The distance between Rio and Tokyo is around 18560 km, more than 10000 nautical miles. For PV Sindhu, if measured in medals, the distance is bookended by one silver and one bronze. In sporting terms, in between lie three World Championships finals, one title. In game terms, there was a new versatility at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza in Tokyo, an extended range of shots and an unyielding appetite for the big game. In the mind of the athlete who became the first Indian woman to win two Olympic medals, only she can tell. But to the outside world, it has been marked by a transformation so rare among Indian woman athletes that it is neither clearly defined nor identified.
Sindhu, arguably India's greatest Olympian, is today undeniably her own person. At one point in the run-up to Tokyo she told Outlook magazine, "Rather than thinking for others, I will have to play well for myself. If I do well, I do well for India and everyone will be happy."
Very few Indian athletes, never mind female, offer this line of thought as part of their Olympic preparation. Talking about thinking for themselves is not part of the plan others have for them, and for women, talking about it certainly is not approved, not for the majority anyway. It's head down, do your stuff, say little, rock no boats.
Sindhu is not the most voluble of speakers, unlike say either Sania Mirza or Jwala Gutta or her great rival Saina Nehwal, but she has gone through these Olympics with her shoulders more square and her gaze more direct. She will still be soft-spoken and polite and go through the unending round of felicitations that will follow with her most respectful and charming face on. But between Rio and Tokyo, Sindhu has built an aura around herself of running her life by her own rules.
It is a road rarely undertaken by Indian women athletes, for whom it is downright rebellious to emerge from outside the shadow of a powerful male figure. Be that a coach or in some cases, a parent. It is easy to interpret that as a sign of disrespect or disaffection by many, particularly male, commentators. For an Indian woman athlete, as we see through Sindhu, it becomes the opportunity to stretch the boundaries of the self.
Since Rio, she has worked with three other coaches apart from her original mentor Pullela Gopichand, who set her on the road to the Olympic silver medal in the first half of her career. Two of the other coaches, the Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo and Korean Kim Ji Hyun left abruptly over a three-year period, during which Sindhu made three World Championship finals, winning the title in August 2019. Her current coach Park Tae Sang was hired by the Sports Authority of India as the men's singles coach before he began working with Sindhu from September 2019 onwards.
The pandemic and the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics by a year was to give athletes an unexpected off-season of introspection. Who knows how things might have turned out for them had the Games been held in 2020? For Sindhu, the postponement left her taking unexpected decisions.
In October 2020, she suddenly left for the UK, travelling overseas solo for the first time in her life. Usually, she was accompanied by the Indian contingent or support staff or with either one of her parents. Here she was, at 25, by herself in the middle of a global pandemic on a plane to England. On social media, she explained she was in the UK to work with a sports nutritionist and make the Gatorade Sports Science Institute her base and train with English badminton players.
She was to return to India only three months later, after three tournaments in Thailand through January 2021. The growing distance between Gopichand and Sindhu and her team became a matter of much discussion in the run-up to Tokyo. Whatever the dynamics of that situation, Indian athletes do not usually break away from the coaches under whom they rise to the top, certainly not months before an Olympics. Saina did for three years, only to return to Gopichand post Rio, but Sindhu ensured there was no ambiguity about the situation.
She switched from the Gopichand Academy to training at the Gachibowli Indoor Stadium with Park, saying in various interviews that she enjoyed working with different coaches. She was careful to call herself the 'daughter' of her coaches, saying Gopi had been part of her 'journey.' But then added, "You get to learn different things from different coaches. At the end of the day, a player has to assimilate and decide what is best for him or her."
As the coach who developed her game in her teenage years, Gopichand could ask Sindhu in her early 20s to scream on court and hand over her mobile phone and she would do so. (Kidambi Srikanth was asked to hand over his phone but didn't, though he deleted his WhatsApp and social media). Today, it is fairly plausible that neither will Sindhu take such orders, nor will Park go down that route.
Park's approach to his coaching may be animated, but he is not in Sindhu's face. He has given her the freedom to make her own decisions -- particularly when under pressure on court. To think for herself, find her own way out and add the response to add another layer to her on-court experience. She says he knows when to intervene, to step in and to give her his own reading of her opponent's state of play and skills at hand. For an adult athlete, that is space to grow, to breathe. With our women athletes, it is not a common state of being.
The gurushishya parampara/Dronacharya tradition common in Indian sport can grow from genuine affection and utter dedication for a common cause into becoming claustrophobic and cloying, and benefitting neither coach nor ward. It limits our athletes more than we would want to admit. In Tokyo, the exchanges were those of equals but we could tell who among them came first. She, the elite athlete, expected Park the professional coach to assist and improve her, which he did. The mutual affection and respect between the two was visible after Sindhu's victory over He Bingjiao.
Yet, in the instant after her victory, when she raised her arms to the skies and let out the most guttural of cries that rang out in the vast, empty stadium, it was as if for herself. There she was, minus the roar of the crowd, without the usual tumult of triumph around her. PV Sindhu, champion in her own right.