Indonesia’s first Olympic gymnast gears up for spin in Paris

Rifda Irfanaluthfi, 24, poses for a portrait at a gymnasium in Jakarta, Indonesia, June 4, 2024. © REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana

By Kate Lamb

It was hours after being admitted to a hospital in Belgium following a sharp landing from the uneven bars that Rifda Irfanaluthfi learned she had become the first Indonesian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics.

In the back of an ambulance, the 24-year-old had been furiously firing off messages.

“I kept asking my manager, my coach and my friends. I texted them one by one to ask: Did I qualify?” she recalled.

The morning after sustaining the injury Rifda received the news that she needed knee surgery. She also learned that she had qualified for the Paris Games.

“At the time I was crying, hugging my coach,” she said after a training session in Jakarta.

“My coach told me that finally our struggle from 2015 had become a reality.”

Almost two years after her surgery and hours upon hours of dogged daily practice, Rifda is readying herself for Paris where she will compete in artistic gymnastics, which includes a number of individual competitions on different apparatus such as the beam, vault and uneven bars.

Indonesia, which is hoping to send about 20 athletes to Paris, has won 37 medals at the Olympics – 36 of them coming from badminton and weightlifting, with a solitary silver in archery.

Rifda hopes her Olympic debut will help raise the profile of a sport often overlooked in the Southeast Asian nation. She jokes that knowledge about gymnastics in Indonesia is so limited that some people still think she does aerobics.

Rifda Irfanaluthfi
Rifda Irfanaluthfi, 24, performs during a floor exercise training session, ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, at a gymnasium in Jakarta, Indonesia, June 3, 2024. Counting down the weeks in the lead-up to Paris, Rifda admits she is nervous but hopes that no matter what happens her performance will inspire other young Indonesian athletes. "This is not for me alone. I want to motivate everyone, especially young athletes, not only for artistic gymnastics, but in other sports as well that have never qualified for the Olympics," she says. "I want to tell them if I can do it, then you can too." REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana

Rifda’s longtime coach and former professional gymnast Eva Butar-Butar says the athlete’s participation in Paris would be a “groundbreaking moment for the sport in Indonesia”.

“It’s not because we don’t have the athletes,” said Butar-Butar. “But more because of the support system that makes it difficult for Indonesian athletes to reach a global level.”

Ranked 52nd in the world, Rifda had long aspired to be a professional athlete, switching from swimming to gymnastics by age six and winning a stack of prizes.

Pictures of Rifda as a child posted on her Instagram show her father helping her do handstand push-ups. Rifda fondly recalls going jogging around a park every weekend with her parents, whose support, she says, has been central to her success.

BULLIED ONLINE

The walls of Rifda’s childhood home in South Jakarta are adorned with her trophies, awards and the latest addition – a framed magazine cover featuring a portrait of Rifda and the headline: “Made it to the Paris 2024 Olympics!”

Rifda’s mother Yulies Andriana, who formerly worked as a teacher at a specialist sports school, said her daughter had fought through many challenges as a young athlete.

“I couldn’t afford expensive training and gymnastics clothes, so we always had to thrift for second-hand clothes,” she said. “It was sad, but it was all I could do.”

These days, she said, her daughter has been facing a different challenge.

In the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, religious conservatives have recently harassed Rifda online, describing photos of her in leotards as “pornographic”.

“She was bullied online,” said her mother. “So she had to shut down the comments to stop it.”

Rifda Irfanaluthfi, 24, poses for a portrait at a gymnasium in Jakarta, Indonesia, June 4, 2024. Counting down the weeks in the lead-up to Paris, Rifda admits she is nervous but hopes that no matter what happens her performance will inspire other young Indonesian athletes. "This is not for me alone. I want to motivate everyone, especially young athletes, not only for artistic gymnastics, but in other sports as well that have never qualified for the Olympics," she says. "I want to tell them if I can do it, then you can too." REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana

In the lead-up to Paris, where she will compete next to her idol, American gymnast Simone Biles, Rifda spends much of her days at a run-down gymnasium in East Jakarta, perfecting her backflips, spins and routine on an aged balance beam, alongside some tattered mats.

Counting down the weeks, Rifda admits she is nervous but hopes that no matter what happens her performance will inspire other young Indonesian athletes.

“This is not for me alone. I want to motivate everyone, especially young athletes, not only for artistic gymnastics, but in other sports as well that have never qualified for the Olympics,” she says.

“I want to tell them if I can do it, then you can too.”

—Reuters

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