Atanu Das draws his breath, an eyes-shut, focused inhale. It’s a routine he’s been following in the contest. He has his back turned toward his opponent, Oh Jin-Hyek. There’s about three-fourths of a football field distance between the Indian and the 12.2 cm diameter 10-ring. He needs to find the center for the agony to end and for his heart to descend back from his mouth into his body. At stake is a spot in the Olympic pre-quarter-finals.
The tiny yellow circle gleams in the afternoon Tokyo sun. He curls his index finger around the string above the arrow, his middle and ring fingers find their habitual spots beneath it, and he raises his bow. The string is pulled back till his index finger has snuck under his chin and he can feel the string pressed against his nose and lips at anchor point.
He has to shut out all sound. Deepika Kumari, his wife and the only other Indian remaining in the archery event, had been very vocal through the contest asking her husband to stay calm. Her shouts have been ringing through the empty stands of the Yumenoshima Park venue.
This is a shoot-off against Oh, a legend in the sport and the first-ever Korean man to win an individual Olympic title (in 2012). His country has won 39 Olympic medals in the sport, 23 of them gold and Oh has already won a team gold at this Games.
Atanu and Oh have been involved in one of the most engrossing matches of this tournament. The Korean took the first set and the next two were tied; at the start of the fourth set, Oh, ahead 4-2, managed only a poor – and rare – six on his final shot while Atanu fetched a ten to draw even. Oh set the pace in the final set with a 10 and Atanu, his heart racing at 145, matched it. They went to toe-to-toe in the following two arrows, with two nines each.
Now it’s down to one last arrow. Oh has shot a 9 and Atanu can beat him with a 10.
In archery, as also in shooting, often all you’re down to is that one last shot. In shooting, you’re chasing decimals (a 10.3 instead of a 10.2 would have been enough for Abhinav Bindra to medal at the Rio Games). In archery, it’s between you and the innermost concentric circle, 70m away. There’s no defender tearing into the path and no fielder plucking your shot out of the air. It’s just you, hacking your way into the zone and waiting for the wind to die down in your ears. You have 20 seconds to find that one moment. You can either scuff it horribly or let its perfection uplift you.
He takes one final squint at the target, and prays to all the gods he’s ever known by name for the wind to not botch his arrow’s flight. The conditions have been blustery through the match, with the wind socks puffing and flailing. The string falls out of Atanu’s fingers as the arrow darts away from his hold. Three-fourths of a football field now feel like two orbits around the sun.
It lands with a soft thud, piercing the target board. Atanu probably can’t see through his misty eyes but… It’s a TEN, it’s a TEN.
“It was a tense moment,” Atanu, who was earlier trailing 4-2 before scores were leveled at 5-5, told World Archery after the match. “I’ve faced shoot-offs before. I knew he was shooting first, and if he would shoot a nine, I could win it. I just tried to maintain my focus. It was a win or lose situation. So I just went for the win.” The Indian will face Japan’s Takaharu Furukawa, the man who lost to Oh in the 2012 Olympic final, on Saturday.
As they fist-bumped goodbyes, Atanu, who is in his second Olympic Games, bowed in courtesy to Oh. The Korean had been visibly troubled by the wind on Thursday, his bow gently swaying to its side as he ‘struggled to take aim’, as he would later lament. He’d originally planned to retire in 2020 but extended his career by a year following the Games’ postponement, for one final shot at glory. He got it, with the team gold, but not in his individual quest.
Atanu and Deepika are still in it, one spurring the other on. They had planned to marry after the Olympics but when the pandemic put the Games itself on hold, they took the plunge last year. “I’ve learnt so much from Deepika,” Atanu told ESPN before the Olympics,. “She has a killer attitude, karna hai to karna hai. It’s something I admire and I’ve been trying to learn from her.”
And now they are India’s best chance for a first-ever Olympic archery medal.