Tokyo Olympics 2020: On day of headlines and upsets, fencer Bhavani Devi writes history for India

Tokyo Olympics 2020: On day of headlines and upsets, fencer Bhavani Devi writes history for India

With a few articulately timed slashes and thrusts of the blade, headlines were being written on the fencing piste on Monday.

World No 1 Olga Kharlan, a woman so popular that she has a Barbie doll fashioned after her, lost to China’s world No 45 Yang Hengyu. World No 4 Shao Yaqi lost to Zaynab Dayibekova, the world No 121. American Anne-Elizabeth Stone was sent home by Anna Bashta, ranked 30 places below her. Maria Belen Perez Maurice lost her bout, and then found her partner and coach waiting with a note reading, ‘Want to marry me?’ in Spanish.

But the story of the day around the piste at Makuhari Messe Hall in Chiba was an Indian fencer making it to the grand stage of the Olympic Games. There was nothing dramatic about Bhavani Devi’s Monday. No giant-slaying exploits on the piste. Certainly, no proposals. Only the small matter of a woman going where no one—woman or man—from a country of 1.3 billion has gone before.

In Indian sport, trailblazers are as rare as medallists at the Olympic stage. Five years ago, it was Dipa Karmakar who was making Indian hearts and imaginations soar with leaps of extraordinary difficulty. At Tokyo, Bhavani was the pathbreaker.

Right after her defeat in a Table-of-32 clash, Claudia Bokel, a former fencer and currently a part of the German fencing federation, sought the Indian out to compliment her on her performance. That sort of acceptance from peers has started to grow for Bhavani over the past few months.

“Being here means everything to me,” Bhavani said after her campaign ended. “I always wanted to be at the Olympic Games. I worked hard. I sacrificed everything for fencing. All my life I did only fencing for this dream. Finally, I’m here. Competing at the Olympics.”

On a day she wrote history, the past constantly lingered on the fringes of Bhavani Devi’s mind. She thought of her journey: that lonely trek from the uncertain reaches of nothingness to the Olympic piste at Tokyo 2020.

“During the first round when I was stepping on the stage I saw the Olympic rings and it sunk in that I was here. I have been dreaming of playing on that Olympics stage for too long each time I go to sleep. So, I was emotional in the first match.

“Even yesterday, which was officially the last training session for the Olympic Games, I was just thinking about the journey. I wanted to remind myself how I got here.”

In fencing events, athletes compete with wires attached to their suits to help scoring. But after the last 16 stage, the suits get wireless. Bhavani admitted that she hasn’t had the chance to compete in such gear on a lot of occasions before.

“In grand prix and world championships, you fence wireless only when you are in the top 16. I’ve fenced wireless for very less time. When I was going through that process today, I was starting to realise that I am in the Olympics,” she said.

Despite the heightened sense of emotions, Bhavani eased past Nadia Ben Azizi, the lowest-ranked fencer in the women’s individual sabre draw. Then she ran into world No 3 Manon Brunet.

Bhavani had beaten her recently in a training camp in France. But she faltered in the heat of the competition on Monday.

“I made many parries, but my ripostes were not on target. I lost three points because I made very good parries but not so good ripostes. That kind of timing has to be improved,” she said.


The first thing you notice as you walk into the darkened arena of the Makuhari Messe Hall is the screaming. The sort that comes from somewhere deep under all those layers of white. Loud. Guttural. Visceral shrieks emerging from sword-wielding warriors competing on illuminated strips constructed like runways.

Everyone screams. Win a point, you shriek. Lose one, you let out a wail. If you stood outside the vast environs of the Makuhari — the city’s largest convention hall when the Olympics are not in town — you’d think tens of Carolina Marin and Maria Sharapova facsimiles are in here going head-to-head.

Each point is a battle lasting a handful of seconds. There are no fans in the venues. But almost everyone has a contingent here. The American fencers bellow ‘attagirls’ to competing compatriots from the stands. So do the French and the Italians. Bhavani has a much quieter presence in her corner in the form of her mother, wearing a golden saree and sitting behind a Tricolour that someone has tied there.

“When I was sitting on the stage before my first match, I looked around and saw my mother sitting in the stands. That made me feel so happy,” said Bhavani.

Language can sometimes be a massive barrier in Japan, but for Bhavani’s mother the challenge was even greater since she’s very comfortable with Tamil, and speaks English only rarely.

“She told me when you start competing, I will be there by your piste. And she was there. She came by herself. Her being here is important for me. More than my dream, it was her dream. She sacrificed a lot for me. Even more than I have done for my sport. It was important for me that she watch me compete live in the Olympics. She always comes for my national competitions, but at an international event she’s come just once. That was at the Rio qualification event, where I did not make it,” said Bhavani.

Five years since then, Bhavani made it.

“Now every fencer from India will dream about the Olympics. Maybe, even Olympic medals.”



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