Tale of two cities, two athletes Shiva Thapa and Deepika Kumari

Boxer Shiva Thapa and archer Deepika Kumari commit the same mistakes in Rio as they did in London; the outcome is no different.

Boxer Shiva Thapa and archer Deepika Kumari commit the same mistakes in Rio as they did in London; the outcome is no different.

Written by Shivani Naik | Rio De Janeiro | Published:August 12, 2016 1:13 amIndia’s Shiva Thapa takes one flush in the face during his men’s bantamweight 56-kg preliminary boxing match against Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez in on Thursday. (Source: AP)
A nightmare is bad enough, déjà vu alongside just compounds all disappointment. Different geography, a different year and different opponents, but for a pair of youngsters at the Rio Games, their second Olympics mirrored the misery they felt four years ago at London when they were celebrated as the youngest to make it. What should make them cross is that the mistakes were the same, and the torrid results too. Life must feel terrible at 22.

Shiva Thapa had qualified on the back of some phenomenal punching talent at London. Deepika Kumari was a 17 year-old who regularly hit bulls-eye. London was a harsh Olympic debut for both, but it was waved off as a first attempt, a learning lesson for both while moving forward. Apparently, nothing’s moved an inch — not how they compete, not how they go down dismally either.

Against Oscar Valdez Fierro, who went on to be WBO Featherweight champion, Thapa had been inexperienced as a bubbling bantamweight making all the mistakes of a young man thrown into his first-ever fire-pit. What got his fans rubbing their eyes in disbelief was just how little he had come along in the last four years when he came up against Cuban defending champion Robeisy Ramirez, going out on unanimous decision in the first round at Rio.

Circumspect, highly tentative and slow off the blocks, Thapa was stuck in a limbo — ostensibly gauging his opponent, and ill-prepared to take off hence losing the initiative. The new rules of boxing mean fighters will be judged on their proclivity to throw a lot of punches much more than the meditative style of building up slowly towards a barrage.
There’s a reason Manoj Kumar, not as much a favourite as Shiva Thapa or Vikas Krishan to progress, did well the previous evening. A boxer ought to be seen as keen on throwing a flurry of punches, and skill is frankly secondary in the current scheme of things.

WATCH: The good, bad and ugly for India at Rio 2016 Olympics

But Shiva Thapa couldn’t help himself and started poorly, much like he had against Oscar four years ago at the Excel Arena. Two judges marked him 8/10 and that should mark as a rout and a complete failure of strategy for the talented boxer, perhaps India’s most skilled.

The lead up to the Rio Games had seen Indian boxing go through one of the worst churns and it’s still governed by an ad hoc body. However indications were that Thapa had been preparing for precisely this situation when he would be needed to start well against a fancied opponent if he wanted to get a look in.

The Cuban was one of the toughest draws that Thapa would receive as opener. However, he was much below par and appeared to have learnt nothing in the intervening years as he lapsed back into the errors of 2012 and went out without making any sort of a mark on the contest.

Considered a contender for the medal by independent analysts, it wasn’t just the rough draw that did him in. It was also the lack of initiative which shut the door on him almost as soon as he had stepped into the ring.

Four years ago at Lord’s Deepika Kumari wasn’t done in by the cold or the rains – though she was recovering from a viral. It had been perfectly fine weather at Lord’s that day, and in fact Deepika shot well in a sleet of rain at Rio under floodlights on Wednesday. “It’s not the cold or rain, it’s the winds,” she had said, without elaborating. Winds unsettle most archers (rains affect visibility) and her coach believed Deepika’s issues with winds were both technical and psychological. “Anyway she is expected to figure a way out, and in Round of 32 she had shot well,” Tiwary had said.
Except, on a bright sunny morning with mild winds and no rains that proved to be disastrous for shooter Jitu Rai, Deepika allowed pressure to sink into her game and unsettle it.

The squad had reached Rio a month early, and stayed away from the Village. One significant change since London has been in Deepika’s bow poundage — a heavy proposition stringed at a tension of 42-40 that helps stay steady in winds. The strong shouldered girl lifted poundage closer to the men’s — though her strong physique meant she ended up looking quite in control of the heavy string.

Still, going up against Tan-ya-Ting, Deepika would shoot just one 10 in the entire series. There were a pair of 8s and the rest 9s, but none of the fine form that had brought her on the brink.

Against the Georgian in round of 64 she had hit her stride — a perfect 10-10-10 Set 3, and six 10s in three sets. She dropped to 9 each in the next one, but won the math 6-4. Against Sartori she started poorly — 7, 8, 9, but then got five 10s in the next nine shots to make the Last 16.

However, on Thursday, she was back to looking pained and stricken by worry — like falling back on a bad habit after an unsuccessful recovery.

Something happened soon after India lost in a tie shoot to Russia. “No one spoke to another for the first 12 hours,” Virender Sachdeva, the federation official recalls. “Then we got into one room and talked late into the night. We asked the three girls clearly to tell us straight what was affecting them. Laxmi had first Games nerves, Bombayala felt the pressure of what might be her final Olympics. Deepika maintained she was shooting well, but needed some momentum.”

All the girls were told to forget about pressure and remember their best matches and try and replicate that feeling. “That’s it; no medal talk, no country’s expectations. We needed to get the burden off Deepika’s shoulders because again she was blamed for the team loss,” he added.

It was an honest discussion, and they followed it with some inspirational speeches and constant playing of patriotic songs. “Left to me I’d take away all their phones and protect them from what’s written on Facebook. But they are all grown-ups so we can’t be dictatorial.”

Still, the untended shoulder remained unfixed and flinched everytime she shot, pressure would show up, she’d shoot mid-breathing and finally head home not unlike London and its sorry exit.

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