof; two-thirds of the space inside dedicated to weightlifting and bodybuilding, one-third to gymnastics. Dalip Singh took a look at the body-building and weightlifting equipment available and decide he could make do – horizontal bars, parallel bars, some floor space. Saha remembers a wood pyramidal box, 6ftx2ft, which became a vaulting box.
Within a year of his arrival, Tripura was to win its first national gold medal – any sport, any level – through Bharat Kishore Debbarman on the floor exercises at the national school games. In 1968, Debbarman was to win the all-round national juniors title. Within the first ten years, Singh conducted two senior nationals in Agartala and invited foreign gymnasts from Russia, Germany and China to stage demonstrations held on the Umakanta Academy ground. Saha and Debnath remember there being close to 40,000 spectators; halve the number and it is still pretty impressive for Agartala in those days. Dulal Karmakar was one of those tens of thousands.
As soon as the medals began piling up, the state sat up and paid attention: the elite-level athletes were moved out of the small Byamagar into what was a jute storage shed next to the Netaji Subhash Regional Coaching Centre for badminton and swimming. Rathindra Kumar Roy, currently an SAI gymnastics coach at the Badarghat State Sports Complex, on the outskirts of Agartala, has a clear memory of walking into the shed-turned gymnastics hall at the NSRCC for the first time when he was around 9 or 10. “My first thought was “Yeh aadmi kaise ud rahe hain? (How are these men flying?).” An older man standing behind him asked him what he was looking at. “So I told him and said, even I wanted to do that. He said fine, start coming from tomorrow.”
That older man was Dalip Singh, pulling in as many as 100-120 kids a year into gymnastics, pleased if 20 made the cut by the year’s end. Singh died in 1987 aged only 55.
“Gymnastics purists/snobs see the vault, whose inherent dangers lie in imperfect execution, as a cheap points-scoring tactic in the women’s competition because of its high points value.”
His widow Salam Sushila Devi lives in Ujjan Abhoynagar, north of the Byamagar and the centre of the town. In an exquisite twist of fate, she is a very short walk from the home where Dipa grew up. A practicing pathologist even today, she was busy running her house and practice while her husband ran first Tripura’s gymnastics and then all of state sports. She’s not a sports person but she does know a few things, “My husband’s influence on the sport transferred from generation to generation: hard work for the game, respect for the game, respect for the teacher. It has moved from coach to gymnast to gymnast-coach to the next gymnast.”
It is still moving: from Dalip Singh to Debnath to Nandi to Dipa. Who in turn gets telephone calls from Rishita Saha, a 12-year-old who is perfecting the flight element between the asymmetrical bars at the Vivekananda Byamagar. “I call Dipa didi (elder sister) just like that to talk to her. When she goes out of the country, I ask her about her experiences, what she has seen.” The message is conveyed back to the other girls at the Byamagar who say they aim to follow Dipa to the ends of the earth.
On a June afternoon at the Byamagar, boys and girls around kindergarten age are walking on their hands and tumbling over padded mats stretched out over grass and mud. They are watched by mothers hunkered down under a shelter near the boundary wall. It is exam time, which is why only the youngest of the 45-odd gymnasts, aged 4-and-a-half to 13 ,are around. Inside the Byamagar, some gymnastics apparatus – the asymmetrical bars, the roman rings, parallel bars, balance beam – is crammed into the small space. There are signs of construction here, too, because finally, new toilets are being built for those who use the Byamagar. Next to the parallel bars lie bricks, sacks of cement. The NSRCC is currently being renovated. More construction.
This is no spacious, airy, air-conditioned gymnastics hall with an expanse of floor to work through a routine. For floor training, the padded mats will be carried outside and spread out by the trainees and teachers. When it rains, everyone crowds indoors and spreads out mats on the narrow corridor of floor space available and work on their handsprings and flic flacs (the reverse handspring). The entire length of the corridor from weightlifting to the new toilets is just about as long as a vaulting runway. Just.
