The Produnova has been followed by gymnasts from Egypt, Dominican Republic, Uzbekistan and India – a small set of countries lying at the periphery of the sporting world.
Yelena Produnova retired in 2000. At the Sydney Olympics that marked the end of her career, the Russian gymnast finished with a silver and a bronze medal. Nothing spectacular. Nothing that would make you remember her name for years. Not a mean achievement either. Enough to grant her a separateness from many of us. Despite the long-running history of the Olympics, it’s a special achievement to win a medal at the Games.
But Produnova was never going to be content with that. She wanted to make something special. So she left something rare for other gymnasts. Gymnastics features competitions involving various apparatuses; they are mostly different for men and women. For female gymnasts, the events feature the vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise.
Produnova is among the very few to have a skill move named after her in each of those events. It’s a pretty special thing. Olympic medals are worth a lot, but to leave a move for others to follow – that takes another level of proficiency. To not just master your practice but extend it.
In 1998, Produnova gave an interview in which she spoke about standing out as someone special. She and her choreographer were looking for a music piece that would be played during her floor exercise events. Yelena knew what she was looking for.
“I really want to come up with a routine that really reveals my character and my soul. I want people to recognize me right away and not be able to confuse me with anyone else!”
Eventually, she chose ‘The Ride’ from the The Mask of Zorro soundtracks. In the album, the track was preceded and followed by two songs with the name ‘Elena’ in them. Her name and legacy were inseparable. But it was her family name that rang loudly.
It blared on Sunday. A 41-year-old Uzbek and a 23-year-old Indian were once again going to remind the world of that Russian gymnast who gave us the Produnova. The toughest skill of them all, rated a ‘7.0’ on the difficulty scale. You could not confuse the name Produnova with anything else. That’s what she wanted, right?
Gymnastics is not the only sport to employ judges; every sport does that in its own way. But it was an unusual experience to see the judges mark Dipa Karmakar and her Uzbek counterpart Oksana Chusovitina for they were trying to evaluate the ‘vault of death’.
In 2006, the scoring system in gymnastics underwent an overhaul. The perfect-10 system, made famous by Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal Games, was ditched. Since then, gymnasts are marked for the relative difficulty of their skill move. It’s a romantic idea. Judging everyone on how well they do and over what they want to do. One would want to live in that world.
So, Karmakar chose the Produnova. A BBC News package begins with her chilling statement: “One wrong move and I could die on the spot.” Nobody has ever died doing the Produnova but it’s not a far-fetched exaggeration. The possibility of a serious injury is real if the gymnast does not land properly on her feet or if the twists go horribly wrong. In the latter scenario, you could land on your head, your back or in some other awkward position. A poorly executed move left the Soviet Union gymnast Elena Mukhina a quadriplegic in the 1970s.
So, why did Karmakar chose it? An upbringing in a family of limited economic means puts you far, far away from an Olympic medal in gymnastics. Karmakar comes from Agartala, Tripura. If you are distanced from the margins of elite sport, you don’t get anywhere without taking risks imbued with the greatest dangers. The structural limitations are far too big to be surmounted by two front somersaults.
This is why Karmakar kept going even when an injured ankle threatened to hold her back at the Commonwealth and Asian Games two years ago. Her path to participation at the Olympics demanded a battle with pain that distorts the ideal sport seems to promote. The public perception is that sport is good for us. It keeps us healthy. Tell that to someone doing the ‘vault of death’. When asked whether she would ever attempt the Produnova, the current-day darling of gymnastics Simone Biles told The New Yorker, “I’m not trying to die.”
Many other gymnasts view the move with similar apprehension. No wonder then that it is rated so highly. However, the level of difficulty involved in carrying it out means that judges may score gymnasts attempting it leniently. In fact, there have been suggestions that the Produnova is set to be marked down severely soon in order to discourage gymnasts. The considerable risk has meant that there have been many detractors.
Karmakar perhaps would not have finished fourth in the vault final on Sunday if not for the Produnova. This is not to say that she has gained from lenient scoring of her performance but the fact that it has separated her from the rest. Would she be the same gymnast if her signature move did not carry the highest level of difficulty? The Produnova is a symbol of the obstacles she has had to jump over.
