The Greatest of All Times: Indian Women at the Olympics
A medal means much more than being a winner to each of them. It’s the culmination of an arduous journey.
A conflict zone that produced one of India’s finest. A mother who would work in the paddy fields through the day, get household chores done later in the evening, kids fed and tucked in for the night, and then step out to keep vigil with fellow residents of the village in times of trouble.
Her daughter, used to carrying heavy bundles of firewood back home when she was only 12, would haul an aggregate weight of a 350cc bike and some more, over her head, lifting a country into the uncontrollable joy an Olympic medal brings forth.
A 29-year-old, who couldn’t attend her father’s funeral three months ago, confined to the bio-bubble since she was preparing with her teammates for the greatest sporting spectacle on the planet.
The same father who stood firm in the face of those neighbourhood patriarchs who were dead against the little girl going out to play. The final farewell couldn’t be bid, but her hat-trick against the South Africans would secure the team a very vital win, en route to the knockout stage.
And they aren’t the only ones who shine brightest on the Olympic stage.
Indian women athletes have stolen the show across sporting disciplines at Tokyo with some of the most stirring performances seen in recent times.
But unlike the general perception floating around, it is far less a big bang event as the armchair experts would have you believe. Indian women have been outperforming their male counterparts for quite some time now at the Olympics.
The Beginning of the Journey
Their road to glory at the Olympics started well over two decades ago when the ‘Iron Lady’ of Indian sport lifted a nation out of sporting mediocrity, a real tale that has now mostly been forgotten.
Karnam Malleswari’s Olympic journey had her endure social biases, as well as a sporting set-up that provided little support in her struggle to attain a podium finish.
Determined parents backed up the immensely talented Saina Nehwal as she brought home India’s first individual badminton medal in 2012 at London, while MC Mary Kom, a mother of twins boxed her way past opponents and detractors alike, to glory at the very same games, on her way to attaining legendary status.
Now a mother of four, Mary Kom, 38, one of India’s most decorated boxers made her way to Tokyo, sights firmly set on another Olympic medal.
Though the golden swansong wasn’t to be as she lost in a thrilling pre-quarterfinal bout, Kom made sure her well-documented journey will be one for the ages. From apportioning food to buy shoes, to facing racist whispers, she boxed more than just opponents in the ring to become one of India’s greatest ever.
It was in 2016 though, that India’s women athletes asserted themselves at the Olympics.
A 12-day-long medal drought was broken in Rio as Sakshi Malik fought her way to India’s first medal at the games, which was also the first time an Indian woman wrestler stood on the Olympic podium.
And Saina’s bronze in 2012 got upgraded to a silver at Rio as PV Sindhu turned up at the games with a sensational display.
Wrestling: 'A Man's Sport Only'
Wrestling was considered to be a man’s sport only, a perception that had been fuelled over decades of ignorance and bias.
A sport that brought India international acclaim much before the Olympics did, mostly through the legendary feats of Gama pehelwan and Gobor Guha towards the early part of the previous century.
It was the same sport that had seen the nation stirred up by the exploits of the now mythical figure of Hamida Banu, India’s first known woman wrestler of repute. But the bias and ignorance kicked in as soon as she mysteriously disappeared from the sport, as well as newspaper headlines in the 1950s.
Social prejudices kicked in soon enough, and wrestling became an ‘exclusively for males’ sport! Only for Sakshi to break down all barriers in 2016.
Fighting off the Evils of Patriarchy, Ignorance, Bias, Injustice, And Poverty
For a country starved of Olympic glory with just a handful of individual medal winners, somewhere down the line, India, as an aspiring sporting nation (other than cricket), lacked the belief that our athletes could do wonders.
While Sindhu had done well at world championships going into the Rio games, not many would recall having considered her as a medal prospect. And yet she delivered. Going one better than Saina.
As Tokyo heads towards a spectacular culmination, Indian women have once again dominated the show, with the women’s hockey team almost on even keel with the medallists with their stupendous performances.
The point though is not about whether they are better than their male counterparts. The women compete against their own gender from other countries. It’s the journey each and every one of them embark upon, that should make you marvel at them.
