When Rajeev Ram stood on the Olympic podium alongside doubles partner Venus Williams to receive their silver medal in tennis, children much like the boy he once was sat rapt in front of their televisions at home.
For Hindu American children, Ram is a new role model, one of the first Americans who share their religion to take home an Olympic medal.
He remembers watching for such exemplars when he was growing up in Indiana. “I identify, certainly, with anyone of South Asian background in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s a small group. It’s an even smaller group of people of that background who are athletic.”
He credits his parents, who were involved in their local Hindu community, with teaching him religious values that translated onto the tennis court.
“Part of the Hindu religion teaches, more so than anything else, your control of your mind — your self-control, basically,” Ram said. For many, that self-control applies to an individual’s mastery over his moral and ethical choices. But for Ram, self-control also meant mastery of his body.
“Obviously, your body’s going to do what your mind tells it to do. If you can have that inner control, a sense of peace, your body’s going to follow,” he said.
It’s also an idea prevalent in the Hindu tradition: Control of the mind leads to control over the body in yoga, too.
Still, the American Hindu community has not boasted many Olympic athletes. Artistic gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj, who won a silver medal in 2004, and Raj Bhavsar, another artistic gymnast who won bronze in 2008, might be Ram’s only predecessors.
As Ram and Williams played in Rio, the Hindu community at home cheered.
“Hindu Americans are used to having successful scholars, entrepreneurs, and physicians, and have excelled in many professional realms with the exception of sports,” University of Florida religion professor Vasudha Narayanan wrote in an email. “This is the last frontier, some believe, a sure way of being woven into the American fabric.”