Bhavani Devi's most high-profile and public event came on the Olympic piste at the Mukahari Messe convention centre on Monday. Watched and followed by thousands of Indian sports fans. Including a Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Thalassery, Kerala, where Bhavani lived and trained for seven years.
It's literally a world away from the gleaming sophistication of the Tokyo venue. A piste is a 14x2 rubber back, electrically conductive material playing strip built with supportive padding and shock absorption properties. A hard cement floor doesn't cut it. In Thalassery, the piste is a cemented half basketball court and the venue is open-air. This is how fencers begin in India before they make it to our screens and grab our eyeballs.
Bhavani lived in Thalassery until 2015 and the conditions haven't changed. Fencers at the all-girls residential facility train under the fierce tropical sun, in their kits and full-face masks. During the monsoons, they shift indoors to a gymnastics hall. The residential centre, which currently houses 34 female fencing trainees, has been banking on the Olympic debut of its most famous former trainee and the otherwise-obscure sport's national television moment in the hope of shining a spotlight on their plight.
No one's holding their breath, though.
Bhavani's foremost mentor in the sport, Thalassery fencing coach Sagar Lagu, counts the challenges. "Playing an indoor sport, outdoors is really tough," he says. "We train on a cement surface, that's part of a basketball half court, without any sort of shade. This is a facility that has produced 41 international fencers and our centre has been winning senior national fencing titles for ten years now. We are grateful to SAI for all the support they have given us through these years to sustain this training facility."
"The Arabian Sea is barely 100 metres away from our facility. After four lessons under the sun in that jacket, I feel like I'll pass out from exhaustion." Sagar Lagu (Bhavani Devi's former coach)
Fencing is driven by footwork and lunging and reaching on a cement surface can severely affect the lower back and knees. To brace for the impact, students at the centre put themselves through pre-training strengthening exercises and usually wear silicone heel pads while sparring to cushion the blows on the limbs and spine. "Earlier our girls used to suffer plenty of injuries because of the surface," Lagu says. "Many of them ended up with knee and ankle problems. We later started using silicone heel pads, but we need more stock so that there's enough for everyone."
For coaches, it's twice the task. With the heat and sweat, the heavy canvas coach's jacket can feel like being trapped in a steam bath. Two plastic chairs are used to balance an electronic scoring machine, which lights up at the touch of a blade on target. "In fencing, unlike some other sports, one cannot coach by pulling a chair, sitting in the shade and blowing a whistle. We have to be there with the trainees, sparring with them one-on-one for individual lessons. The Arabian Sea is barely 100 metres away from our facility so during the day, in the summer months, it's extremely humid. After four lessons under the sun in that jacket, I feel like I'll pass out from exhaustion."
Equipment too is scarce and often shared. A sabre can cost between Rs 15000-20000 and a blade - which costs around Rs 9000 - can last about one or a few years. "It's funny how we managed earlier. When we travelled for international tournaments, we would often have just three masks and sabres for five fencers. I would wait till the end of bouts to grab the mask and sabre and run to the next piste to hand them over to the next trainee who had a match. It would take a lot of pleading with referees and many times we were carded."
In 2016, the Thalassery centre was cleared an eight-crore infrastructure fund under the Khelo India scheme. Apart from fencing, the centre offers training facilities in wrestling, gymnastics, athletics and volleyball and the fund was to be used for laying a synthetic athletic track and building a multipurpose indoor hall, which would have a wooden-floored fencing area and pistes. Most of it still remains on paper.
"Back then though we got the grant we didn't have the required land," says Lagu. "Two years ago we entered into an MoU with the Government Brennen college (where Bhavani studied) for seven and a half acres of land. The synthetic track is being laid but we are still waiting for work to begin on the indoor hall. We are hoping that it is set up in the next two or three years at least. Maybe Bhavani reaching an Olympics will bring attention to her roots."