New Delhi, Jul 1 (PTI) The Olympics was a wholesome experience for India's first badminton players at the Games.
It went beyond results inside the court as participation at the extravaganza, among other things, also meant an opportunity to dine with Carl Lewis and share tea with Steffi Graf. Basically, being mesmerized by the who's who of the sporting world.
Almost three decades have passed but former India shuttler Dipankar Bhattacharjee still can't forget the adulation that followed him after he qualified for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
It was the first time that badminton was introduced in the showpiece and Bhattacharjee was among the first three shuttlers from the country to make it to the Olympics.
'Getting the chance to represent India at the Olympics is the biggest experience of my life. Being a part of that history-making moment was special,' Bhattacharjee, who had also qualified for the 1996 Olympics four years later, told PTI during an interview.
'I became the first Olympian from Assam and that was appreciated by the people and the government and I was suitably recognized and given a good send-off for the Olympics. I still cherish those few months, those were great experiences.' Bhattacharjee, along with the other two shuttlers -- Vimal Kumar and Madhumita Bisht -- had started Indian badminton's Olympic journey which got better with Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu earning two medals in the last two Games.
'I had started winning all the tournaments in the country in 1991 and towards the end, I had become the number one seed,' said Bhattacharjee, a three-time national champion.
'Beginning in 1992, I participated in England, Swedish Open and French Open and I performed well and got into world ranking and that helped me to qualify. It was a great journey where I played 6-7 tournaments and I was 38 in the world then.' Bisht, who had become the first female badminton player from the country to compete at the Olympics, remembered the struggles of being a shuttler in those days.
'There was not much exposure and no sponsors in those times. We could play just two international tournaments in a year. So I went with a begging bowl to get sponsors,' Bisht, who has won 27 national titles in an illustrious career spanning 22 years, recalled.
'In those days, you needed to be in the top 40s to qualify. My ranking had slipped to 60. But I reached the quarters in Korea and Asian Badminton Championship. My ranking improved and I made it to the Olympics. So it was an interesting journey.' While Bhattacharjee reached the pre-quarters in 1992, when he lost to the then world champion Zhao Jianhua, he went down to Haryanto Arbi at Atlanta four years later.
Bisht, on the other hand, started off with a dominating 11-3, 11-0 win over Iceland's Elsa Nielsen but could not get past Great Britain's Joanne Muggeridge in the second round at Barcelona.
Vimal, too, had a disappointing outing as he lost to Denmark's Thomas Stuer-Lauridsen in the opening round.
'I was nearly 30 then and was towards the end of my international career. I was ranked 28 or 29 then and had qualified for the Olympics. I was so dejected after losing the opening match, I went to watch athletics,' Kumar, who went on to coach India from 2001 to 2006, said.
'I was a big fan of tennis and athletics, so the best moment for me was when I along with Leander Paes and Ramesh Krishnan went to watch the 100m race and long jump. Linford Christie, Carl Lewis, Mike Powell, getting to meet and dine with all these athletes was something special.' One memory that Bisht, now 56, holds dears is meeting multiple-time Grand Slam winner Steffi Graf.
'I remember meeting Steffi Graf. We had gone for evening tea and she was there. We were sitting at the same table and she was so sweet. She spoke to me about my culture and sports. I clearly remember that day,' Bisht said.
'Since I was wearing salwar kameez and vermilion, many European players used to get really curious about our attire and would ask about our culture.' 'I also remember watching Linford Christie in 100m race. There are so many memories. It was a great experience.' Bhattacharjee, too, had his fanboy moment as a 19-year old in the Olympic village.
'I remember meeting all those tennis stars Boris Becker, Michael Stich, Michael Chang and also Mike Powell and Carl Lewis. I have a photograph with 100m gold medallist Linford Christie and Jennifer Capriati in the Olympic village,' he said.
Twenty nine summers later, it will be Sindhu, B Sai Praneeth and Chirag Shetty, and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who will be carrying India's hopes at the Olympics.
'I think Sindhu has a fair chance of winning gold. The field is definitely tough even without Carolina Marin. Few of the younger Chinese and Japanese will put up a high-level challenge. But I hope she makes it one better than last time,' Bhattacharjee said.
'Praneeth is also an attacking player and if it works on that day he can beat anybody in the world. Also, the doubles pair has performed well and I hope they do well.' PTI ATK AH AH