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Tababi Devi: World Judo's Rising Star in 2018, Abandoned by Indian Sport in 2022

Tababi Devi's decision to get married and start a family meant an early end to her judo career.

Updated
Sports
4 min read

In The Quint's new video series, Motherhood or Medals, we bring you stories of Indian sportswomen who fought the empathy of the system to embrace motherhood – some managed to find their way back, some the system has lost forever.

Two-year-old Jack refuses to sit down for lunch. His mother chases him around the house before giving in, and offering to let him watch videos on her phone. As always, that does the trick. And, as always, the videos the two watch together, as Jack eats his lunch, are of a judoka winning a medal at the Khelo India Youth Games.

That judoka is Jack’s mother Tababi Devi – and the video is barely four years old. 

Tababi Devi and her son Jack watch videos of her judo bouts, as she feeds him lunch at the family's home near Imphal.

(Photo: The Quint)

Twenty-year-old Tababi has a smile on her face as she watches the takedown that helps her win the gold medal, remembering the time she was the biggest name in Indian judo, expected to win the country’s first Olympic medal in the sport at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

But, at the age of 18, she walked away from the sport.

She made a decision many young women make in this country, but Tababi’s decision to get married, to start a family meant she was also forced to make a choice. A choice to close what could have been a very important chapter in Indian sporting history.

Tababi Devi had to choose – motherhood or medals.

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Humble Beginning, Big Dreams

The daughter of a daily wage labourer and a fish vendor, Tababi, the eldest of five children, wasn’t born with aspirations of Olympic glory. It was a dream she learned to envision for herself despite the severe financial restrictions of her family. On some days, a full meal was hard to come by, on others, coaches at the academy in her village would contribute to buy fruits for her diet.

Tababi Devi with her silver medal after the 2018 Youth Olympics.

(Photo: JFI)

But from the age of 8, when she forced her parents to let her join the judo academy in her village - one thing was clear to Tababi, her family and her coaches - this was a judoka destined for glory.

Her rise was rapid. She won national and international junior level medals at the age of 15 and 16, before becoming the first Indian to win a Youth Olympics medal, in 2018. With her skill and talent, JSW took her on board and trained her at their facility in Bellary, ready to help her take the next step in her career.

Wanting More From Life Than Medals

But, things changed in 2020, when her aspirations for her life extended further than just podium finishes. She wanted to get married, she wanted to start a family. But with no single sports federation in India having standard guidelines for women choosing to embrace motherhood, what lay ahead for Tababi?

Could she return after having her child? Could she walk away for a year to have her child? Would she have the support of her federation while she took care of her newborn? 

With no answers and piling questions, an 18-year-old Tababi chose simply to walk away, still not knowing if she can ever return.

That her two worlds, of a successful sportswoman and of a happy family life, were set so far apart that she couldn’t have both, is a regret that should be felt by India’s entire sports eco-system.

'I am still very fascinated with judo but since I have a child, I thought of quitting the sport totally. Many well-wisher advised me to try to return to judo again, but how will I simply go and join the sport? After I left to have my son, the Federation stopped all communication with me,' recalls Tababi.

Tababi Devi with her two-year-old son Jack.

(Photo: The Quint)

"I never imagined we will be in this situation. I myself was a sportsperson and I always encouraged her, even before we got married. But destiny had its own plans. It breaks our heart, she always dreamt of winning an Olympic medal. I believe she’s not that happy with what she is doing now but she has made her decision," says her husband Herojit as he watches his wife feed their son. Her career as a champion judoka now just memories left on video clips.

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At 20, Tababi Still Dreams of Judo

The path to motherhood was not assisted at all by the judo federation, but Tababi was just 18 when she stepped away from the sport. Just 20 now, she still has aspirations of a comeback, but with Indian sports having no maternity policy stating clearly what a female athlete needs to do to get back, Tababi still has no answers to any of her questions.

'I feel very anxious when I hear of someone winning medals in Judo.  I really wish to come back. I frequently watch my tournament on YouTube before I sleep, and recall those days. But since having my child, the Federation stopped all communication with me. I have apprehension that they will not accept me. I really want to compete again. I want to bring medal for India. I believe that I will be a successful player, if given an opportunity,' says Tababi.

Tababi with her gold medal at the 2018 Junior Asian Cadet Championships.

(Photo: Twitter)

At just 18, when she was one of India’s great medal hopes for the Olympics, Tababi's destiny was re-written by the lack of a simple maternity policy in Indian sports. 

The country lost a medal hope but she lost the destiny she was born to fulfil because in India, you’re made to choose - motherhood or medals. 

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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