Why is Dipa Karmakar not on Asian Games shortlist despite topping trials?

Is India's premier woman gymnast's return to the international arena being scuppered by a so-called eligibility clause?

Dipa Karmakar (photo: National Herald archives)
Dipa Karmakar (photo: National Herald archives)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

If the Union sports ministry can be flexible about its eligibility criterion for the men’s football team for the Asian Games in China's Hangzhou next month, what stops them from making an exception for Dipa Karmakar? This is a highly relevant question as Karmakar – who put the country on the global gymnastics map with a fourth-place finish in Rio 2016 – failed to make the Asiad cut.

It has been a rollercoaster side for the 30-year-old, who has been desperate for a final flourish at the continental showpiece. The last three years have seen her slip into oblivion, courtesy a two-year doping ban in 2021 when she was removed from the world body rankings, and two knee surgeries which she underwent for her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injuries.

Riding on little more than tremendous willpower, Karmakar arrived at the Asian Games trials on 11-12 July in Bhubaneswar, along with coach and mentor Bishweshwar Nandi and his wife. She completed the trials and secured the overall top spot in the competition – raising hopes of seeing the country’s best-known gymnast in action in China – until she was undone by a technicality.

Despite figuring in the provisional list, she was subsequently omitted from the final list for failing to meet a criterion set by the sports ministry, which states: “In the individual events during the last twelve months prior to the commencement of the event, the performance of the sports persons should not be less than the performance achieved by eighth position holder of the 2018 Asian Games in measurable sports.”

This criterion evidently cannot apply to Karmakar, who has not participated in any events over the past few years owing to her suspension and injuries.

Interestingly, as late as 25 July, the sports ministry gave its nod to the Indian men’s football team, despite it falling short of the stipulated Asian team rankings. A chorus of appeals from head coach Igor Stimac, the All India Football Federation, social media, and a decent run by the team in two recent tournaments apparently paved the way for a change of heart within the ministry and the Sports Authority of India.

Not entirely surprisingly, a frustrated Karmakar risked incurring the wrath of the powers that be when she took to her X handle two days ago to write:

“On this #IndependenceDay, I am using my freedom of speech to discuss recent events that have proven to be very demotivating and discouraging. The #AsianGames2023, an event I have eagerly anticipated for the past two years, looks further than it is. To my surprise, despite topping the national trials and meeting the @IndiaSports selection criteria, it appears that I will be deprived of the opportunity to participate in the @19thAGofficial.”

“There is only one Indian gymnast with this kind of determination, and that is Dipa. In my view, she should have quit by now, but she said, 'I want to see how much I can do.' If her knee was fine, we could have taken on a bigger challenge. We will see what happens now,” Nandi said after the trials.

That Karmakar was mentally unscathed despite knee operations in 2017 and 2019, lack of tournament exposure during the pandemic, and the 21-month suspension, is fairly evident. Her determination to make another comeback was rock solid.

Apart from training five hours a day for about two months at Agartala’s NSRCC Indoor Stadium, she had hired a physio for a month at her own expense and, thanks to the cooperation of the Gymnastics Federation of India, appeared at the 11–12 July trials after completing her suspension a day earlier.

“I am mentally very strong. Nothing has been able to pull me down. I have remained strong and will continue to be like this,” she now declares. Fighting words.

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