Moments after piercing the cloak of invincibility that South Korea’s ace archers wear at the Olympics, Atanu Das showed off his two rings: his marriage ring on the right hand, and the Olympics symbol on the left.
The rings, he appeared to suggest, were the driving force that pushed him to pull off the biggest upset in the men’s individual archery competition at the Tokyo Games, defeating former Olympic champion Oh Jin-hyek in the elimination rounds.
But as the two archers indulged in an epic battle, a different contest played out in the background: between a small group of Koreans who cheered for their athlete, and the only person in Das’s corner, his wife Deepika Kumari.
Deepika will compete for an individual medal on Friday. But on the eve of her event, she was the only voice of support for her husband and teammate. “Good shot,” she would shout every time Das got closer to the bullseye. “Confidence!” she shouted when Jin-hyek tried to wrestle control.
“I was hearing her full time. She was pushing me up: ‘believe in myself’, ‘you can do it’, ‘just stay calm and handle the situation’. I am privileged to have my wife in this competition. She is a great support and motivation for me, so I really did my best in the match today,” Das, who married Deepika last July, said. “(At the Olympic Village) I stay with the men’s team, she is staying with the women’s team (but) most of the time we are together.”
Atanu’s upset win was part of the best couple of hours for India in Tokyo since Mirabai Chanu won the silver medal on the opening day of competition last Saturday.
After a string of bad news about Indian competitors exiting the Games without much of a fight, Thursday provided a great boost for their campaign ahead. Rio Olympics silver medalist PV Sindhu set the ball rolling by dispatching Denmark’s Mia Blichfeldt 21-15, 21-13 with a ruthless performance. She will face home favourite, Akane Yamaguchi, in the quarterfinal.
Then, the men’s hockey team conjured up a dominating 3-1 win over Olympic champions Argentina to seal their place in Sunday’s quarterfinals, where they are likely to meet one of Germany, Britain or the Netherlands.
Boxer Satish Kumar, too, sailed into the last-eight with a comfortable win over Jamaican Ricardo Brown in the 91kg category. And shooter Manu Bhaker left behind the disappointment of the 10m pistol events with a strong showing in the 25m pistol event, where she is placed fifth after the first round of qualifying.
The medals podium is still some distance away for these athletes, but Das’ win highlighted India’s day.
For South Korean archers, an Olympic gold medal is almost like a family heirloom, passed on from one generation to another since 1988. They have been trained for it by handling snakes, walking through haunted houses, shooting in front of thousands as side-acts during baseball matches, undergoing endurance tests at military camps and meditating at Buddhist temples.
They also do the other boring stuff right — following every instruction in the operations manual of the national team, which is roughly 700 pages thick and lists every tiny detail about their day-to-day training.
The sport’s popularity in South Korea could be gauged from the fact that when football star Hwang Ui-jo scored against Honduras on Wednesday, he celebrated by imitating a “shooting bow and arrow” action.
Das does not enjoy the same level of support. Yet, on this rare occasion, he showed it’s possible to beat a Korean. On the windy morning, he wobbled but won.
It was down to one arrow in the tie-breaker. Jin-hyek, renowned for his dynamic shooting style, went first and shot a nine-pointer. To beat the first-ever Korean man to win an individual Olympic title, Das had to get closer to the bulls-eye.
The wind blew from left to right and had severe downrange. Under pressure, and shooting second against a legend of the sport, Das held his bow for long, swayed a little and released the arrow. “It was a tense moment,” he said. “Win or lose.”
He won. The arrow hit the centre of the target, signaling a 10. And Das out-nerved Jin-hyek. “It might sound like an excuse, it’s quite different from what it looks like in a gust of wind,” Jin-hyek said. “Atanu is a great player…top class. I was not better than him.”
The competition has just begun for Das, though. He reached the same stage in Rio as well and to go further this time, he will first have to beat Japan’s Takaharu Furukawa when the competition resumes Saturday. Furukawa won silver at the London Olympics, where he lost to Jin-hyek in the final.
And at some stage, Das might stumble upon another Korean, former world number 1 and world record holder Kim Woo-jin. But then, Das trusts in the power of his rings this time.