A case in point is the women’s hockey team. Bottled up in a bio-bubble ahead of the Olympics, a majority of the squad contracted COVID and stayed in isolation.
Started the games suffering defeats that left many questioning the point of sending them to the games. And yet, a few days on, they created history, putting it past the mighty Aussies in a spectacular display, to reach the last four stage.
Skipper Rani Rampal would be ostracised by neighbours when she started playing hockey, her father a cart-puller who made less than hundred rupees a day, unable to afford her expenses.
No money to even buy a hockey stick, Rani’s journey is one of indomitable will power and courage to beat the system (read biases), and the odds, to become one of the best players to have played for India.
Teammate, midfielder Neha Goyal, a first-timer at the Olympics, did the hard grind at a cycle factory with her mother, fixing spokes for a measly five rupees. Hockey was her escape from drudgery and an alcoholic father.
When the hockey eves beat South Africa 4-3 to keep themselves afloat in the competition, Vandana Katariya struck a hat-trick, the first ever by an Indian woman at the Olympics.
Just days later, after the team went down fighting in their semi-final against Argentina, Katariya’s family back in India were reported to have faced abominable casteist slurs and abuse from two men outside their home, who were reportedly of the view that ‘too many Dalit players in the team’ cost India the match.
And there are countless stories. Of exceptionally talented women who made sport their calling, fighting off the evils of patriarchy, ignorance, bias, injustice and poverty, to step up and deliver for India at the Olympic stage.
In more ways than one, sport is a reflection of the society we live in, a stage where all and sundry come together, watching with bated breath, in wait for that giant collective exhilaration from winning, or to soak in the anguish of defeat thinking what it could have been.
Remember Their Names
For each of these exceptional women athletes, the true measure of success isn’t just the quest for a medal. It’s the difficult terrain they have to straddle along with their sport, that makes it such a compelling chronicle.
A medal means much more than being a winner to each of them. It’s the completion of a journey, taken at all odds, that deserves the accolades, and nothing, simply nothing can match that narrative.
Every four years, with the onset of the Olympics, India expects its athletes to deliver. The ones who do, are revered for a few days, while the ones that fall short, are simply termed ‘not good enough’.
And the fault lies with all of us who are waiting to exhale, and bask in their reflected glory, or trash them to irreverence in case they fail to deliver.
Remember, these special athletes are on a lonely journey when they get back to their sport, toiling away for years, just for that one shot at posterity.
An occasion for which our keyboard warriors lie in wait, ready to hammer away clickety clack, extolling their feats, or criticising them, as the case might be.
But for every woman on her Olympic quest, it’s an impossibly difficult mission they give their lives to.
A medal here means more to them than the shiny metal they carry back home. It is the culmination of an arduous journey where they beat down all odds, just for one shot at Olympic glory.
Remember Dipa Karmakar? The first Indian woman gymnast at the Olympics who set hearts aflutter executing the Produnova at Rio 2016, Karmakar had once mentioned that India is yet to have the Olympic standard balance beam and uneven bars.
Let’s try and figure out how many of those are now in place for India’s next generation of gymnasts.
The Obstacle of Inequality
The common refrain about bias, inequality, poverty and prejudice still remains as much an obstacle, as the mindset of the average sport-loving Indian who dreams of Olympic glory every four years.
The entire country empathised with Simone Biles as she stepped away to focus on her mental health. Yet, not many are aware of the trials and tribulations of Indian women athletes at the Olympics.
Racist insults aimed at English footballers Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka after England lost to Italy in the Euro football championships resulted in a huge outpouring of empathy and support for the players from a majority of Indians on social media.
But can the same be said about the support, or rather, the lack of it after Katariya’s family was humiliated?
Indian Twitterati resounded with Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent’s clarion call of ‘Black Lives Matter’, and rightly so? But what about the ostracism of Dalits?
Even the ones who bring glory to the country on the sporting field don’t seem to be spared at every given instance.
These extraordinary women athletes have ensured a new position of respect for India on the Olympic stage. It is now for the nation to give them their due, and most importantly, give them the respect they deserve.
(Sanjeeb Mukherjea is an independents sports journalist and one of the authors of She Dared: Women in Indian Sports. He tweets @sanjeebmukhrjea. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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