The Indian women’s chess team went from being very certain to win a gold medal at the Chess Olympiad to be shocked to receive a bronze in barely half a day. Even so, they created history by becoming the first Indian women’s team to ever take home an Olympic medal.
Indians weren’t considered underdogs. The top seeds in the women’s division were Koneru Humpy, Harika Dronavalli, Tania Sachdev, R Vaishali, and Bhakti Kulkarni, a fascinating mixture of long-serving mold-breakers and fresh prodigies. It was advantageous that neither China nor Russia took part in the Olympics.
The Indians were in the lead going into the final round and had been within striking distance of the gold for most of their tournament before an unfortunate 1-3 loss to the USA. Humpy and Vaishali managed draws while Tania and Bhakti botched their lower board games. Tania, who had gone unbeaten and had eight points after 10 games up until the final round, found it difficult to accept a dreadful final day. She lost to Carissa Yip of America and was very devastated.
Soon after, Tania stated, eyes downcast and suppressing her feelings, “I believe it’s incredibly hard right now to realize the seriousness of earning the first medal for the Olympiad.” “More than anything else, I believe it had to do with the way the competition was going—we were in the lead. Now we have to deal with missing out on the gold instead of taking home the bronze.”
It must be a strange, perplexing sensation. the first medal in history that also serves as a reminder of a chance lost. India won all of its games against the Georgian and Ukrainian teams that placed first and second, respectively, in the final standings. It was one of the factors making gold look likely.
But, for a little moment, even the bronze was in jeopardy. After the final round of games concluded on Tuesday, with Ukraine and Georgia taking gold and silver in the women’s division, respectively, India’s medal chances hung in the balance. It required some frantic tiebreak arithmetic to determine whether India or the United States received the bronze medal. Numbers favored the Indians, and the Americans had to settle for fourth place.
Humpy and Harika, the Indian team’s two Grandmasters, were theoretically the team’s top-ranked players. Harika juggled her advanced pregnancy with the rigors of extended classical games, completing seven draws in a row. She sat out the last two games but joined the rest of the squad to face press questions about their performance.
For years, most of these women have been quietly shattering preconceptions. Humpy returned to the sport shortly after giving birth to become world rapid champion a few years ago. Harika has gone to great lengths to be present for her team, even traveling with her husband and mother in tow, despite her impending delivery. Tania has effectively juggled her commentary work with her playing career. She’s also been a tenacious fighter in this tournament, grinding out wins on the fly.
This Indian squad, sans Humpy, earned their first-ever World Teams medal, a silver, last year. Their previous best achievement at an Olympiad was fourth place in Istanbul in 2012. It took another decade for them to win their first bronze medal.
However, in a sport with a significant gender disparity, both in terms of participation and playing strength, this bronze medal might be a rallying cry for a new generation of female athletes.
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