The Tokyo Olympics has barely stirred to a start and India already has its first surprise. The husband-wife archers' combination of Deepika Kumari and Atanu Das, who are coming off a World Cup mixed team gold in Paris, find themselves split up after Atanu failed to top the men's ranking round among Indians on Friday. Pravin Jadhav, the youngest member of the team, finished the 72-arrow round with 656 points, at 31st position, while Atanu settled four spots below scoring a total of 653.
The Jadhav-Deepika pair have not partnered in the mixed event before and are seeded ninth with a combined score of 1319 points. They have a difficult path ahead - facing Chinese Taipei in the first round and if they survive, behemoths South Korea could await them in the quarterfinals.
India at Tokyo: Key dates | Athletes | Top storylines | News & features | Medal prospects
Mixed teams are usually seeded on the combined qualifying result of the highest scoring male and female archer from each nation. Countries, however, have the option of switching their best finisher for another archer from the team, while the seedings remain unchanged. The Archery Association of India (AAI) selection committee, however, decided to repose faith in the superior scores of debutant Jadhav.
"It seemed like a logical decision," an Archery Association of India official told ESPN, "Jadhav has shot higher scores and we cannot dismiss his performance. He has earned his place in the mixed team." This is not the first time Jadhav has finished ahead of Atanu. He topped the Olympic selection trials in March this year. Jadhav had then won six out of his seven matches, while the more experienced Rai and Atanu had three and two wins respectively.
There have been instances in the past when the most talked of pair wasn't picked. One such instance was during the inaugural mixed team event staged at the 2009 World Cup Stage 1 in San Domingo.
"Dola and Rahul (Banerjee) were being projected as a promising mixed team pair," then coach Dharmendra Tiwary recalls. "They were brother and sister so there may have been familiarity in the partnership and the storylines of the first siblings competing in the mixed event had gained some ground. A couple of hours before the competition, I had a chat with the women's coach Purnima and we decided to replace Dola with Bombayla, since we agreed she's been consistently better in her scores.
"Bombayla and Rahul ended up losing. Then, it had seemed like a good choice to us but one cannot really predict which way things can go. Had our archers finished inside the top five in the ranking round today, the draw would have been a lot less harsh. Our performances have been below expectations."
Jadhav, who will be pairing with Deepika, is the son of daily wage earners from the drought belt of Satara, Maharashtra. The 24-year-old started out in running and long jump before being picked for archery through the state government's Krida Prabodhini scheme which offered him access to education, diet and training facilities. He was part of the men's team that returned from the wilderness to win a World Championships silver in 2019.
In the individual events, Jadhav and Atanu have multiple-time Olympic medalist Brady Ellison and Korea-sized craters early in their trek. Rai could face his first possible Korean opponent - Kim Woojin, in the quarterfinals.
In the women's individual ranking round, Deepika, ranked No. 1 in the world and the only Indian female archer in Tokyo, finished ninth with 663 points. She could run into Korean prodigy An San in the quarterfinals. Koreans took the first three spots and the 20-year-old San topped the round with an Olympic record score of 680.
Indian archers have never medaled at an Olympic Games and riding on recent World Cup outings (which Korea sat out), they appeared to be building a narrative around an outside chance at crushing that factoid. Their poor ranking round performance has landed them with a punishing draw and they've only themselves to blame for the self-inflicted smack.