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Ready, Aim, Aspire...

Only three countries have qualified in both the men's and women's archery team competitions for the Olympics. Surprise, surprise, India is one of them.

By Labonita Ghosh

When Dola Banerjee was 10, her parents didn't know what to do with her. She would forever be tearing around the house, getting in the way. With no daycare centre in the small town of Baranagar in West Bengal, Banerjee's father decided sports was the way to keep his energetic daughter busy. Every afternoon, he would drop her off at the neighbourhood archery club and pick her up after a few hours of domestic peace. It didn't make little Dola happy at all. "It was very boring," she laughs, now a well turned-out 24-year-old. "I was shooting rubber-tipped arrows at some coloured circles all day. I just hated it."

TARUNDEEP RAI: The National No. 1 says his sport is spreading in his home state, Sikkim. "Show kids a football and a bow and arrow and they will pick up the bow and arrow."

Today she cannot imagine life without the coloured circles. At the 42nd World Archery Championships in New York in July 2003, she became the first woman archer from India to qualify for the Olympics. In a couple of weeks, she and five others-Reena Kumari, Sumangala Sharma, Tarundeep Rai, Satyadev Prasad and Majhi Sawaiyan-will head for Athens. They are the country's finest in a sport that has fascinated and frustrated Indians alike.

Indian archers may have had their days of dominance from time to time but on the big day, the top places have eluded them. It really shouldn't be this way; if there is any sport that seems rooted in Indian tradition, the business of bow and arrow is it. Paresh Mukherjee, secretary of the Archery Association of India (AAI), says, "Look at our epics. Archery plays an important part in both battle and sport. It is almost like we Indians were born to be archers."

In recent years, India has become known as a nation that produces "natural" archers, like Limba Ram who came out of the forests of Rajasthan to become a world-class competitor. In 1989, he equalled the 30 m world record and led the Indian team to a shock victory over world champs South Korea in the Asian Championships. If he was a one-off in the 1990s, trying to make his mark alone, his successors heading for Athens today come in reassuring numbers. India sent a team to three straight Olympics from 1988 but did not qualify for Sydney. The team for Athens is aware that performing at the Olympics has seemed one target too far.

For a change, the reasons why they should make it are stronger than why they have not. "It is not a sport that needs explosive power," says Mukherjee. "Just great reach. Nor does it need us to be strong and hefty. It is a sport that we, given our build and ability to keep our calm, can easily excel in."


DOLA BANERJEE: The first Indian woman to qualify for the Olympics, Banerjee, 24, was a child prodigy, winning events at the age of 10. A three-time national champ.

SATYADEV PRASAD: At 25, the oldest on the team to Athens. The boy from Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, was drawn to the sport while at a gurukul in Meerut.

SUMANGALA SHARMA: At 17, she is the youngest on the team, but some say the most determined. Like Prasad, she learnt the sport at a gurukul and beat two veterans to qualify.

MAJHI SAWAIYAN: The 21-year-old from Chaibasa district in Jharkhand is the grandson of a feared Ho tribal marksman. Trained at the SAI's archery academy in Ranchi.

REENA KUMARI: Discovered at a Bokaro school through a random scouting mission by the Tata Archery Academy, the 21-year-old has been at the academy for six years.

Looking at the new crop that stood its ground in New York and made a name for itself, there is reason to entertain hope. "We have upped our scores and are shooting better," says a Sports Authority of India (SAI) coach. From scoring 240-245 (out of a total of 270), India's archery team is now logging over 250 regularly.

Insiders in the association, though, choose to be downbeat, saying that the present team may just have a 30 per cent chance of winning. "They have the skill but not the guts for a podium position," says a coach. It is a ringing non-endorsement but it points to a flaw in the system rather than in the archers' characters.

After all, these archers have been on teams that have gone further than ever before. In New York last year, the men's team finished fourth among 37 countries in the recurve format, and the women sixth among 32. Recurve refers to the curved bow that offers minimal mechanical assistance and is the only kind used at the Games. Along with India, only two other countries had men's and women's teams qualifying for Athens. It is India's best-ever archery result and it came at the sport's biggest event outside the Olympics. Not the sign of a team that looked afraid of its own shadow on the big stage.

