In the run-up to the Rio Olympics, SheThePeople.TV speaks to Digvijay Singh Deo, a treasure trove of information and anecdotes on India’s Olympians. He is the Sports Editor of CNN-News18, co-author of the newly-released book My Olympic Journey, and the only Indian sports journalist to have been an Olympic torch-bearer ahead of the Beijing Olympics!

I asked him about the women Olympians he’s met and interviewed, who has the best shot at a medal, what kind of hurdles our women athletes have to face (even more so than their male counterparts)… and  what makes the Olympics so special!

Part 1 of our Countdown to Rio series features: Excerpts of  that  interview and an excerpt from his new book.

1) Of all the women Olympians in your book, take us through who you think has the best shot at a medal… as well as any personal anecdotes you want to share. 

Looking ahead to this Olympics, I think the two who are going and definitely have a shot (at a medal) are Heena Sidhu and Saina (Nehwal).

Saina, for obvious reasons, she won a medal last time, and for the last 3/4 years, you’ve seen this amazing high and low. Every sportsperson goes through highs and lows, but Saina has seen a lot of lows as well. After the Olympics she did well, but then she came down with injury, and then Sindhu emerged from the same stable, the Gopichand academy and won two world championships…so much so, that Saina got really upset that she was not getting the attention and she moved to Bangalore.
And then we’ve seen her become World Number 1, win in China, which is considered the Wimbeldon of badminton, because it’s the Chinese and their home ground and she won it. And after that, she’s had an injury, and now she’s coming back.

Looking ahead to this Olympics, I think the two who are going and definitely have a shot (at a medal) are Heena Sidhu and Saina (Nehwal).

Saina Nehwal
Saina Nehwal ( Picture Credit: sportskeeda.com)

She’s the kind of a player, who’s always got that grit. She’s a very gritty player — she’s not the most phenomenally talented player, but she always makes up for it with hard work. In this case, with Vimal around, she’s putting in the hard yards, it remains to be seen… Women’s badminton I think is one of the most open draws —  anyone can win, because the Chinese domination which was there is gone, if you look at the results of the last three or four years, it’s no longer the Chinese. Especially the last two years, Carolina Marin has been world champion in last year and the year before that Ratchanok Intanon, the Thai. So where are the Chinese? So obviously, there’s a churn happening, and any player on their day can win. 

That’s why I think Saina has a good shot, she has a very good shot, if she gets a good draw and avoids facing a big Chinese in the quarterfinals. Once you’re in the semi-finals, you have two shots at a medal, you’re either playing for gold, or you’re playing for a bronze.

Even though she’s not in my book, Sindhu has a very good shot. Gopi is very kicked about her. Gopi says that the thing with Sindhu is that she’s a big match player, she’s just 21; she’s hardly won anything, she has won 2 back to back big medals – world championship medals, which doesn’t come easy. It took Saina eight-nine years to win one medal, this girl at 18/19 won two medals. She’s got a big match temperament and at the Olympics, that’s what you need – you gotta have that big match temperament.

 She’s got a big match temperament and at the Olympics, that’s what you need – you gotta have that big match temperament.

The second one in my book that I think has a shot is Heena Sidhu.

(Coming up next: More on Heena Sidhu)

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My Olympic Journey - by Digvijay Singh Deo and Amit Bose
My Olympic Journey – by Digvijay Singh Deo and Amit Bose

Excerpts from My Olympic Journey

Tricolour at Wembley | SAINA NEHWAL

In 1998, my father, Dr Harvir Singh, was transferred to Hyderabad. I was nine years old and felt helpless in a new city. I did not know the local language, and my Hindi had a distinct Haryanvi accent. Seeing that I was miserable, my father decided to initiate me into the world of sports. I joined karate and judo classes, and then during the summer holidays of 1999, my father enrolled me in a month-long badminton training programme at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium. Both my parents played badminton to stay fit, and I made a seamless transition into this new sport. I won the Andhra Pradesh Under-10 Girls’ title the same year, and have never looked back since. Thirteen years later, I would be standing on the Olympic podium, a journey that began with that month-long summer course under coaches Nani Prasad sir, Govardhan sir and Syed Mohammed Arif sir.
On that podium, I remembered my parents and the sacrifices they had made to ensure that I pursued my dream. My father would take me to the stadium every day on his scooter at four-thirty in the morning, and then wait for practice to end to drive me back. It was a journey of nearly 100 kilometres every day. Never once did he complain of tiredness and fatigue. At times, I wondered why he did this every day, but both he and my mother probably loved the sport more than I did. My father would then drop me off at school and go to office, return to pick me up and take me for my practice sessions in the evening. I salute my father for the effort he put into getting me on that podium.

My mother would ensure I had a proper diet, and my classmates were scared of me as I was bigger and stronger than they were. It was all a result of the aloo parathas and milk that was never in short supply at home. My eating habits became a joke in school, and my friends would say ‘Saina wins because she drinks so much milk and eats so many parathas.’

The dedication of my parents is one of the biggest reasons for my success.  

Saina Nehwal at Beijing olympics
Nehwal in action at the Beijing Olympics ( Picture Credit: Rituraj.net)

… 

The Beijing Games were larger than life, and they became a watershed moment in Indian sport when Abhinav Bindra won India’s first individual gold on 11 August.

The Beijing Games were larger than life, and they became a watershed moment in Indian sport when Abhinav Bindra won India’s first individual gold on 11 August.

I was initially unaware of the magnitude of that achievement or even the result as I had my pre-quarter-final match the same day. I had started my campaign with comfortable wins over Russia’s Ella Diehl and Ukraine’s Larisa Griga. But in the Round of 16, I faced fourth seed Wang Chen of Hong Kong who had reached the final of the World Championships the previous year. Gopi and I were probably the only two people in the entire contingent who believed I could win; no one else had come to watch. Everyone was at the shooting range as both Abhinav and Gagan Narang were strong contenders leading up to the Olympics. I beat Wang in three games, and that is perhaps the moment people across the world started taking me seriously. It was one of the biggest upsets in badminton at the Beijing Olympics; Wang had been a serious contender for a medal. I returned to the Village where I heard about Abhinav’s gold, and it was a very positive feeling. Unfortunately, I could not meet Abhinav himself, but I interacted with him over the phone as I too was backed by the Mittal Champions Trust at that time.

Women At The Olympics

I had a day’s break before my next match, and on 13 August, I played Indonesia’s Maria Yulianti for a place in the semi-final. I was the first badminton player from India to reach that stage, and I was confident that I could reach the last four and mount a challenge for a medal. I won a tight opening game 28–26, but Yulianti came back to win the second 21–14 and force a decider. I ran away with a 11–3 lead, but call it inexperience or destiny, I let it slip. Looking back, I realize I could have won a medal in Beijing. But one cannot expect too much when you are at your first Olympics. Of course, even today it hurts to think about losing at that stage, but I was nervous and not ready to grasp the opportunity that presented itself. That is the complexity of an Olympics: the moment is there for an instant, and those who end up on the podium know when to raise their game and seize it.

That is the complexity of an Olympics: the moment is there for an instant, and those who end up on the podium know when to raise their game and seize it.

Excerpts from  Tricolour at Wembley | SAINA NEHWAL taken from My Olympic Journey with kind permission Penguin Random House India and Digvijay Singh Deo