#Tokyo10: Deepika Kumari bears weight of a nation’s Olympic dreams

#Tokyo10: Deepika Kumari.

#Tokyo10 profiles 10 archers poised to make an impact at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

  • Name: Deepika Kumari, recurve woman from India.
  • Age: 27
  • World ranking: 1
  • Olympic experience: 2016, 2012

The top-ranked recurve woman in the world, Deepika Kumari enters the Olympics – the third of her career – with only one thing on her mind.

India has yet to win an Olympic medal in archery, and Kumari, as she has for some time, represents perhaps the best chance in the nation’s history to change that. This year feels different from before. Deepika is better, more confident, perhaps the most in command of her abilities she’s ever been.

Brimming with an abundance of talent and the experience to match, will she finally deliver on that immense potential in Tokyo?

Deepika Kumari celebrates at stage three of the 2021 Hyundai Archery World Cup in Paris, France.

Reasons for hope 

It’s been a long and hard road for Kumari over the past decade, but she might just be peaking at the perfect time.

This season has been the most consistent of her career.

At the first stage of the 2021 Hyundai Archery World Cup in Guatemala City, she took an individual gold medal – her third such triumph after winning Antalya in 2012 and Salt Lake in 2018. Her husband, fellow Olympian Atanu Das, took recurve men’s gold at the same event, and the Indian women’s team also finished with gold.

Kumari then topped that early result by taking three gold medals – individual, mixed team and women’s team – at the third stage of the tour in Paris. (Though she did have to suffer the disappointment of the Indian recurve women’s team not gaining a full quota for Tokyo at the last qualifier, despite their second seeding.)

Her dominance at the two events she attended – India skipped the second leg in Lausanne – has sent her to number one in the world rankings for the first time since 2012.

Kumari has remained in or around the top 10 of world rankings since she burst onto the scene at age 15, winning the World Archery Youth Championships in 2009 and the Commonwealth Games at home in Delhi a year later.

The latter turned her into one of the highest-profile Indian athletes in a country that has precious few women competing at the top level of international sport.

Her success began a tumultuous relationship with the Indian press, which has been difficult on Kumari at times. Nothing less than gold will be expected of her in Tokyo – and what’s written about her can be brutal and, frankly, inappropriate at times, especially if those expectations are not fulfilled.

The same was true at the Olympics in 2012 and 2016, when she made early exits from the individual competitions.

Maturity has Deepika in an undoubtedly better headspace in 2021. She’s largely able to ignore the needling comments of the less couth members of the media – and she’s utterly convinced any match is winnable on the field. (And we know just how important that faith in your own abilities is at the Games.)

Despite a trophy cabinet bulging with international medals, there is certainly a feeling of unfinished business about Deepika’s career. She has achieved extraordinary things already – in the midst of administrative chaos and media hostility – and those achievements should be celebrated.

But she’s is absolutely capable of winning the Olympics, too. And if any time is her time, that time is now. (She has an excellent chance of making a mixed team podium with her husband, Das, too.)

Atan Das and Deepika Kumari celebrate at stage three of the 2021 Hyundai Archery World Cup in Paris.

Reasons for concern 

We’ve seen many performances from Kumari over the past 10 years that have not quite lived up to expectations – even if, in many cases, those high expectations were set by her.

Despite strong results in 2021, her matchplay scoring in Paris was not really on point until the quarterfinals and on, when she kicked into the level of execution she needs to win events.

We only occasionally see that ‘extra gear’, and in Tokyo, where every match is shot in the arena and the dominant Asian nations of Korea, China and Chinese Taipei will return to the field, she will almost certainly need it from the very beginning. A slow start will be a quick finish and, if those Olympic aspirations are to be fulfilled, not something that Kumari can afford.

Path to victory

Kumari in-form is a thrilling thing to watch: precise and single-minded.

Recently, she has developed more resilience to her performance, and she seems to have solved a few technical and mental issues that have sunk the boat on some big stages in the past. A top-eight qualification seems likely, but she will still need every ounce of discipline and focus to get through the early rounds without a repeat of what happened in 2012 and 2016.

Can she do it? We can’t wait to find out.

Did you know?

At the Tokyo test event in 2019, Kumari tore through a top recurve women’s field to a gold medal match against An San of Korea, who beat her, 6-0. Almost all the way – and Deepika is better now. Stay tuned.

Header artwork by Eduardo Batán Molina.