On 26 July, Bhavani Devi made history when she became the first Indian fencer to ever win a match at the Olympics, when she defeated Nadia Ben Azizi of Tunisia in the women's sabre round of 64. Just hours later, she would come up against the third-ranked fencer in the world, Manon Brunet, and after a difficult contest, her debut Olympic appearance would end in defeat.
Bhavani expressed her disappointment at her loss in an interaction organised by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) on Wednesday, saying, "I was disappointed after losing the second match, even though I know she's a great fencer. Everyone is equal, everyone has the same opportunity. I always wanted to win a medal for India, and I was really upset."
"Building up to Tokyo, I put in 100% effort every day, and I'm glad that I was able to secure qualification and do well. In the first match, I think I started and finished well, despite being a little nervous, which made me happy. In the second match, I feel like I gave it my all. I know she was world no 3, and that she was a great fencer, but I didn't let it get to me, and in the end, I'm happy with everything that happened in Tokyo," said the fencer.
She also praised her own attitude during the tournament, but admitted that the technical side of her game needed some improvement, saying, "I didn't take in any outside pressure in Tokyo. I'm happy with that, I need to continue doing this. In terms of the actual fencing, I need to improve technically a little on some fencing moments and fencing strategies. Saber is a very quick sport, so you need to have good control of the match. That is something I need to work on."
"The biggest lesson I learned in Tokyo is to keep working hard. Hard work brought me here, from the disappointment in Rio, where I couldn't secure qualification due to my nerves, to now fencing in the Olympics in Tokyo."
She also recognised the importance of her win in the first round, noting that "now every fencer in India can dream about the Olympics. When I began, it wasn't even easy to dream about this tournament, because I had no one to look towards."
Bhavani stated her belief that the sport will grow by leaps and bounds in coming years, saying, "I'm sure in 2024 we'll have a lot more fencers. There are great fencers in the junior levels who are doing very well. We'll be getting better facilities, and we have good support from the Ministry of Sports now. I think we will have more fencers in the Olympic games soon. Hopefully, we will be able to do it by 2024, but it will happen by 2028."
Life in the COVID-19 bubble
With the Tokyo Olympics 2020 being hosted amidst a pandemic, athletes and their support staff have been operating under a strict set of rules and regulations, which require them to be monitored constantly to avoid potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
Living in such a strict bio-bubble isn't easy by any means, but Bhavani stated that it didn't deter her in the slightest, saying, "I personally had no stress because of this. I've been dreaming about this so long, and it took me a fifteen-year journey to arrive here. Compared to that, the one or two hours it took me to get from my room to the venue, with all the protocols and everything, is not something that affected me. I enjoyed the entire experience, even with the extra COVID-19 protocol."
"I was just happy they finally organised the Olympics, because even after securing qualification, I wasn't sure if it would happen. I'm glad it was done safely. There's a lot of testing and verification processes, but I'm happy that everyone in the Indian camp was so well prepared for this," she added.
Mental health in sport
In the aftermath of a week which has seen American gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing from events to preserve her mental health, Bhavani spoke about the pressures of being an athlete, and the effect that a defeat at a major competition has on someone, saying, "an athlete's life is very hard. Every athlete around the world is working to win, but only one person or team wins in the end. For me, I was very disappointed after my defeat. I always wanted to win a medal for India, and I was really upset."
"We need a mental support system. That's what I lacked in the beginning. I don't think I've ever really complained about my financial issues, and the lack of money, but I feel that it's important for the athletes to receive positivity and support from fans. Sometimes more than money, more than infrastructure, the most important thing is receiving that support," said Bhavani.
She also took the opportunity to thank her mother and family for their support, saying, 'my family has always been there behind me, supporting me. In the beginning, I wasn't getting good results, I wasn't coming close to qualifying for events. I had a lot of doubt over whether I'd chosen the right path for myself, but my mother always told me to keep working. Her words motivated me, made me work harder."