By Nandakumar Marar
MUMBAI: For sports enthusiasts and die-hard fans of indoor sporting action, a query on India’s Olympic breakthrough involving C A Bhavani Devi may appear like an “out of syllabus” question in a sports quiz. The answer is fencing, involving sword-fighting one-on-one. The sportsperson in the news is a nine-time national champion and the first fencer to qualify for the Olympic Games from India. For whatever done so far, her life reads like the script for a sports movie.
To explain in simple terms, the 27-year-old is a pioneer in the action-packed sport of fencing and gained Olympic qualification at the Sabre World Cup Fencing in Budapest last year. It is a medal event at the Olympics from 1896 Athens onwards. She is ranked world number 42, competes in individual sabre and her feat lies in adding India’s name to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics fencing participants list.
Five years ago at 2016 Rio Olympics, Dipa Karmarkar had made history then by becoming the first Indian to qualify in women’s artistic gymnastics at the Olympics. The achievement was assumed to be beyond reach till the spirited Tripura gymnast vaulted over the odds to compete with the world’s elite. Reaching the vault final on Olympic debut, finishing fourth among eight best performers in her discipline, resulted in popularity for gymnastics across the nation.
Bhavani Devi’s progress to international level, preparation for Tokyo 2021 and a first-time Olympic appearance in fencing has the potential to attract curious attention among Indians. Curiosity will lead to awareness about this combat sport which demands focus and finesse, hand-eye co-ordination and rapid-fire reflexes. Fencing is explosive action and combatants display the reflexes and speed of a lightweight boxer, the agility and footwork of a gymnast.
Sabre fencing is fast and furious action, best appreciated in televised slow motion, like watching Dipa Karmarkar on the vault. Instead of getting overawed by the occasion, the Indian gymnast made the best of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at Rio. Another talented young Indian is taking the hard road to international achievements (gold medals in individual sabre at the 2017 Satellite Championship in Iceland and 2018 Commonwealth Senior Fencing in Australia).
Bhavani Devi’s attempt to carve out a name in a sport craving for recognition here, has taken her places. The Tamil Nadu athlete, first exposed to fencing in school, later moved to the SAI centre in Thalesherry (Kerala) under coach Sagar Lagu and spends months in Italy under personal coach Nicola Zanotti at Liverno. Funding was a hurdle in early years, forcing her to spar with bamboo sticks and save the sword for competitions.
The daughter of a temple priest and home-maker mother, support from parents to take part in a rarely-known combat sport kept her going, backed by loans taken by the family to continue training and travelling to competitions. The GoSports Foundation is supporting the fencer since 2015. The curbs on training due to the pandemic was the toughest part, apart from restrictions on travel to be with her Italian coach. Forced by circumstances to devise solutions to problems, Bhavani Devi managed to remain on course.
The official qualifiers’ names will be announced next month, the Indian reportedly clinched one of the two individual places for Asia and Oceania region available at the Budapest competition, under the Adjusted Official Ranking method. This is her second attempt at Olympic qualification, missing out at the 2016 Games in Rio.
Applause is due for continuing in her mission to be the best, and to the school for introducing fencing to a student who went to become India’s first Olympian in the sport of swords. Tokyo 2021 will happen amidst restrictions for participants and challenges for organisers, nothing is going to keep Bhavani Devi away from giving off the best she can. It is also time for Indian sport to recognise this gritty fencer’s face behind the wire-mesh mask.
Appreciation for a sporting pioneer … sliced vegetables arranged horizontally on a granite slab, titled Fencers On The Prowl.