India is famously crazy about cricket, but that sporting fever doesn’t carry over to the Olympics. Despite its enormous population, India’s TV ratings for the 2008 Beijing Olympics were the world’s third lowest. But sometimes it’s not about how many fans you make, but who they are.
Ayonika Paul is a 23-year-old shooter from Mumbai. Paul couldn’t wait for Rio 2016 to start, where she’s competing in her first ever Olympics. But the Games didn’t always get her excited.
“Truly speaking, I never watched Olympic Games on television except in 2012,” she admits. Here in India she was hardly alone, and who could blame her? India had only won 13 medals in the ten Olympics before Beijing 2012.
So how did Paul and the Olympics come together? “At the beginning it was completely on my parents, right from equipment, ammunition, travel, coaching, accommodation, et cetera. Coming from a sports background my parents totally accepted my love and craze for this sport.” Support and passion: the two ingredients all future Olympians have before they make it.
In her youth, Paul showed obvious promise competing against seniors in World Cups while still a junior. That’s how she got discovered.
“After four years, Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ, an Indian talent scout) took me under their wing, and since then OGQ has funded my training.” But this is where Paul experienced a setback. She had been fortunate, but agonizingly, not quite enough.
“Of course had it been a bit earlier, I would have made it in the 2012 Olympics, too. I missed the quota by only 0.1.”
Watching the Olympics on TV instead of competing in them couldn‘t have been easy, but rather than feel sorry for herself she got to work.
“In 2012, I realised I needed a foreign trainer with advanced know-how...now I am seeing the results.”
Her story is rare. Most Indians don’t go from being oblivious about the Olympics Games to competing in them. Many Olympians enjoy knowing their whole country is watching them. Indian Olympians can’t expect this attention, but Paul would appreciate more government backing.
“It would not only support me in small expenses, but also show me that India has hopes on me, and hence boost me to be better and better. It would show support from the nation.”
What athlete wouldn’t be grateful for the support of the country? She would love to know India has her back, but one way or the other, Ayonika Paul just wants to win.
“Anyway,” she says, “I will continue practicing to march toward the podium.”
The podium is, after all, a much better vantage point to watch the Olympics from than the couch.
Paul deserves to have India watch her accomplish this rare leap. And who knows: one Indian out there watching the 2016 Olympics on TV might just one day become India’s next Ayonika Paul.