The young gymnasts are introduced to the vault by the most ingenuous of means, around a single vaulting board. Behind the board, mats are stacked one upon the other up to about four feet, and serve as the actual vault. The thickest mats are then piled up two or three behind this faux vault to make for as secure a landing area as it can be. The vaulting runway is the grass and mud beneath their feet.
In Rio, Dipa will be one of 38 individual athletes who are clubbed together in mixed-nationality groups to compete along the five-member national teams. Dipa is in MX (mixed group) 8, with gymnasts from Slovakia, Guatemala, Sweden and Vietnam. The teams MX8 will be competing alongside are Great Britain, Germany and Brazil. On August 7, between 2:30pm and 4pm local time, the 98 gymnasts will compete across four apparatus – balance beam, uneven bars, vault and floor exercises. By the end of the day, around 10pm local time (6-30 am the next day in India), we will know the names of the top 24 gymnasts who have qualified for the all-round finals to be held across the next four days.
In realistic terms, Dipa hopes to be among the top eight finishers in the vault qualifying. The final of the vault is an excruciating week later, on August 14; it starts precisely at 2:44pm local time and is over in half an hour. The vault – or rather one very contentious one – is her specialization, the semaphore that marked her arrival in world gymnastics.
Karmakar’s Produnova at Glasgow was to shoot her from eighth place in the final to a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games. Since 1999, when Yelena Produnova first demonstrated the eponymous vault with a smooth, straight leg execution, only four women have attempted it in major competition: Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan (who, at 41, will be attempting the Podunova at Rio in her seventh Olympics), Yamilet Pena of the Dominican Republic, Egyptian Fawda Mohmoud and Dipa.
Every gymnast must perform two vaults to show off different skill sets. Dipa’s second vault is the Tsukahara double twist or 720 (the Zamolodchikova) with a points value of 6, identical mostly likely to what Chusovitina will be performing. In early June, Nandi and Dipa were trying to nail a Tsukahara 900 (two and a half twists) with a points value of 6.5. It was abandoned quickly because, Nandi says, “three months is too little” to try it in a competition – and certainly not at the Olympics. It is not that it won’t be tried again, he says. “Someone introduces a gymnastics element, gets some valuation, gets a name, then it means we can also do it if we try. That is what stayed in my mind. Even now as a coach: Why can’t we do it? With maximum practice, everything becomes easy, so that is the formula that I work on. Maximum repetition, maximum practice.” The magic number: he reckons 1000 repetitions should bring about adequate muscle memory.
It is how Dipa’s Glasgow Produnova came to be, “She was at the right age, old enough to understand what was being taught. I would have seen it about 100-200 times and knew it needed a foam pit to practice on,” Nandi says. He approached SAI and the foam pit appeared at the IGI Stadium complex in Delhi, “within a month.” The foam pit is a five-foot deep pit filled with foam blocks that absorb the landings and so help the gymnasts attempt the most daring vaults. Four-odd months of practice on the Produnova before Glasgow 2014 – about 800-900 practice runs – and Nandi gave Dipa one shot in a competition hall before they left for the Commonwealth Games.
Gymnastics purists/snobs see the vault, whose inherent dangers lie in imperfect execution, as a cheap points-scoring tactic in the women’s competition because of its high points value. It is, they argue, a short-cut reward for “difficulty” over the “form” of smoother executions in slightly less dangerous but more complex vaults.
In the men’s competition, the Produnova is not a high-scorer; the forward momentum required of the handspring is far more easily generated from male upper-body strength. The challenge for women is to generate enough upper-body strength to propel them high enough in order get two front somersaults going in the air and give themselves enough time to land. Ideally as cleanly as Produnova did in 1999: on her feet, knees only slightly bent at 45 degrees despite taking almost twice her bodyweight. The best its current practitioners manage today is a semi-squat, to absorb the shock on their knees and ensure that their feet hit the landing mat first.