Sawaiyan, a tribal like Ram and grandson of a feared Ho marksman of Chaibasa in Jharkhand, says the sport is in his blood and picking up the bow was his destiny. "Why fight it?"

Rai, the army man from Namchi in Sikkim, used to play football but when the Special Area Games programme found him, his tall frame and long reach were suited for archery. Today the 20-year-old is the top archer in the country and a total convert.

The National No. 2 Satyadev Prasad and the women's No. 3 Sumangala Sharma didn't climb the usual governmental ladders to get this far. They are products of the Gurukul Prabhat Ashrams-Prasad from the boys wing in Meerut and Sharma from the girls wing in Chotipura in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh. Their training has been rigorous and ascetic, its foundations based on mental strength. If anything defines them both, it is their hunger.

Prasad, 25, had moved to the Ashram from his home in Azamgarh at a time when he was too young to pick up archery which was the only sport allowed. He would practise on the sly in the dark with a makeshift bow. When the head of the Ashram caught him, Prasad had to make a promise "that I would either be a very good archer or never get on a range again".

Seventeen-year-old Sharma is only 5 ft tall and says she doesn't have the build to succeed in any other sport. But when it came to fighting for the third and last spot on the team to Athens, she found what was needed to beat off two experienced archers.

Qualification achieved and progress noted, the AAI is looking beyond Athens. Says Mukherjee: "An archer shoots for his own pleasure. That is all between him and the target. There is hardly any audience participation."

Since Barcelona, there have been attempts to make archery a little spectator-friendly. A new system of scoring was introduced in 1992, along with one-on-one shooting and elimination rounds. This means that each of the final six archers get to face-off with each other and can only stay in the running with high scores.

Banerjee believes that one reason archery has not caught on in India is the expense involved. The best bows in the business are made by American manufacturer Hoyt and the best arrows by another US firm called Eastern, neither of which export to India. An Indian archer has to scrimp together anything between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1 lakh for a world-class bow and Rs 17,000 for a set of 12 X-10 arrows. Even the marginally affordable Whagok Korean aluminium arrows cost nothing less than Rs 10,000 a set.

India's failure to make it to the Sydney Olympics archery competition led to a rethink in training, competition and scouting methods in the country. With Athens on their mind, the AAI has organised more than 12 prize money competitions from January 2003 onwards (instead of only three or four a year before that period) and gave out more than Rs 30 lakh as prizes.

In the past seven months, the archery team has participated in three European and two Asian Grand Prix events, besides five national tournaments. This, as opposed to only one international tournament in seven months in 2000-2001. This July the men got to the last eight and the women to the semi-finals in the Golden Arrow Grand Prix held in Turkey.

Today, the SAI and its six affiliated archery academies in India have intensified scouting. "They go from school to school with bamboo bows and arrows and organise try-outs in as many institutions as possible," says Olympics team member Kumari, who was selected through a similar process by the Jharkhand Archery Association.

The Jharkhand Army Sports Academy has produced several champs, including present team member Sawaiyan, while Rai, as a junior commissioned officer in the armed forces, finds its easier to get institutional support for his game and equipment. Mukherjee does not join the common wail that his sport has been marginalised. "The country has spent not less than Rs 3 crore in the past 20 months on archery," he says. "Isn't that a luxury?" It is a new way of thinking in Indian sport and may produce results in the long term when least expected.

This change in the thinking takes place in the background of complaints about lack of jobs. Most archers are signed up by the SAI. As a result, says one official wryly, "There are more coaches in the SAI today than archers."

These coaches may have little hope but Mukherjee, who is currently conducting a conditioning camp for the national team in Kolkata, is a little more generous. "The Olympics is like a casino," he says. "You never know which card you will draw." India's archers can only hope that it is the luckiest one.