The inherent risks in Karmakar’s daring skill move, of course, hold little fears for her. Such is the level of her mastery, and which we were fortunate to sample on Sunday. She told the Wall Street Journal, “Now it’s the easiest vault for me. I hope this vault becomes more famous than me in India. The vault is very dangerous. I say, ‘Thank you, I like risk.’ ”
I hope this vault becomes more famous than me in India.
I really want to come up with a routine that really reveals my character and my soul – Produnova had said in that interview.
A revelation of character – Thank you, I like risk.
To make something greater than yourself and yet retain a sense of the person who made it. Produnova and her skill move. Karmakar and Indian gymnastics. United by a desire to achieve something special.
Karmakar has welcomed the burden that comes with being the first female gymnast from India to make the Olympics. She knows her story resonated with many; the intense media coverage only amplified the anticipation ahead of her final. Perhaps this piece would not have been written if not for the surge in expectation that her participation brought. She was doing something special.
In the lead up to the finale, Karmakar displayed a keen awareness of the significant public interest in her participation. There was little conscious effort to downplay the excitement around her. In fact, Karmakar seemed happy to take on the pressure and expectation.
“Because for you guys watching it’s different than me doing the gymnastics. When I’m out there I’m not thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I have so much pressure,’ because I’m the one doing it. It’s easier doing it than watching it.”
That was Simone Biles’ response to a question on dealing with pressure in an interview to The Guardian. It’s easier doing it than watching it. Perhaps that’s how Karmakar thinks about Produnova. For a player who learnt her skills without a vaulting table, adversity becomes a constant companion. Perhaps this is why she likes risk. Biles, by contrast, trains at a 56,000-square-foot complex commissioned by her parents in 2013. They had also appointed a psychologist when she had problems managing her nerves as a teenager.
It’s the kind of support to die for. If you do not get it, you may need to seek support that could kill you. That was Karmakar’s choice. She could not match the polish of the lower-risk skill moves that Biles demonstrates; she had to go for broke.
Of course, coming from a society where women are not expected to indulge in death-defying activities makes Karmakar’s achievements remarkable. In the aforementioned BBC interview, she acknowledged her gratitude to parents for not forcing her to marry. “At my age, Indian parents are worried about marrying their daughters off … My husband would not be a controlling influence. I don’t like to be restricted.”
Of that, there is little doubt. Restrictions, obstacles are there to be overcome for Karmakar. It is not a simple battle, certainly. But it’s a courageous response to adversity that must make her proud. Karmakar has succeeded in placing gymnastics in front of our eyes, albeit for a few days. History would suggest this would be a dalliance that will be celebrated for a few days before we move on to ‘more important’ things.
This shallow relationship mirrors the interest of elite western media outlets in Karmakar’s rise. It’s not just that she is India’s first female gymnast at the Olympics but also that she practises the Produnova. A woman performing ‘death-defying’ pyrotechnics from a country historically placed on an inferior pedestal is an exotic entity. Maybe it’s not so surprising to note that the Produnova has been followed by gymnasts from Egypt, Dominican Republic, Uzbekistan and India – an incredibly small set of countries lying at the periphery of the sporting world. Their motivations behind choosing the Produnova are not just personal but driven by a sense of their marginalisation. They go for the high-risk because there is no other option.
Karmakar and Chusovitina failed to finish on the podium. But they succeeded in avoiding any sort of mishap while playing the game of pain and injury with the Produnova. Karmakar’s display, particularly, shone through. It was the stuff of dreams.
“I dream that everything will turn out well in gymnastics. I want to make the Olympics. And not have injuries. I want everything to be like a fairy tale.”
This is what Produnova wished when she gave that interview in 1998. But it could have been said by anyone, by Karmakar too. It was not the fairy tale she wanted but it is a story that will be recounted over the years. A legacy for her country’s people. Karmakar has not just defied death. She has defied belief, too. Surely there’s a medal for that.
Note: Dipa Karmakar’s Twitter handle was changed after this piece was published, so the tweets that were quoted from the older account have been removed.
Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.