For the last decade, international gymnastics has been debating over the changes to its points system. The perfect 10 was disbanded in 2006, following a scoring scandal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, for the creation of two scoring criteria. Scores are now given for ‘difficulty’, the D-score, and ‘execution’ or the E-score, the latter also out of 10 but only added up to the total score. The only event in which scoring is different is the vault. The D-score in a vault is pre-ascribed – which is where the Produnova 7 comes from – and the E score judges the gymnasts on form, technique, execution and landing, with the total being added up and averaged out. From 2017 onwards, the points value of the Produnova is to be reduced to 6.4, along with that a few other high D-score vaults.
The Produnova is the highest scoring and most physical of vaults, almost never performed by the big four of women’s gymnastics – USA, Russia, Japan, Romania. When the New Yorker asked superstar US gymnast Simone Biles, aiming for her first Olympic gold in Rio, why she didn’t try the Produnova, she replied, “I’m not trying to die.”
Indeed, the Produnova indicates almost a clash of civilisations in women’s gymnastics. In countries like India, where gymnasts are not part of an institutionally-organised gymnastics programme around training and competition, giving the Produnova a shot becomes for gymnasts and coaches, a logical high-risk, high-return move.
When seen from the prism of the Big Four, this plan appears foolhardy, short-sighted, a breakaway from the norm, a doomsday vault that doesn’t translate itself into a wider, richer gymnastics programme. The kind that Holt tried to introduce when consulting with Indian gymnastics – without much success.
“Philosophically, I’m in favor of open-ended difficulty that allows for growth and creativity in a manner the former rules limited,” Holt says. “On a practical level, though, the crude and clumsy way the concept has been implemented has virtually eliminated the artistic and aesthetic aspects of the sport, and made the rules incomprehensible to the casual spectator.”
When seen from the prism of the Indian female gymnast, the Produnova is the only way for them and their sport to escape from the metaphorical hinterland. Dipa has become proof enough for every generation that will follow. As it stands today, there are no secure landings in Indian gymnastics anyway.
In India, Holt and his male wards “shared the same gym daily” with Dipa at Delhi’s IGI Complex. When her Produnova turned up, he said, “it was not a secret I had reservations” about its dangers. “That said, Bisweshwar Nandi has done a brilliant job of balancing risk (of injury) and reward (of high scores).” He called Dipa “one of the few women on the planet capable of “approaching” landing the skill.” He gives her a 70-30 chance to qualify for the Olympic final with an “outside chance” of a medal in Rio.
Far from the fear of falling or injuring herself, Dipa doesn’t bother about the Produnova bogey: “Without risk you can’t do anything and that is why we look at the difficulty value and then try to execute that with as full perfection as weccan manage.” Difficulty and perfection – why just gymnasts, Indian sport itself is constantly oscillating between these two ends.
Dulal and Gauri Karmakar have never seen their daughter compete live. But they have covered all the bases now and own two TV connections – one satellite, one cable – to make sure they can watch their daughter perform on whichever channel shows her event. Dr Susheela says, “I wish for her to have a great result in Rio.” Soma Nandi says, “I think we have a hope she will reach the finals, that is our hope.” Debnath calls Dipa “unparallelled” and his “expectation is (for) definitely a success” but leaves it unspecific and unspoken.
Dulal, whose state record for the 56kg weightlifting record still stands, remembers asking his zippy, obstinate, daughter to complete his unfulfilled ambition – to represent India at an international event. “Now she’s going to the biggest one,” he says and exhales the word in awe – “Olympics.” Then he smiles and shrugs, “let’s see what happens.”
Of all female athletes at an Olympics, it is the women gymnasts who linger in memory. Sylph-like, otherworldly creatures who fly, twist, bend, contort but always emerge smiling on land, arms aloft. Our television sets elongate them, yet Dipa reminds us how small yet physically substantial they must actually be. Their low centres of gravity allow for balance in the most imbalanced of positions from where they grapple between the lightness of air and the pull of the earth.
In her bare feet Dipa stands at 4ft11inches (she’d rather call it 151cm) and weighs what women’s boxing would call its pinweight class – 46kg. It is a micro presence that has made a macro impression on the India’s gymnastics landscape. Dipa Karmakar’s size five shoes have left a very large footprint.