Paris Olympics: Games medal only one missing in my closet, says Sharath Kamal

Set for fifth Olympics, 41-year-old paddler surprised but happy to play the flagbearer

Sharath Kamal, India’s enduring table tennis hero (photo: Getty Images)
Sharath Kamal, India’s enduring table tennis hero (photo: Getty Images)
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Gautam Bhattacharyya

When Sharath Kamal, India’s enduring table tennis hero was named in March as the flagbearer in the opening ceremony of the Paris Olympics, quite a few eyebrows were raised about the choice. It’s possibly because the sceptic did not do enough homework about the genial 41-year-old champion, who is set for a fifth Olympics appearance.

Ever since making his debut in Athens 2004, Sharath had been a towering figure for the sport in India – having seen it grow from a ‘recreational’ sport to a ‘professional one’ in his own words, not to speak of the sweeping changes in equipment, rules and technique. Yet, he has survived it to have 13 Commonwealth Games medals (including seven gold while he is the reigning champion), a three-time bronze medallist at the World Championships and a multiple medallist in Asian Games.

‘’Initally, it was a bit hard to believe,’’ the affable Sharath said about the honour, who carried the tricolour at the closing ceremony of Birmingham Commonwealth Games. ‘’I was surprised that an athlete like Neeraj Chopra was not the choice but I understand the reasons. Athletics happens in the second week of the Games and they often arrive late. However, it recognises the toil that I have gone through to be playing my fifth Olympics,’’ he said.

How tough has it been for him to push himself all over again for the event they call the greatest show on earth? ‘’See, the only medal missing in my closet is one from the Olympics, so I want to give it my last shot,’’ the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and Padmashree awardee said. The build-up to Paris, meanwhile, had been a momentous one for Indian table tennis for both men's and women’s teams made history when they qualified in the team events for the first time – punching above their weight in the World Championships in February.

Speaking during a media interaction hosted by the Sports Authority of India (SAI), in collaboration with the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the TTFI (Table Tennis Federation of India), Sharath was candid that the job has got tougher for him now. ‘’For any athlete over 35 years, we need to spend a lot of time in the recovery room as it gets slower. The advantage for this Olympics is unlike in the past where we would learn about the individual quotas at the eleventh hour, we got a good five months to prepare for Paris,’’ Sharath said from Germany, where he is in the middle of a four weeks’ camp to hone his skillsets against the likes of European champions.   

Giving a peek into the Indian men’s team’s preparations, Sharath said that while he was ready to shoulder the burden of playing multiple singles matches, he would work on doubles on returning to India next week after reuniting with former coach Massimo Costantini. ‘’I have retrieved a lot of documents of how I had prepared for past Olympics and revisiting them. My next plan is preparing for the doubles and it gives the team better chances of winning games there,’’ remarked Sharath, whose fitness is now looked after by younger brother Rajath and longtime strength-and-conditioning coach Ramji Srinivasan.

 ‘’Earlier, my dad (Srinivasa Rao) used to look after my fitness training but eventually gave up as I refused to retire,’’ the champion said in zest.

As someone who has rubbed shoulders with two to three generations of table tennis players in India and on the global circuit, does Sharath feel that Indians have finally managed to narrow the gap with the historically powerful nations? ‘’Yes, I would like to believe that we have been able to bridge the gap to an extent. I am there among the top 50 while the other men are within 60, two of our women belong in the top 50. We also have a pretty decent bench strength – so by this Olympics and the next one, we should push to become one of the top table tennis playing nations,’’ he signed off.